There’s not a lot of opportunity for Canadian poets to get in front of the public and read their work, and there are even fewer openings for emerging poets trying to muscle their way into the writing establishment. Which is why Harbourfront Centre’s Poetry NOW event Wednesday evening (March 28) is so welcome for the 20 poets participating.
Billed as a “battle of the bards,” the event is less a poetry slam than a group reading where one lucky poet will be selected by a panel of judges as the winner of an invitation to read at the 33rd annual International Festival of Authors (October 18 to 28, 2012) and have their book advertised in NOW Magazine, lead sponsor of the event.
All the writers at Poetry NOW have had collections of their work published, it’s the only prerequisite for participation. Beyond that, hopefuls were selected by lottery. For a newbie poet like Toronto’s Ayesha Chatterjee, above, the chance to read in public is both exciting and terrifying; her first book of poems, The Clarity of Distance, was published late last year by Calgary’s Bayeux Arts.
Written in spare language and often using metaphors drawn from both Eastern and Western sources, Chatterjee’s poems aim to pare the complexity of modern society into simple moments of truth. She believes that the power of poetry lies is in its accessibility, which is reflected in the simple, evocative nature of her writing.
Born in India, Ayesha has also lived in England, the US and Germany; she moved to Toronto in 2010 and lives along Queen’s Quay, which is where I met her to talk about Poetry NOW and her new book of poems.
“I’m a bit of a nomad,” she confesses. “Prior to moving to Toronto, my husband and I spent 18 years in Germany and that’s the longest I’ve stayed in one place during my life. I was getting stir crazy. We lived in Dusseldorf, which has a population of about 500,000. It’s lovely but it’s very homogenous. So to come from there to a city of 2.5 million that’s so diverse is very exciting. I really love Toronto.”
Chatterjee has been writing poems since she was eight or nine years old but she didn’t figure out she was a poet until she was in her 30s following five years devoted to writing her first novel.
“Writing the novel was very, very hard work for me,” she says. “And after I finished it I was reading a poem by Sigfried Sassoon and I recognized that I write the way that poem was written and I thought, ‘Oh no, that means I’m a poet.’
Today, Chatterjee feels she was called to be a poet, that she has little choice but to exorcise the poems that form unbidden in her head.
“It’s almost like an addiction,” she explains, “as though if I don’t get it out of my system something bad will happen, like I’m experiencing withdrawal symptoms or something. It’s not always a good thing.”
“Had it been up to me I would have chosen a more commercial form of writing. You can’t be a poet by vocation, I don’t think there’s anybody who makes their living just by writing poems, there’s always something else they do to supplement their incomes.”
“When I got the list of poets selected to read at Poetry NOW I stayed up that night until about 2 am Googling the other poets. It’s a wide range of ages, which is interesting. I’m definitely in good company and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. The best thing about readings is that you discover other people’s work in the process.”
WHERE/WHEN: Poetry NOW: 4th annual Battle of the Bards, Wednesday, March 28 at the Brigantine Room (York Quay Centre, 235 Queens Quay West), 7:30 – 9:30 pm; tickets $10.
by Ayesha Chatterjee
Beside a dry canoe perched
Like a red Dali moustache
On a plateau, a black dog whirs
In the ziggurat grass, a rhythmic,
Cyclical sound. He races down
The brown slope to the pathway,
Across to the emerald field
And a stick figure. Ah, that’s
What the humming in the background was.
Another, bigger dog bounces in from right field,
Clicking. Two Canada geese fly by.
It must be Spring.
(Used by permission, courtesy Bayeux Arts, © 2011)
Photos by Christopher Jones