It’s not shocking that many of Canada’s best novelists moonlight as poets—after all, writers like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Anne Michaels have kind of institutionalized the practice. Here’s a list of other writers whose novels you might have loved and whose poetry collections are definitely worth checking out.
If you loved The Outlander, by Gil Adamson….
“In 1903 a mysterious, desperate young woman flees alone across the west, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand.”
…then you’re going to love Ashland (2006).
About the book: In the dusty main streets of an unnamed West, this collection of stories features little European villages, a sanitarium in the mountains, Mounties, madwomen, long-dead gunslingers, thieves, lost children, and wolves.
If you loved What We All Love For, by Dionne Brand…
“‘They were born in the city from people born elsewhere.’ What We All Long For follows the overlapping stories of a close circle of second-generation twenty-somethings living in downtown Toronto.”
…then you’re going to love Ossuaries (2010).
About the book: Dionne Brand’s hypnotic, urgent long poem—her first book of poetry in four years—is about the bones of fading cultures and ideas, about the living museums of spectacle where these bones are found. At the centre of Ossuaries is the narrative of Yasmine, a woman living an underground life, fleeing from past actions and regrets, in a perpetual state of movement. She leads a solitary clandestine life, crossing borders actual (Algiers, Cuba, Canada), and timeless. Cold-eyed and cynical, she contemplates the periodic crises of the contemporary world. This is a work of deep engagement, sensuality, and ultimate craft from an essential observer of our time and one of the most accomplished poets writing today.
If you loved How You Were Born*, by Kate Cayley…
“How You Were Born is a collection of short stories looking at the bizarre, the tragi-comic and the unbelievable elements that run through our lives.”
…then you’re going to love When This World Comes to an End (2013).
About the book: Poems that journey through a tapestry of myths, archetypes and fables; of histories invented and revisited.
Kate Cayley’s is a mind both studious and curious, deeply attuned to the question “what if?” What if Nick Drake and Emily Dickinson met in the afterlife? What if a respected physician suddenly shrank to the size of a pea? What if the blind twins in a Victorian photograph could speak to us? What if we found another Earth orbiting another sun?
Cayley draws on her experience as a playwright to create vividly engaging voices and characters ranging from the famous to the infamous to the all-but-anonymous. With exquisite pacing and striking imagery she draws us into the gaps in history, invites us to survey its wonders, both real and imaginary.
(*And yes, we know How You Were Born is not a novel. But consistency is boring—ed.)
If you loved The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly…
“Set during Burma’s military dictatorship of the mid-1990s, Karen Connelly’s exquisitely written and harshly realistic debut novel is a hymn to human resilience and love.”
…then you’re going to love Come Cold River(2013).
About the book: In Karen Connelly’s first collection of poetry since The Border Surrounds Us, the poet offers up a searing, complex portrayal of her troubled family. Refracted, augmented, drawn through various cities, streets and fields, over mountain ranges and foreign landscapes, this portrayal grows into an authentic homage to people who are often invisibilized or silenced. Simultaneously, it becomes an indictment of her own country, Canada, its long history of racism and unconscionable violence against women, children, addicts, and poor people. Never didactic, insistently real, these poems make us wonder “how to enter again/that unlikely tenderness/the cracked ribcage of the world/ as if it were the last shelter.”
If you loved Nightwatching by Meira Cook…
“One hot, lonely summer in the Orange Free State of South Africa, feisty Ruthie Blackburn finds herself at odds with everyone around her”
…then you’re going to love Monologue Dogs (2015).
About the book: Monologue Dogs is a series of contemporary dramatic monologues. Every “voice” has its own imagined rhythm and nuances of poetic speech that are as vibrant, wayward, mournful, errant, or unruly as the characters who speak. Setting the lyric against street argot, archaic language against deflating or ironic feints, metaphors against declarative sentences, the elegiac against the ribald, classical or literary allusions against anachronistic references, these monologues reflect our own disordered subjectivities. In the words of Molly Peacock: “Read her for a fresh, contemporary and knowing sensibility—not to mention an unforgettable sense of humour.”
If you loved Where Did You Sleep Last Night, by Lynn Crosbie…
“Does true love have supernatural power? Where Did You Sleep Last Night is a love story about a teenage girl who embarks on a relationship with Kurt Cobain.”
…then you’re going to love Queen Rat(1998).
About the book: Originally published in 1998, Lynn Crosbie brought her unique voice to the forefront of Canadian poetry with this important collection of verse. Hers is a world of Shakespeare, skinheads, and centurions; and hers is a life stripped to the basics and then reconstructed with relish, every brick scrutinized meticulously.
In Queen Rat her language is urban, but her soul is universal as she explores that which makes up everything.
If you loved Galore, by Michael Crummey…
“Sprawling and intimate, stark and fantastical, Galore is a novel about the power of stories to shape and sustain us. This is Michael Crummey’s most ambitious and accomplished work to date.”
…then you’re going to love Little Dogs(2016).
About the book: Twenty years after the publication of his debut, Little Dogs: New and Selected Poems brings together selections from Michael Crummey’s first four books of poetry with a significant offering of new work. In this collection, Crummey emerges not only as the master storyteller we know him to be, but also as one of our great poets of connection. Whether reporting from a solitary room or a shared bed, recalling the barbed delirium of adolescence, the subtler negotiations of mature love, or the generational echoes between fathers and sons, these poems are deeply engaged in the business of living with others. Of living with the absence of those who have shaped and sometimes scarred us. Unafraid of confronting the darker corners of desire or of digging into the past to make sense of the present, Crummey has already given us a tremendous body of work. Little Dogs showcases the evolution of one the most distinct and celebrated Canadian writers of his generation.
If you loved The Reinvention of Love, by Helen Humphreys…
“When Charles Sainte-Beuve, an ambitious French journalist, meets Victor Hugo, a young writer on the verge of fame, he finds himself in a world of great passions, a world in which words can become swords.”
…then you’re going to love Anthem (1999).
About the book: Physical and fiercely lyric, Helen Humphreys’ Anthem is a litany of want. A song of poverty and of desire, of the reach forward and the relentless backward glance. With stark images and subtle, tensile strength, her poems touch that rare interval between presence and absence, echo and answer, between wall and window and sky-that gap in which we live, the space words make.
Shortlisted for the 2000 Pat Lowther Award for best book of poetry by a woman published in 1999. Winner of the 2000 Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry.
“The Crooked Heart of Mercy is a brave, funny and heartbreaking novel about faith and family, love and forgiveness, and how people survive unimaginable loss.”
…then you’re gong to love The Chick at the Back of the Church (2001).
About the book: Billie Livingston’s poems drive straight for the sharp edges—from the rough, self-assured and brash voice of a woman who poses nude at seventeen while considering the 40-year-old photographer as her guinea pig, to the confidante of relatives and friends grappling with the torturing frustration of love, sexuality, adultery and death.
These jagged realities also collide with the innocence of childhood—a toddler being offered LSD by the next-door neighbor, a Catholic schoolgirl being dropped into the frontlines of a fierce abortion protest and a young woman trying to relax with a book in a park but instead facing an unwelcome exposure. Livingston also includes a selection of poems written from the disparate voices of a self-destructive family that eventually developed into her popular novel.
If you loved People Park, by Pasha Malla…
“People Park is a tour de force of eerily prescient, grotesque, and hilarious observation and a narrative of gripping, unrelenting suspense.”
…then you’re going to love All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (2008).
About the book: Imagine a world just like our own: the celebrities march their sequined parade on TV, the Dairy Queens dollop out fat splooges of frozen yogurt, folks hump one another like they always have, and sometimes there’s shoplifting, and sometimes there’s love. Except there’s no morality, none at all, which skews things some. Murder happens off-handedly, as a joke, the librarians are all on acid, at parties people chug goblets of their own pee, and Fred Savage has been crowned king of Romania. This is the world of All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts, a book of poems about the search for order amid total, hilarious moral collapse.
If you loved Red Jacket, by Pamela Mordecai…
“A compelling tale of faith and family, ranging from the dusty landscapes of West Africa to the rich flavours of the Caribbean.”
…then you’re going to love Certifiable(2001).
About the book: Toronto writer Pamela Mordecai is a well-known voice in the poetry of the Caribbean diaspora. She has long been a popular anthologist, a mentor to other writers, a frequent contributor to literary journals, and a vital link between the literary worlds of Canada and Jamaica. Certifiable presents a maturing vision of women’s lives in both of her homes. Certifiable celebrates experience shot through with affection, family attachment, and madness. The poems in the first section, “Just a Likl Loving,” explore the truths hidden beneath the ideal of love: love as comfort, love as currency, love as deathtrap. “Sister Sequence” embraces the fullness of sisterhood, from the conceptual “sister muse” as a power in the world to the ambivalent love among flesh-and-blood sisters. “Certifiable,” the final section, springs from intimacy with little and big madnesses. At the head of each. The rhythms and rhymes of the creole soundscape crackle through Certifiable. Mordecai’s deft hand wordplay flows through and beyond standard English and the creole continuum to reveal the characters in Certifiable and record their experiences.
If you loved The Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O’Neill…
“Heather O’Neill’s distinctive style and voice fill these charming, sometimes dark, always beguiling stories.”
…then you’re going to love two eyes are you sleeping (1998).
About the book: This is the first full-length collection of poems by Heather O’Neill, a writer and performer living in Montreal. two eyes are you sleeping is a linked collection of personal and political lyrics, written in a voice that reflects both the rootlessness and violence of the urban landscape and a metaphorical brilliance that transforms the ordinary into the visionary.
These are poems of the street, poems of defenselessness, strength, perversity and generosity, poems of drug addicts, alcoholics, con-men and sexual adventurers, poems to shout out in the bathtub with the radio blaring out the song you loved when you were fourteen. Most of all they are about growing up human in the drab beauty of the city.
If you loved Far to Go, by Alison Pick…
“Inspired by the harrowing five-year journey Alison Pick’s own grandparents embarked upon from their native Czechoslovakia to Canada during the Second World War, Far to Go is an epic historical novel that traces one family’s journey through these tumultuous and traumatic events.”
…then you’re going to love The Dream World(2008).
About the book: In her elegant new collection, Alison Pick, a brilliant poet of sensuous moods, atmospheres, and dreams, explores the mystery concealed within the world we know and recognize. Always evocative, always alluring, her poems are not interested in mere events, but in the fabric inside the emotions that events can provoke. She writes of love, of leaving, of wandering, and of home—not necessarily in that order. With captivating language and shining imagery, her poems travel out through layers of landscape—residential, geographic, emotional, cerebral—creating a guidebook to the hidden, a sparkling tour through the lush and varied backcountry of human experience.
If you loved Above All Things, by Tanis Rideout…
“A captivating blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction, Above All Things moves seamlessly back and forth between the epic story of Mallory’s legendary final expedition and a heartbreaking account of a day in the life of Ruth Mallory.”
…then you’re going to love Arguments With the Lake (2013).
About the book: In 1954, at the age of sixteen, Marilyn Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. It brought her fame and adulation; her life seemed charmed. Enter Shirley Campbell, another young swimmer whose accomplishments were poised to rival Bell’s, but in falling short in her own attempts to cross the Great Lake, she found herself spiraling out of control into a life of addiction, petty crime, and personal tragedies. Tanis Rideout weaves the tales of these two remarkable women together in a series of stunning, lyrical poems. It is a story of courage and triumph, but also one of adversity and redemption. This is an exhilarating book of poetry, at once tender and terrifying; like a cold dip in Lake Ontario, it will engulf you and leave you breathless. Arguments with the Lake confirms Rideout’s arrival as a major new talent in Canadian letters.
If you loved God Loves Hair, by Vivek Shraya…
“Told with the poignant insight and honesty that only the voice of a young mind can convey, God Loves Hair is a moving and ultimately joyous portrait of the resiliency of youth.”
…then you’re going to love even this page is white (2016).
About the book: As a writer, musician, performance artist, and filmmaker, Vivek Shraya has, over the course of the last few years, established herself as a tour de force artist of the highest order. Vivek’s body of work includes ten albums, four short films, and three books, including the YA book God Loves Hair (A Quill and Quire and Canadian Children’s Book Centre Best Book of the Year) and the adult novel She of the Mountains (a Lambda Literary Award finalist).
Vivek’s debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, is a bold, timely, and personal interrogation of skin—its origins, functions, and limitations. Poems that range in style from starkly concrete to limber break down the barriers that prevent understanding of what it means to be racialized. Shraya paints the face of everyday racism with words, rendering it visible, tangible, and undeniable.
If you loved The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud…
“Lyrical and riveting, The Sentimentalists is a story of what lies beneath the surface of everyday life, and of the commanding power of the past.”
…then you’re going to love Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (2008).
About the book: Johanna Skibsrud’s debut poetry collection makes inquiries into that peculiar phenomenon of being alive in the world, opening wide moments of uncertainty in the search for a sense of inner resolve that resembles the outer calm of trees and neighbours. At each step testing the waters of her own words, Skibsrud turns her reality over in search of constants.
Skibsrud’s is a world of touchstones. An abandoned boat, her grandmother’s house, a piano, and the annual departure and return of migratory birds are fixtures in the process of coming to know the self, serving both as rhythmic landings and as footholds in a pursuit of understanding.
The collection’s title chapter is a series of takes on the Western genre, its character profiles, sweeping landscapes and the hyperbolic adventures to be had within. Whether based in Nova Scotia, Montana or Arizona, Skibsrud colours the facts with fantastical elements, transforming stories into ballads and road trips into cowboy-studded escapades.
If you loved Holding Still For As Long As Possible, by Zoe Whittall…
“A dazzling portrait of twenty-somethings who grew up on text-messaging and the war on terror.”
…then you’re going to love Precordial Thump (2008).
About the book: This is a gutsy, gritty, urban, urbane, and sleek selection by a poet evocatively skilled in her craft. A “precordial thump” is a single punch to the center of the sternum, an attempt to start the heart. In Zoe Whittall’s third book of poetry, lies erode a relationship, romance blooms in the back of an ambulance and the poet examines the implied sincerity in confessional poetry. At the intersection of emergency medicine and emergency poetry, Whittall aims to break down the larger lies of poetic form and the smaller dishonesties within ourselves.