On April 3, we hosted PoetryNOW: 11th Annual Battle of the Bards, featuring 20 talented poets, each reading four minutes of their work. All poets maximized their limited time and gave us a showing of funny, compelling and beautiful performances. It was a fantastic way to begin National Poetry Month.
All the participants delivered remarkable work, however, it was Doyali Islam who stood out on this day to earn the 2019 title of top bard. We caught up with her to discuss the people she has to thank for her journey so far, the moment she fell in love with poetry and the poet we should all be looking out for.
Congratulations on winning PoetryNOW: 11th Annual Battle of the Bards! This is your chance to give an acceptance speech. Who (or what) are you thanking for your journey to this moment?
I once saw a YouTube video of a herbalist, Dr. Patrick Jones: he held up two yellow-dock roots, one that had grown very close to the water, and one that had grown higher up on the bank. He cut open each root to show that the one that had grown higher up on the bank was a deeper orange, richer in iron. It had to struggle to survive, and thus contained more medicine. All this to say, I thank my body for surviving chronic/recurrent health issues to yield the poems in heft. May these poems be medicine.
To riff on a few lines from the “ – i am chronically grateful – ” section at the end of my book, I am also grateful to my ancestors, for arriving me; to my maternal grandmother, who took the pen name Nurun Nahar; to my family, for no one is self-sufficient; to my partner, Daniel Zingaro, for the love we build; to everyone at M&S who had a hand in producing heft; and to every reader/listener who leans in with the meridian of their body.
And I want to take a moment to thank, especially, my sister, who is a better daily carer to our aging parents. It occurs to me today that there is so much invisible (emotional and energetic) labour in this care. For those of you who have read Tracy K. Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light, I see myself in Tracy, and my sister in Jean.
Even though this was a poetry competition, you and your fellow poets demonstrated tremendous support to one another during the competition. In what ways do you connect with the wider poetry community?
This might be a circuitous answer, borrowed from an Editor’s Note I wrote for the Autumn 2018 issue of Write magazine, but:
In the summer of 2015, my husband and I had recently separated, and I had returned to living in Toronto after almost three years in North Bay. It was a summer of feeling ashamed, depressed, dislocated, and disoriented, but – as clichéd as it sounds – poetry and community saved me.
In November 2014, I had received news that Kenyon Review Online wanted to publish my double sonnet, “susiya”. That autumn, winter, and spring dragged on, and somewhere along the way I forgot about the acceptance until the piece came out in May 2015, just a few days after the marital breakdown. Seeing and hearing my poem on the Kenyon Review website, I felt like my old self had offered to my current self a tiny light in the darkness – a reminder that I had something to live for, a ‘place’ in this world, and valuable work to do. The publication was wonderful, but I knew I needed to find – or re-find – a literary community for myself.
My sister and I attended High Park Reading Festival later that summer, and it felt good to at least be out in the open air and listening, even if I wasn’t reading. Having not thought to bring a picnic blanket, we picked a random spot on the grass and settled down. I surveyed the crowd, feeling dismay at not knowing a single person – or so I thought. A couple was seated on a picnic mat in front of me, and the woman – someone relatively young and with straight hair – happened to turn around. It was Priscila Uppal, who I hadn’t seen for a few years, and who I hadn’t recognized, given her wig. The summer of my separation was difficult, but it was then that I realized others were experiencing as-difficult or more-difficult times.
With regard to the ‘wider poetry community’, I am thinking of Priscila, as she kept asking me, on that day, if I wanted to share her mat. That little gesture made me feel welcome again – both in the city and in the Toronto literary community, and it embodied who she was as a professional author and as a human being: a compassionate, generous, and thoughtful spirit, always looking out for others. I am thinking about Priscila’s gesture and about how, as poet and editor, I vow to carry it forward and ‘make space on the mat’ for others.
After leaving the November launch of Priscila Uppal’s posthumous On Second Thought (Mansfield Press, 2018) at Centre for Social Innovation (720 Bathurst), I tore off a corner of one page in her book and released it into the wind at the Bathurst/Bloor construction site (in the wake of the demolishment of Honest Ed’s), so that whatever is built there will have a little bit of Priscila’s generous and supportive spirit in its foundation.
So far, the formal ways I have found, past and present, to support others and to build community have included voluntarily curating and hosting a monthly literary reading series in North Bay, Ontario; engaging with young minds through Poetry in Voice’s ‘poet-in-class’ program; and always trying to enable and encourage writers through my role as Poetry Editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. Informal ways I’ve found to connect include one-on-one engagements over tea; letter-writing by hand; and just listening and being here for my poet-friends.
The more we make space for each other and make room for each other’s visibility, the more the poetry community and the art form will thrive and grow.
What was the poem (or poet) that made you fall in love with poetry?
It is a continual falling, renewed every time I come across a gem of a poem, or return to an old one. Thinking about the diction of ‘falling’, I am reminded of Alice Oswald’s “A Short Story of Falling”. But when I was a young child, I came to poetry through Shel Silverstein’s books, and through quality television shows like Ghostwriter! At the age of 17 or so, I fell in love with Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks.
Tell us about your poetry collection.
heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019) is a ledger of tenderness, survival, and risk. The poems are about what endures, so they needed to be small and plainspoken. I don’t want readers to feel put off by the split forms – ‘split sonnets’, ‘double sonnets’, and ‘parallel poems’ – that I created and have been working in since 2010. The poems ground themselves in ordinary and embodied things from daily life – to borrow from my Battle of the Bards reading, things like an ant, a Lord of the Rings film, and prayers.
Recently, I have been in conversation with Forrest Gander through The Adroit Journal (Issue 27), and with Anne Michaels through Contemporary Verse 2 (forthcoming, Spring 2019). Both of these conversations explore deeply what I attempted in heft, and the emotional and ethical terrain in which I found myself when writing/editing the poems over eight-and-a-half years.
In honour of National Poetry Month: if you could spotlight a poet, who would it be?
I’m thinking about a remarkable 8-year-old who I had the good fortune of meeting during my ‘poet in class’ visit to Star Academy this past March, as arranged through Poetry in Voice! I had cut blank paper into strips and invited the younger students (K to 4) to mark them up with short poems and/or drawings, which I then linked together over recess into a ‘poetry chain’ to enact the idea that poetry and art is what connects us. One of those poets/poems I hope to never forget: a quiet and introspective girl – unnamed here for privacy – appeared by my side at the end of the visit with the following offering, and I was astounded. How much closer to the heart of poetry can one trespass?
Congratulations once again to Doyali Islam on her win. Check out her new poetry collection, heft, and look up the works of her fellow contestants!
Doyali Islam’s poems have been published in Kenyon Review Online, The Fiddlehead, and The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and have won several national contests and prizes. Doyali serves as the poetry editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2017, she was a guest on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition and was a poetry finalist for the National Magazine Awards. She lives in Toronto, Ontario. Doyali-islam.com