Founded in 2014 by Professor Miranda Hickman and Michael Nicholson, Poetry Matters grew out of a shared love of poetry and a shared commitment to enhancing a culture of poetry on McGill’s campus. It’s a well-known fact that illustrious Canadian poets such as Leonard Cohen, A.M. Klein and Louis Dudek once called McGill’s Faculty of Arts home, and McGill’s place within Montreal, and Canada’s, rich poetic tradition is one that Poetry Matters aims to honour and celebrate.
Poetry Matters focuses its efforts on three main aspects: events, such as readings and workshops, resource creation for academics and students, and research projects, one of which is now taking form in a work-in-progress book, Deep Literacy, Digital Time, co-written by Professor Hickman and Jana Perkins, an alumna from the Master’s program in the Department of English.
For some, poetry can be an inaccessible medium, and a fixture of ivory tower academics.
“People are thinking about poetry much differently, as a kind of life current that helps us pay attention to the things that matter in our world,” says Professor Hickman. “It’s a means of ‘knowing’, ‘knowing’ through feeling.”
That’s why part of Poetry Matters’ mission is to put an emphasis on developing resources that are easily accessible via their website or Facebook page.
A McGill Wide Initiative
Bringing poetry and creative expression to the wider McGill community is one of Poetry Matters goals and one of its greatest achievements. Last year, the initiative collaborated with McGill’s Writing Centre to offer a series of workshops on creative writing.
“As part of our SSHRC funding we launched a pilot project with the McGill Writing Centre,” says Hickman. “We partnered with Yvonne Hung, who is the director of the MWC, and Sarah Wolfson, who actually designed new courses in creative writing, and we put together a whole group of workshops and creative practice throughout the year, which drew students from undergraduate degrees, such as English and beyond, and eventually graduate students from different disciplines.”
Poetry Matters’ programming is varied and engaging, collaborating with local poets, and McGill affiliated writers and poets such as Sarah Wolfson and Kasia Van Schaik, and immersive workshops such as March 2022’s “Articulating the Body”, a workshop housed within McGill’s very own Maude Abbott Medical museum, led by poet and physician Dr. Shane Neilson.
Students Committed to Poetry
With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (since 2017) and the Arts Internship Office for the 2022-23 academic year, Poetry Matters has been able to offer an undergraduate internship opportunity and research assistant positions for graduate students. You can read all about Natasha Kinne’s experience interning for Poetry Matters as part of the Arts Internship Office here.
Anushree Joshi, an MA Student in the Department of English, became involved in Poetry Matters when she started her studies at the Department of English in 2021, and came across Professor Hickman’s call for a research assistant who could help manage the website and social media accounts.
Anushree’s research is inspired by the poetry emerging in India in response to a controversial 2019 citizenship law which essentially used religion as the basis for citizenship for immigrants.
“Poetry from the movement against this kind of anti-Muslim hate, the amended law, became a significant part of the movement that began in India in 2019,” says Anushree. “Since COVID came soon after in March 2020, this resistance, its poetry, and the discourses around it, built communities on social media. I look at the affective aspects of these modes of resistance by reading poems from writer-activists in the movement, and I also deploy digital humanist methods of sentiment analysis and topic modelling on this poetry as well as the related Twitter discourse from the movement.”
James Jarret, a U3 student majoring in English Literature and Music, became involved with Poetry Matters after attending one of its events in Fall 2022. After attending the reading and workshop of contemporary poet Gary Geddes, James appreciated the opportunity to interact with contemporary poetry in a more intimate setting and with a more varied section of the McGill community than usual.
“My involvement with poetry matters allows me to interact with poets, poems, and ideas I might not get the chance to in my degree,” says James. “I've also learned about the technical side of planning events, including valuable experience with communications, organization, and graphic design. Finally, I've gained a lot from Prof. Hickman's guidance and leadership.”
After completing her MA at McGill Jana Perkins then went on to pursue a PhD in Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Jana came to McGill as a nineteenth-century poetry scholar who also wrote her own poems which she was submitting to various publications.
After attending a Poetry Matters gathering at an Old Port coffee shop, Jana became transfixed by the experience and went on to attend every single Poetry Matters event until she graduated two years later.
“Over the years, Miranda and I have individually been examining the role of poetry in contemporary life, but with the onset of the pandemic we found that work extending in new directions,” Jana says. “Particularly in those very first few months of the pandemic, poetry was really having a moment. It was everywhere. There was something about poetry that, during that period especially, readers from around the world found uniquely compelling and instructive in ways that they previously hadn’t.”
Jana is co-authoring Deep Literacy, Digital Time, with Professor Hickman, which uses Lucy Alford’s terminology of “poetic attention” and builds upon the work of scholars such as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf and media theorist N. Katherine Hayles as the starting point in examining how to better understand the new and increasingly varied ways in which we read and how we navigate the digital environments that permeate our daily lives.
Why does poetry matter?
“Poetry matters because it’s a powerful form of expression,” says James. “In all of its senses: emotional, political, personal, philosophical, aesthetic technical, and so on… poetry is also [about] how this expression forms, shapes, and aligns individuals and communities.”
Indeed, initiatives such as Poetry Matters, which prioritize community engagement and interdisciplinary outreach are important tools to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of poetry both on university campuses and beyond.
For Anushree, poetry represents hope. “Poetry puts your world in connection with other worlds, either showing you the beauty or the injustice around you,” she says. “I always see poetry as a political endeavour because of how memorable, replicable, and shareable it is – on its own, through slogans, in songs, etc. And that’s why initiatives like Poetry Matters are important.”
Perhaps one of the most important aspects that ensure the success of initiatives like Poetry Matters is the sustained and sincere efforts and dedication of its leadership, as exemplified through the work and commitment of Professor Miranda Hickman.
“When it comes to initiatives like Poetry Matters, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate their importance in creating spaces for conversations on poetry both within and beyond their communities,” says Jana.
“At McGill, much of the impact that the Poetry Matters initiative has had comes as the direct result of work that Miranda has been doing to build upon and sustain it over the years,” she adds. “She has long been a champion of the initiative, and in ways that few people would have had either the capacity or the dexterity to be.”
Professor Hickman is a champion of poetry both in and outside of her classroom. Her commitment to Poetry Matters’ programming, research and community outreach are efforts that are clearly appreciated by students such as James, Anushree and Jana.
To mark World Poetry Month, we encourage you to browse the archive of video and audio recordings of past Poetry Matters events and discover their list of resources such as articles and essays on public debates on poetry. Don’t forget to follow Poetry Matters McGill on Facebook here.
We asked Anushree, Jana and James to share some of poets and poems that have stayed with them over the years. Happy reading!
“Bruce Snider is a poet I feel a particular kinship with. He was among the first contemporary poets I read in high school, and I pored over and imitated his style. Most of all, I love the dimensions of his poems. They are transparent, small, and dense; reading one is a little like adding drops of water to a coin until the surface tension breaks.”
"The poem that has been on my mind since the pandemic a lot, especially since my last birthday has been Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”. I love this poem because I am a generally pessimistic and cynical person, and my struggle with anxiety doesn’t make it any easier for me to see the good in things that happen to or around me. And in the world that we inhabit, with natural calamities, political terror, and cultural conflicts of all kinds, it can get really tough to see the hope in the world. This poem knows all of this, it doesn’t negate it, and yet it is incredibly hopeful in choosing to turn to kindness as a possibility for change. I love that, and I think we all need to be told sometimes: “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.”
“I have a real fondness for some of the first poems I encountered as an undergraduate. Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer,” for example — a poem of just 8 lines, which really isn’t very Whitman-esque in its style and doesn’t offer any revolutionary insights into the human experience. And yet, I still feel a rush of recognition whenever I return to re-read it, because it was one of the first texts that demonstrated to me just how effectively poetry can serve as a medium for conveying information, emotion, and experience."