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The Great Black North launches in Toronto

The Great Black North (Frontenac House), an anthology of contemporary African-Canadian poetry, launched in Toronto on Thursday as part of a country-wide tour.

The event showcased a sample of the passionate verse in the anthology, featuring readings, spoken word, and dub poetry that covered a range of topics, from the creation of South Sudan to low voter turnout in Canada to a love poem for a laptop.

Published to coincide with Black History Month, The Great Black North features print- and performance-oriented poetry and took just under two years to compile.

The book boasts over 90 contributors and is the first national anthology to focus solely on poetry by African-Canadians, says Kevan Anthony Cameron, co-editor of the collection.

The idea for the anthology was conceived by Cameron’s co-editor, Valerie Mason-John, who moved to Canada from the U.K. five years ago. “She wanted to investigate the African-Canadian literary scene,” Cameron says. “When she realized there wasn’t really a national poetry anthology that was specific for black Canadians, she was motivated to do this.

Toronto poet laureate George Elliott Clarke, who wrote the introduction to the anthology, says the book demonstrates how good poetry can be both when written and performed. “The lesson of African-Canadian poetry is that we’ve got stuff to say and we want people to hear it, he says.

This anthology should help everybody wake up and understand that our poetry is multidimensional,” Clarke adds. It breaks down the segregation that exists in Canadian poetry circles … in the sense that poets of African heritage are often relegated to some kind of perceived ghetto of performance, as if there’s something wrong with being a poet who performs.

Dub poet Lillian Allen, one of the night’s many performers, told the audience the book is a great step forward, comparing its arrival to her experience starting out, when she “had to struggle to be heard.”

“It’s so important we get our individual stories out there with no stereotypes,” she says.

The Great Black North also launched in Vancouver and Nova Scotia over the past week, and the tour heads to Ottawa’s on Feb. 20. According to Mason-John, the anthology was approved to be a part of the Grade 12 curriculum in Nova Scotia and will be taught in African-Canadian and Canadian literature classes.

Click on the thumbnails below to see some of the contributing poets and their works.