When I lived in Manhattan as a fledgling writer, I often went into the big bookstores to browse the selection of literary journals on the racks. Flipping through their pages packed with new fiction and poetry under familiar and unfamiliar names gave me a sense of what was going on in the literary world – who was working on what – and in turn how I fit into things. This bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape was extremely important to my development as a writer. It showed me not only what I admired enough to emulate, but what I wanted to avoid. And by submitting to those journals, I was able to place myself in the aesthetic, political, and literary conversations going on.
Journals are, first and foremost, a laboratory – a venue for communication between artists and editors who serve as cultural gatekeepers. Annual anthologies marketing themselves as “Best of the Year” collections are in a sense twice-kept, culturally speaking, having passed through two or more sets of presumably discerning editors. What’s more, these “best of” anthologies change guest jurors and editors from year to year as part of a strategy to ensure a wider vision than can be achieved by one editor exerting too much influence over the series and, in turn, the concept of “best” as a whole.
In the case of both the Journey Prize and the Best Canadian Poetry series, these yearly collections provide excellent snapshots of the literary trends, styles, and concerns of their respective years.
In the case of the 2019 Journey Prize anthology, editors Carleigh Baker, Catherine Hernandez, and Joshua Whitehead have created an unabashedly political and corrective selection of writing that focuses on diversity and freshness of voice. Significant attention is paid to diverse cultural experience and background throughout the book, in stories featuring traditionally marginalized characters negotiating the power (im)balances inherent in Canadian and/or Western society.
Without any opening essay to contextualize the jurors’ choices, the Journey Prize anthology lets the stories do the talking: the friction and exchange of momentum between each building a larger narrative that creates a mosaic of the stories these editors found most enthralling.
In Canisia Lubrin’s “No ID or We Could Be Brothers,” a sense of dread mounts as friends of a missing late-night taxi driver worry for his safety. In Troy Sebastian’s “Tax NiɁ Piḱak,” a family narrative oscillates seamlessly between reality and mythology, revealing a sort of ars poetica moment of focus on the nature of storytelling. In Ben Ladouceur’s “A Boy of Good Breeding,” two men negotiate the power balance in their relationship, one that was problematic from the start (tutor and student), but which slowly devolves and evolves into a struggle over ownership of self.
Besides the refreshing variety in voice and tone, there is a variety in format and length, with the notably longer “Orun Is Heaven” by Francesca Ekwuyasi (31 pages) placed right next to the notably shorter Leanne Toshiko Simpson piece “Monsters” (two pages).
Best Canadian Poetry 2019 boasts as series and advisory editors two poets I consider to be among the best working in English in Canada: Anita Lahey and Amanda Jernigan. This year, the series editors are joined by guest editor Rob Taylor. Unlike the Journey Prize anthology, Best Canadian Poetry 2019 opens with three contextualizing essays: one each by Jernigan, Lahey, and Taylor.
Taylor spends much of his introduction downplaying the very concept of “best,” preferring instead to position the work as his own “favourites.” This is, of course, by definition the truth behind any anthology: the editor acts as curator more than arbiter of what constitutes good taste.
Like many other states of being, poetry is a spectrum, and the choices in Best Canadian Poetry 2019 represent a piece of this spectrum well (while a few play with formal expectations, only Katie McGarry’s “r u ok” – presented as a flow chart – steps outside the words-on-page scope of poetry), highlighting new and familiar names. A.F. Moritz, Julie Bruck, Gary Barwin, and Sonnet L’Abbé are here, as expected, but so are many poets at other career stages.
The range of what young writers are tackling these days is remarkably encouraging: from Griffin Poetry Prize winner Billy-Ray Belcourt’s gorgeous tableau of rez life in “The Terrible Beauty of the Reserve” to Souvankham Thammavongsa’s quiet reflection on family and regret in “My Mother Gave Me” to the closing poem, Rebecca Salazar’s scorching post-literary-dumpster-fire feminist call to action “Witch Hunt.”
Do these books and the pieces within represent the “best” of the fiction and poetry to be found in Canadian journals and magazines? In many ways, yes. The value of any anthology or award is not in any or even all of the purportedly “best.” It is in the indelible concretization of a moment in time, featuring the authors, the editors, and everything around them, including the conversations they are engaged in. And as such, these books are must-haves for libraries, schools, and intellectually well-intentioned bedside nightstands across the country.