The 10 Best Poems of 2015
We live in a moment when poems can be presented in all sorts of ways. You can read your poem to an intimate audience at a slam stage and perform the hell out of it. You can collage a poem from white out and dead rats and show it at a gallery. You can print it out in cursive, take a photo of it, and put it on Instagram.
This year we were interested in how poets engage with their mediums. How is the message different when it’s presented visually or aurally? How is the experience of reading changed when we take in poetry in the same spaces where we follow Marnie the Dog or news about Kim Kardashian? In a time when our connections and communications with each other are increasingly disembodied, how can we read our bodies into these texts again?
Of course the real title of this article is: East Van Poetry Salon’s Ten Favourite 2015 Poems Based on the Utterly Subjective Opinions of Julie Peters and Chris Gilpin. But we decided not to go with that title, nor with the euphemistic headline: 10 Notable Poems of 2015. We’ve embraced the internet trope of announcing lists with superlative glee. If our list provokes you to create one of your own, fantastic. We’d love to see more Best Of lists that focus directly on the poems themselves, instead of ones promoting books that function as public relations pieces for the publishing industry.
And to that end, all of the poems on this list, whether they’ve been published in book form or not, are available for your immediate perusal via the links below. This is one of the not-so-secret criteria for poems to be included in our list; they must be on the internet. After all, poets, why hide your best work on the printed page when you can make it immediately available to millions through the web?
But that’s an article for another time. Here’s our class of 2015, poems that amazed us, provoked us, and enlarged our sense of what poetry could be. We’ve ordered them, but with more of a mixtape-for-your-lover intention than any competitive ranking.
10. “House of Joyce Leslie”
by Monica McClure
This poem invites us into the food court near the women’s clothing store Joyce Leslie. We are situated in what has become the temple of our times: the mall. The speaker sits crying, praying, wishing she could be in someone else’s skin, someone thinner, richer, sexier, or with a different race. There’s a wistful desire for reverence in this poem, and it can’t be accessed. The body won’t be worshipped, but it refuses to disappear into God (or into DIY liposuction). This “spiritual anorexia” won’t be nourished, and we can’t see each other clearly through the “dysmorphia” and “fucked perspective” we have of the world around us, including our bodies, our relationships, and our sense of God. In trying to figure out what to worship, how to find peace on small or large levels, we remain confused til the very end, trailing off with the half-question, half-statement, “what can we really do”.
9. “The interview where I was asked, If you could engage in cunnilingus with someone living or dead who would it be? Giving, receiving, or both? “
by Amber Dawn
Is this poem a retort to the interviewer’s question or the ideal answer only discovered after further contemplation? Either way it is deliciously debauched, and perhaps most provocative in its calm and measured tone. The serene pacing and high diction (“mete out”, “vocation”, “forseeing”) contrast humourously with the hyperbolic sexual act being described. Then, an acceleration in the third stanza, as ecstatic flourishes compare the worshipping tongue of the speaker morphing into a “team of baleen whales” or an “oracle muscle”, the trans soothsayer of Greek tragedy, Tiresias. The series of questions ending the poem is most interesting in the subjects they do not address. The problems have nothing to do with mutual gratification or shame, only the practical considerations that would be imposed by the eternal situation imagined. In its radical acceptance (and kinky rhapsody) of the act of servicing, the poem asks the reader to expand the scope of possibilities in how sexual fantasy could take shape.
8. “Lana Del Rey Intervenes When She Notices I’ve Stopped Writing About My Ex”
by Megan Falley
Although this poem was originally published in print form before 2014 turned over, it wasn’t posted online until March 2015. That might seem like a quibbling self-justification, but for a poem with this much haunting beauty, we had to make an exception. The ventriloquism of this persona poem creates many questions about our unreliable narrator. Is the reader being encouraged to remain in a state of emotional bondage or to remember enough not to make the same mistake? The singer Lana Del Rey is known for romanticizing self-destruction and relinquishing agency to her lovers in both her lyrics and her interviews. She’s been criticized as a traitor to feminism and lauded as an explorer of its outer limits as she rebels against ideas of acceptable behaviour. The paradox of Lana Del Rey acts as an ideal figure for the bundle of conflicted attachments we have to past loves, the tug-of-war between wanting to get over the past versus the desire to keep the knowledge of how the experience shaped us.
7. “It’s Simple to be Happy”
by Youdhi Maharjan
In this poem, visual artist Youdhi Maharjan reveals a piece of writing that seems to invite us to find the source of happiness. We want so much to know how to be happy: we read about it, study it in labs, try to medicate it, and write long passages that promise simplicity and don’t deliver. In whiting out all the letters except the ones that – read out loud – would make the sounds of laughing, the poem both reveals the secret to happiness and makes the search itself ironic. The poem erases our efforts to find happiness and mocks our seriousness, but at the same time, genuinely makes us laugh. Even as it makes fun of us, we are let in on the joke. The poem gifts us with the very thing it won’t let us keep looking for.
by Grace Shuyi Liew
Each of the four pieces of this poem reveal new layers with every re-reading. Situated in the complex experience of having a body, the piece veers from sexual desire to homesickness and the peculiar feeling of your body being not quite right, of being disloyal to your own flesh. Fragmented with parentheses, extra words, and flipped meanings, the poem has to repeat itself with the same title again and again, as if the body is struggling with the poet’s attempt to pin it down. The body wants to talk, but keeps interrupting itself, needing more and more to express itself, trying to fit inside a poem but not quite being able to, needing to be multiple but also feeling trapped, “(closed in by bodies).” The meanings continue to shift and change with every re-reading, bringing the reader into this fragmented experience, the “facts of your dislocation.”
by Sarah Howe
If you can’t stand poems about other poems, skip this one. Normally there is no faster way to make our eyes roll than literary allusions. So often they appear to function as no more than markers of educational status. What’s refreshing here is the way in which the poem draws you into the inner conversation. The reader is led moment-by-moment through the experience of having a poem change shape within your mind, its central image reconfigured, sprouting new dimensions of meaning. Whether or not you’ve read Roethke’s poem is incidental to pleasures of literary investigation, darting from one historical or mythical resonance to another, each revealing a new angle on the original text. The entire journey – including the misteps – presents a well-designed illustration of the Roethke’s line: “she balanced in the delight of her thought.” Posing as a story about an epiphany, the poem is more of an ode to reading, showing the wondrous interaction between an inquisitive mind and a complex text.
by Robert Priest
This poem acts as a linguistic Hadron collider, smashing the word ‘information’ into a series of terms and phrases, much as the information age has smashed into every aspect of 21st century consciousness. The collisions dissemble both the invader and host at a syllabic level. New hybrid forms stumble forth like steampunk frankensteins, awkward and alive. Priest has been working this neologistic ore for some time, and “Infologisms” is the richest vein he’s struck yet. In the past, Priest’s ‘meme splicing’ (as he calls the technique) focused on swapping syllables one for one – to pun-ishing effect. But here he’s riffing more freely and the results are micropoetry pulsating with a multiplicity of suggested meanings, all of them poignant. Economy of form has always been a valued aspect of poetry and this poem boasts an unequaled compression rate.
3. “The Moon”
by Carlos Pintado, as translated by Hilary Vaughan Dobel
This poem, written by Carlos Pintado and translated for the New York Times by Hilary Vaughn Dobel, takes up one of the most common subjects of poetic thought: the moon. The poem lists the various ways the moon has been understood, interpreted and communicated, its layers and layers of meaning hardening over time and under the volume of its metaphors. “These moons,” the poem concludes, “are dearer and more familiar” than the actual moon we see in the night sky that appears every time “like an invention of the night.” The poem takes us through the many moons we’ve known and loved, but ends on the experience of this “lone moon hanging.” When we lean too far into what something has been before, we can lose it in the story of itself. This poem reminds us to stop describing and look up.
2. “Like Totally Whatever”
by Melissa Lozada-Oliva
The poetry slam movement has been growing for 30 years, long enough for a new generation to emerge and a set of touchstone texts and poets to be reexamined. “Like Totally Whatever” is a response to Taylor Mali’s “Like Lily Like Wilson” – and a devastating one. Why do some young women talk in questions and use ‘like’, ‘um’, and ‘you know’, constantly? Perhaps it has less to do with not being able to think before they speak – as Mali condescendingly suggests – and has more to do with surviving a male voice that is always contradicting and talking down to them, much as Mali’s poem exhibits. “Maybe I’m always speaking in questions because I’m so used to being cut off. It’s, like, maybe this is defense mechanism.” The performance of the poem takes the dialect in question and uses its form to demonstrate how this way of speaking can enact resilience and resistance. “Like, our ‘likes’ are our kneepads, our ‘ums’ are our knives we tuck into our boots at night, our ‘you knows’ are our best friends we call when we’re walking down a dark alley.”
1. “Poem to my Twitter Crush”
by Jeremy Radin
This, the top poem on our list, is the only one self-published on social media. On its own, the poem is excellent, but in choosing to publish it on Twitter, Radin’s piece hits us where we live.
The poem’s strangeness and fragmentation are all the more poignant because each line was tweeted separately, and each one has its own collection of likes and retweets, containing but not quite completing its thought. This innovative way to use line breaks shift and move along the meaning of the poem so that we are continually surprised, and we have the feeling that there’s always a little bit more to the story than can be contained in 140 characters. “a remarkable woman loved me once,” one line reads, and we think we understand, but then the next line changes everything: “& i have never forgiven her.”
This poem calls to mind something that happens on social media everyday – people seek connection with each other. We have “layers&layers of code between us,” but “trust me, it’s better this way.” We fear the vulnerability of actually meeting, of bringing our human bodies into the room together. Fantasy is easier than the reality of our desires: “do u imagine my body? pls dont.” In social media spaces, we are abbreviated into some small piece that represents, but can’t contain, our larger selves. Here, “<3” is enough (and not enough) for “love.”
Radin reveals the penetrating loneliness of people trying to connect through screens, where the whole story can’t quite get told. The piece manages to be keening in its detail, gorgeous and sad, flipping over and over on itself, revealing a dark heart and returning itself to the levity of the medium (“lol”). Don’t take me too seriously, it cries, take me seriously. Love me, but don’t love me enough to really see me. This poem is about all of us, trying to connect in the internet age, calling out from the loneliness of our own fantasies, and situates itself directly in the space where we are trying to have those conversations. We <3 this poem.
The East Van Poetry Salon’s mission is to find ways to read, appreciate, and share poetry of all kinds. Find out more about Julie Peters at jcpeters.ca or @juliejcp, and about Chris Gilpin at chrisgilpin.com or @chrisgilpin.