Shortly after being appointed the city’s poet laureate in November, 2012, George Elliott Clarke learned the Toronto Public Library was devising a map that plotted books geographically depending on the neighbourhood in the city they were set. It was a great idea, he says, except it was heavy on novels, light on poems.
“I thought that it would be a good idea, as poet laureate, to basically expand this map idea, but really focus on poems,” he says.
When it comes to Toronto, Google Maps explains how to get from point A to point B, while the TTC subway map reveals the city beneath the streets; the city archive is filled with historic maps showing old Toronto; I even have a brunch map in my condo pinpointing the best places to eat on a lazy Sunday morning. Maps are among the best ways to learn a city’s story; its latest will be officially launched Wednesday evening at the Toronto Reference Library.
The Toronto Poetry Map captures the city in words. Click on an area and you’ll be presented with an excerpt, or several, from works referencing the street, or landmark, or neighbourhood. Michael Ondaatje writes about “that afternoon/in Union Station/when we both were lost” while Ken Babstock, surfacing from St. George subway station, navigates the “bodies scattering among museums,/bank towers, campus rooms, and shops…”
Dionne Brand lingers at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets (“At this crossroad, the air is elegiac with it/whiffs and cirri of all emotion, need and vanity/desire, brazen as a killing”) while Margaret Atwood rides a bus along St. Clair (“I am the old woman/sitting across from you on the bus,/her shoulders drawn up like a shawl”).
“The metaphysical Toronto is what we actually see in this map,” says Clarke. “The Toronto that’s conjured up by our imaginations as we ponder the reality of our existence here.”
The map also covers areas that, perhaps unfairly, aren’t likely to be considered poetic, from Pearson International Airport to Islington subway station to the Zanzibar strip club (Brand, again) to CAMH.
“It’s a really clever project,” says Jacob McArthur Mooney, whose poems about the airport and the area around the 427 and Finch, among other places, have been added to the map. “This is secretly a city full of poets and project like this really shows that starkly and visually.”
The map currently features the work of approximately 55 poets and excerpts from over 200 poems, from the city’s foremost chroniclers (Raymond Souster and Gwendolyn MacEwen) to relatively unknown writers. And not every poet is Canadian; Ireland’s Paul Muldoon makes an appearance at the Park Hyatt, where he helps “a girl in a bin-liner dress to find her contact lens.” Readers are encouraged to submit their favourite Toronto-centric poems, which will be reviewed by a committee before being added to the map.
“If they’re published in a book or a journal that the Toronto Public Library has in its collection, then obviously that’s a green light,” says Mary-Beth Arima, an information-services librarian. “Let us know what we’ve missed, because we know there’s lots more.”
Clarke hopes that not only will it inspire poets to write about areas of the city currently under-represented – huge swaths of Toronto have yet to be included – but hopes it increases the visibility of poets in the eyes of fellow Torontonians.
“This really puts us on the map,” he says.
What’s the most poetic part of Toronto?
That stand of huge poplars at Cherry Beach. In early summer they shed a kind of white floss that floats on the lake breeze and gathers everywhere in serpentine drifts. It’s like being on another planet. – Kevin Connolly is the author of four collections of poems, the most recent of which, Revolver, was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize.
In front of the 7-11 at Dundas and Manning. My partner and I were walking there when a motorcycle with a sidecar passed us and in the sidecar was a dog wearing aviator goggles. The dog turned around to look at us. After an incredulous moment we asked each other, “Did you see that?” – Karen Solie won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2010 for Pigeon. Her fourth collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, was just published.
Toronto Island in the winter: this last brutal February, I collaborated on poems with the wonderful Hoa Nguyen there. The shattered ice sheet at the shoreline was spectacular. – Damian Rogers is the poetry editor at House of Anansi and The Walrus. Her second collection, Dear Leader, was just published.