The Hub World Poetry Day 2021

World Poetry Day 2021

By: Dr. Michael Lithgow

March 21 is World Poetry Day—a day declared by UNESCO as one that “celebrates one of humanity’s most treasured forms of cultural and linguistic expression and identity.”

To commemorate, we reached out to Dr. Michael Lithgow, an Associate Professor in Communication and Media Studies with Athabasca University (AU) to discuss and analyze the concept and idea of poetry in three specific themes.

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What do you feel poetry can accomplish that other forms can’t?

A poem is an intimate event with language—at least, the poems I’m drawn to offer this possibility. By “event,” I mean that the poem is language through which something happens. I’m tempted to say something is discovered, but I’ve read too much Foucault to believe it entirely. And “fabrication” isn’t quite right either, which can also mire language in routine. Perhaps it’s somewhere in between creation and discovery, an urge to make sense and to find it—a sense of self, meaning, understanding—to eek out a defiant sensibility through curiosity. Because the best poems to my mind have no idea where they will end up until they do, and this is the sense of wonder they can share. I said “with language,” but maybe “in language” is better—an event in language because that’s where a poem takes place. It’s the tracing of human energy—mind energy, body energy, spirit energy—with words tangled together in syntax, grammars and so on, whether or not these regulations are followed. Poems capture, and at their very best, make human experience in words. They reveal, create, and discover intimacies of subjectivity in all their complicated uncomfortable contradictions. The best poems for me share the intimacies and vulnerabilities and outrages of learning to be human. Of course, all art forms are about this very thing! So I guess it’s the medium that sets it apart. Words tangled in rules, both tamed and set free through human desire in the face of all the forces that want to determine what can and cannot be spoken legitimately.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

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What kinds of barriers are there to poetry? How can we overcome them?

There are many kinds of barriers, but generally I would say that all the same barriers that exist for everything else apply to poetry, as in the barriers that accompany: racism, sexism, ableism, heteronormativity, classism, colonialism, and all the other isms that exist to extend certain kinds of privilege. Hegemonies in all their forms exert their criteria for what counts as “legitimate” in the poetry world just as they do everywhere else. Barriers to publication and education loom large in this sense—barriers to acceptance and valorization, and barriers to funding and employment. And there are barriers to the ability to allocate time to practise poetry. Who has the luxury of time to create in any art form, and how is this opportunity shaped by the above list of barriers coupled with an economic system that reinforces privilege for some at the expense of many? Canonization certainly reflects racist, sexist, and colonial preferences. Canonization is linked to publication, often linked to education, and so on. As with so many of the opportunities and benefits of social formation, the pleasures of poetry are similarly subject to these kinds of profound limitation.

That said, there is extraordinary work being done to undo these legacies. The work was always being produced, and the barriers to recognition and acceptance are being challenged, as any shortlist for poetry prizes in Canada these days will suggest. Diversity in voices is increasingly a central and essential part of creative writing pedagogy in Canadian creative writing departments. The conversations about colonialism and systemic forms of racism and sexism that have gathered force through social media in the past few years (Black Lives Matters, MeToo, Idle No More, Etc.) are forcing establishment representatives to confront limitations in their authority. Too slowly, not enough. But the landscape of poetry in Canada grows more complex, more interesting and more accomplished the more these barriers are broken down.

The irony of my white, male, cis-gendered-ness as the author of this piece is not lost on me. My contribution here is in the spirit allyship. I love poetry and its ability to share some of the resources we need to exceed the conditions of our own possibilities—that is, the conditions of discourse that demand that we step into subjectivities that serve other interests.

Poetry also offers one of the most accessible opportunities to engage in art and in this particular form of self-making. Few art forms require so few resources to engage. Language. We may have a narrow place for poetry at the banquet of popular culture, but few art forms are so widely practised—as curious and delighted children, as angst-ridden teenagers, as passionate young adults, and for some us, much longer. So in this sense, poetry is inherently ready, willing and able to challenge barriers, kind of like a rock on a sidewalk before a plate glass window. You can throw the rock in either direction, but there the opportunity lies.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

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How does writing poetry influence your role as an Associate Professor at Athabasca University?

I teach in communication studies. I suspect my poetry affords me a care for language—and, perhaps, an interest in creative forms of expression, an interest in aesthetics. Much of my earlier research—my doctorate and post-doctorate work—was focused on developing what I call aesthetic discourse analysis, a more concrete way of understanding the inextricable role aesthetic experience plays in the production of discursive legitimacy. This work continues to inform ongoing research. But coming at it from the other direction, because I have been writing poetry for most of my life, who I am and this work are themselves inextricable. My work as an educator, as a scholar, as a colleague are shaped in part by how I have assembled a sensibility from poetic efforts, by searching for meanings that lie outside of the ways we typically learn are the “right” ways to make meaning, that inhabit the unstable spaces of the aesthetic—of affect and senses of belonging and anticipations. Of awe. Uncertainty. Grief. Rage. Outrage. Curiosity. Wonder. I bring a comfort and familiarity with these spaces of meaning-making to my teaching and hope that similarly unregulated responses to learning from students in our classrooms can find safe and pedagogically insightful landings.

Dr. Michael Lithgow

In the spirit of World Poetry Day, here is one of the poems from Michael's upcoming collection


I watch the movement of my daughter’s fingers
opening and closing in darkness like sea anemone,

her small body asleep in my arms. I am a cradle
in a windstorm. Outside, the savage air moans

against the window like something angry and lost.
I am first among giants to carry this little piece of sun

into the night – we have each of us become
mythological; she is a colossus shattering days;

my hands are bigger than her chest. She senses
my restlessness, my own unsettled airs pitching

against the walls, mixing with her breath and soughs.
I try to tease the sounds apart, a strange mix of moths

and noises in the wind: a muted crash some distance
away; the sighs and grunts of a child’s body staying

alive. Wars waged in family photos hanging
in the hallway. The shuffle of straw men

everywhere jostling to reign in the future.
An uncertain centre swaying in the lullabies of a storm –


Michael’s poetry and essays have appeared in various journals including the Literary Review of Canada (LRC), The t/E/m/z Review, Cultural Trends, Canadian Literature, Existere, Topia, Event, The Antigonish Review, Poemeloeon, The High Window, ARC, Contemporary Verse 2, TNQ and Fiddlehead. His first collection of poetry, Waking in the Tree House (Cormorant Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Quebec Writers Federation First Book Award. Work from this collection was included in the 2012 Best of Canadian Poetry (Tightrope Books). Michael’s second collection, Who We Thought We Were As We Fell (Cormorant Books, 2021), will be published in the spring of 2021. He currently lives in Edmonton, AB and teaches at Athabasca University

  • March 20, 2021
Tagged In:
poetry, World Poetry Day,
Guest Blog from:
Dr. Michael Lithgow