Since 1978, Arc Poetry magazine has been dazzling readers with boundary-pushing works by Canadian poets, always offering cunning new perspectives and approaches. At its core, the magazine was founded with the intent of extending an arc to encompass Canadian contributions, while by no means shutting the door on any writer because of their background, origins, political or aesthetic affiliations.
Starting in 2018, the magazine’s editorial board began talking about centering an issue around members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. “The last time that we had an issue that was focused on a queer, lesbian, or gay poet was in 1994,” says managing editor Chris Johnson. “At that time, a very prominent gay Canadian poet, John Barton, was the editor. I think the impetus for that was that 1994 was declared the year of the family by the United Nations, and he wanted to, you know, kind of push back about the notions of what family looked like in the ’90s.”
Keen to revisit the conversations explored in the 1994 issue and to recontextualize them for the current cultural climate, the editorial board braved pandemic-related delays and complications to produce this special issue. The team enlisted critically acclaimed poet and editor Ali Blythe and writer, activist, cultural critic, and university professor Trish Salah as guest editors.
“I’ve been a huge fan of both Trish and Ali’s work for a while,” says Johnson. “Having both of their artistic viewpoints and their academic and historical viewpoints really helped to round out the issue to be as strong as it is.” He was met with enthusiasm from both authors.
“I’ve had a few poems in Arc over the years. I’ve certainly been a fan of the journal, so it felt like an exciting opportunity to centre trans and gender non-conforming writers,” explains Salah. In an effort to avoid gatekeeping of any kind, Salah and Blythe put out a call for submissions that imposed no restrictions in terms of genre or theme. “We wanted to see what people were making. We also didn’t want to make assumptions about what we would find […] but we also reached out to writers that we were excited by. Voices that we hoped would be involved in the issue, because we were excited about their poetry, their analysis, the kind of work they’re doing.”
The result is an eclectic mix of poetic forms and perspectives, interspersed with the muted colours of author and illustrator Sybil Lamb’s audacious, playful, and occasionally jarring illustrations. Although they bear no direct relationship to the texts, the illustrations linger, their character dancing with the poets and their creations, sharing coy smiles and knowing looks. Their piercing glances are a reminder that the reader is a privileged guest in this space, a gawking witness to the poets’ most intimate relationships, their most painful experiences, and their most emancipatory expressions of being.
River Halen Guri’s “The Enemy” opens the special issue, recounting the daily microaggressions faced by its author with cunning acerbic humour tangled with moments of warmth and bitter sadness. CAConrad’s essay “(Soma)tic Poetry Crystal Grid Ritual & Resulting Poem” celebrates friendships and community, loss and longing, carefully describing a ritual undertaken to celebrate a dear departed friend. Through the devices of repetition and variation, Joe Kadi’s “Four-Letter Words” explores the challenges of migration and the violence of language, recounting the story of a grandmother arriving in Canada whose speech is immediately and violently corrected upon her arrival. Puerto Rican writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro’s “Take Up Arms” (translated by Lawrence Schimel) establishes itself as a clarion call to organize against colonization, marginalization, dehumanization, and injustice. Nehiyaw Two-Spirit poet Arielle Twist’s “Untitled Poems” reminisce about love and longing, violence, and heartache with chilling nostalgia. Heartbreaking, touching, biting, each poem stands on its own, speaking directly to the reader’s heart. Each, in its own way and on its own terms, offers the reader a pathway to experience the deep humanity of others.
“There are so many different poetic forms and projects represented in this issue of Arc,” explains Salah. “They don’t map onto one another and nor should they. They are each doing their own important, exciting thing. It’s an opportunity to let the poems work on you when you when you come to a collection like this, where the collecting is not about bringing together the same.”
Salah believes in poetry as a medium for exploring gender and sexuality, as the uncertainty and ambiguity that accompany the form create space to grapple with what is inexpressible. “Labels and names are important for organizing around and for recognizing ourselves and others, but they can also do a certain violence to the creativity with which we come to desire, to gender, to identity, to community, to language […] I think poetry does afford a certain space to question not only how things are but how things are represented.”
Both Johnson and Salah hope that the special issue will enable readers, even those less familiar with the poetic form, to engage with the stories that the poets are sharing. “I hope anyone unsure about poetry can open up the issue and read that poem and allow themselves the opportunity to feel things about the work that they’re engaging with,” says Johnson.
“Read the same poem three different ways. Read it slowly and quietly to yourself, read it out loud, read it fast. See what happens between those different readings. It’s there to be interacted with,” says Salah. “Let yourself be affected by the language without attempting to fully understand it.”
Arc poetry magazine’s latest issue Polymorphous per Verse was co-edited by Trish Salah and Ali Blythe. Readers can subscribe to Arc magazine or order back issues here.