Professor named guest editor of Canadian poetry anthology

York English Professor Priscila Uppal is busily dog-earing one literary journal after another, scratching notes in margins, bending page corners. The smell of ink fills her Toronto home. She is a poet on a quest as the recently announced guest editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology, sifting through thousands of poems published in 2010 for the 50 best.

Uppal is the fourth guest editor in the anthology’s short history and joins poets Lorna Crozier –  editor of the 2010 anthology launched last week – A.F. Moritz from 2009 and Stephanie Bolster from 2008. The anthologies are published by Tightrope Books with series editor Molly Peacock, the author of six volumes of poetry, including The Second Blush (McClelland & Stewart, 2009). It is Canada’s answer to The Best American Poetry series of anthologies that have been around more than two decades.

Uppal will be looking for poems that stand out, show a facility with language, surprise, precision and clarity of vision. “I like to be given something that offers illumination or a unique experience through the poem,” she says. Something original and different, such as a reinvention of the tradition they’re writing in. “I want poems that are necessary, poems that people can say, this is an author I’m really interested in reading more of, not just another voice like the others,” says Uppal. They need to be vital with complexity of thought, challenging in ways that force her to “think or experience something in a new way…not just a pat delivery of emotion.”

Left: Priscila Uppal

It’s a humbling exploit. “I’ll have to sit and make a lot of difficult choices,” she says. There are some 60 print and online journals and magazines in Canada, some publishing weekly, others biannually. In addition to the 50 best poems, she needs to chose another 50 for the long list, which won’t be published, but will be mentioned.

Canada, says Uppal, “still probably has more variety of poetic styles, forms and traditions than other countries – fixed form, experimental and lyric to narrative and spoken word – from such vastly different philosophical, political, esthetic and personal perspectives. We haven’t had this dominating ethos of what it means to be Canadian, so people have been freer to write in a range of traditions.” Much of this comes from Canada’s rich multi-cultural heritage. Poems from a Middle Eastern tradition or a European one next to regionally located poetry, that’s the kind of diversity Uppal (BA Hons. ’97, PhD ’04) hopes The Best Canadian Poetry will reflect.

The anthology “gives people a bird’s eye view” of what Canadian poets have been working on, says Uppal. The series has proven quite popular in the US, where a separate launch is held each year. Tightrope Books is also hoping to introduce the 2011 anthology in the United Kingdom. That could tie in perfectly with Uppal’s gig as the Canadian Athletes Now Fund poet-in-residence for the upcoming 2011 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games in London.

Uppal has eight collections of poetry, including Winter Sport: Poems (Mansfield Press, 2010) and Ontological Necessities, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize. She is also the author of two novels, The Divine Economy of Salvation (2002) and To Whom It May Concern (2008). Recently, she edited the first-of-its-kind anthology The Exile Book of Canadian Sports Stories (2009).

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer