April is National Poetry Month, an annual festival that was established in 1998 by the League of Canadian Poets to promote what can sometimes be a misunderstood and underappreciated art form.
Peterborough is privy to its own vibrant poetry community, and so to celebrate National Poetry Month, I visited with three local poets to learn more about their art. I decided to focus on young poets who are at the beginning of their career — all three are between the ages of 18 and 25.
Each year, National Poetry Month is given a different theme. This April, the theme is “Resilience,” which is a fitting nod to the challenging circumstances so many find themselves in due to the pandemic. As I got to know these three young poets, however, I realized that they’ve all been using poetry as a way to practise resilience for years. Each of them, in their own way, is using the power of poetry to heal and to transform struggle into something beautiful.
Laurin Isiekwena: “The divine thing about poetry is that anyone can relate to it in their own way.”
Laurin Isiekwena’s first memories of reading poetry are from when she was six years old and her family was living in Nigeria.
“In my English literature classes in Nigeria, we would have to read the classic poets, and I couldn’t understand what they were trying to say,” the 18-year-old now admits.
“But my teachers said it’s not what they were trying to say, but what comes to your mind and what you feel when you read the poem.”
That advice helped Isiekwena to connect with the art form. “With only a few lines you can tell a whole story that could take hours to explain,” Isiekwena says. “I don’t think people always understand the depth of that.”
Isiekwena’s family moved to North America in 2018, originally arriving in Atlanta, Georgia and seven months later settling in Scarborough, Ontario. These transitions were difficult, Isiekwena recalls, and she began to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks.
“When we came to North America, we were going from two different countries in less than a year, and it was a big culture shock for me,” she says. “The shock led to me having issues with anxiety, which led me to writing poetry. People told me that I should write. I remembered that poetry was a big part of my childhood, so I sat down one day and wrote some things.”
For Isiekwena, poetry became a way to process and communicate her struggles. “Poetry is the best way to express myself without worrying about anything else,” she says.
While Isiekwena’s own experiences inform her writing, her aim is to let readers “give their own meaning” to the poetry. “I want [readers] to see their own side of the poem. The divine thing about poetry is that anyone can pick up a poem and relate to it in their own way.”
Isiekwena is currently completing her first year as a sociology major at Trent University. In February, she won the Charlie Earle Memorial Microgrant, an annual award presented to a local Black artist who identifies as either a woman or non-binary.
Next up? Isiekwena hopes to produce a book. “I want to write a book that would include a quick reflection on what I was feeling before I wrote a poem, and a reflection of what I was doing afterwards,” she says.
Broken Hope by Laurin Isiekwena A soul as innocent as an angel Pain loud enough to make the world crumble Consumed by slavery Slavery!! What is such? Why shall it exist? Whips and chains on a daily like a much-needed drug A dreadful night Unforgettable night The wind howled And lightning danced across the sky A waste of human life Blood spilled like broken wine across the village Unknown weapons causing unforgettable harm How can that be? Why must it happen? What wrong was ever done? The uninvited come with chaos The chaos that ruins everyone Days of pain, weakness, and starvation Why must one live on? Everyone and everything is ever known gone And death becomes one’s worst enemy So many invitations given but none acknowledged Why so distant now? In this world of slavery Hope becomes one’s best and only friend Holding on to Hope with every bit of strength Eyes closed like the sight of reality is poison Freedom never seemed so far away yet close Death looking straight in one’s face but still it stands Hope, holding on like never before Freedom seemed so far away but stares now The end seems near An unexpected seed planted as a reminder The sun looking down with a smile And the joy felt is like COPPER SUN
Carlo José Quinones: “Write for yourself. The only audience is you.”
I first saw Carlo José Quinones perform their poetry during an event at the Theatre on King organized by the Peterborough Poetry Slam in late 2019. The event, featuring young poets performing their work to a packed audience, moved me with its honesty and transparency, and Quinones in particular made a big impression on me.
Originally from the Philippines, Quinones began writing poetry when they moved to Canada at the age of 17. He’s now 25.
Writing isn’t as prevalent in their home country as it is in North America, Quinones says. In the Philippines, “there is more of an oral tradition to storytelling … so I started writing when I came to Canada, trying to understand my migration. I think it helped me connect.”
“I speak three different languages,” Quinones says. “Poetry helps me understand my feelings in English … although I express them in my own native language when I speak them.”
“In school my teachers always recognized me for my spelling instead of what I was writing,” Quinones continues. “I guess that’s important when you’re writing [prose]. But I felt like the content was shrouded. I was always focusing on grammar instead of actually writing a draft. So, I found more sensibility in poetry because I can play with grammar and not be judged for it.”
“Mostly I write about my migration, motherhood, gender, sadness, homesickness. I write about my grandmother. I write about femininity a lot, and I write about masculinity. Sometimes I just write about hurt.”
Although Quinones has found a home within the local poet community via the Peterborough Poetry Slam Collective, they believe that the audience is only of secondary importance. “Write for yourself,” they say. “You can be the only audience. The only audience is you. Sometimes when you write it helps people to navigate their own words as well.”
queerness is ancestral by Carlo Jose Quinones the fact that i am a lot more of myself when i am at home solidifies the fact that i am masc and i am femme both separate and together in the household, firstly thus my cultural identity spiritual responsibility feeds my gender gender identity gender expression i am she i am he i am they i am siya which is important to understand that the ties i have with the home informs how i perform to the other #diasporablues #filipinx - who informs yours?
Cydney Cantello: “I wrote down everything I felt, when I felt it.”
Despite having worked on a novel for a number of years, Cydney Cantello’s first published book, Eden Burns, is a collection of poetry. A four-time winner of the Young Writer Award at the Lakefield Literary Festival, Cantello self-published Eden Burns in March 2021 after a period of intense and emotional creative output, she says. Cantell is 21.
“I’ve been working on a novel for a number of years, but at the end of 2020 I had gone through a breakup that spurred a lot of self-doubt and I wasn’t the version of myself that I had known myself to be,” Cantello explains. “I was grieving not only a relationship, but also the person I had known myself to be.”
“I found that I was best able to express my thoughts and feelings through poetry, although it wasn’t something I had done in the past. After this journey I had 400 poems. I wrote down everything I felt, when I felt it.”
Cantello felt compelled to sort through these 400 poems and put her words out into the world for others to read. “I felt there were a lot of things people could relate to,” she says of the poems. “I don’t think a lot of people talk about their emotions when they are going through similar things. They don’t talk about the highs and lows of it. So I thought that putting my work out there in such a vulnerable way would maybe normalize the experience for people.”
Cantello’s book follows a narrative: the first five chapters are based on the five stages of grief, and the sixth and final chapter is called “Rebirth.” That last section is her favourite, Cantello says: “It was nice to see that the poems near the end are very happy and accepting and allowed me to know where I stood in my life.”
Cantello is currently studying journalism at Carleton University, and she says there are more literary projects to come, although not necessarily in the poetry field.
For her next book, Cantello hopes to go beyond self-publishing and find a more traditional publisher. But self-publishing worked for her first book, and allowed Cantello to share not only her poetry, but also her own emotions and struggles, in a very intense and human way.
The Way I Used To by Cydney Cantello In any language, No matter how it varies, The saddest words Are always the same: Used to. I used to see him. I used to care about him. I used to love him. But they’re also the most freeing Because I am no longer bound By the words that follow them. I used to be a prisoner of what used to be. But I am no longer, I am free.
Sam Tweedle is a Peterborough-based freelance writer with over twenty years experience covering all aspects of the arts and pop culture. His passions are cats, vinyl records, local arts and connecting with people. For more of his work visit samtweedle.com.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the university that Cydney Cantello attends. The article has been updated.