Monthly Archives: September 2018

BWS 12.09.18 report: “How to Read a Poem,” with Bardia Sinaee


Bardia Sinaee was born in Tehran, Iran, and lives in Toronto. His poems have appeared in magazines across Canada and in several editions of Best Canadian Poetry in English. He is the assistant editor at the Literary Review of Canada and an MFA student at Guelph-Humber.

At our last event, Bardia distributed copies of “The Throw,” a poem by David O’Meara from Noble Gas, Penny Black to audience members. He took us on a journey of what reading a poem means to him.


I should begin with a disclaimer: The best way to read a poem is simply to read it (and/or listen to it). The true subject of this piece is how to read into a poem. If you find that a poem really affects you, and you want to investigate how and why, consider this one starting point.

Poetry, perhaps paradoxically, is the product of both freedom and compression. You can say or do anything in a poem, and yet many of them can fit on a single page. It’s therefore fair to assume that every word, line break, and punctuation mark is deliberate. This is not to say that every authorial decision can be traced to a clear objective, but that in a good poem even the most playful and seemingly spontaneous lines have been subjected to a certain deliberation. One way to read a poem more closely is to look at various aspects of the poem and ask why they are the way they are, given that every other option in the world was available to the poet.

What, if anything, is the poem “about”? Does anything happen in it? Who is speaking and what is their relation to the world and to us?

Even the most abstract poems can’t help but situate themselves the universe, in the world of discourse and things. Examine the speaker’s voice, tone, and language. For example, the speaker might be parroting legalese or invoking a religious address. Are they addressing you the reader, themselves, or nobody in particular. Are they omniscient, intimate, scared, polemical? Are we inside a dream?

Once you’ve got a few observations about what, compare these to your impressions of the poem’s other discernible elements, such as its diction, images, or setting. Are colours present? Weather? How, if at all, do these relate to the mood and emotional register?

How does the poem sound when you read it out loud? Is its shape on the page narrow or expansive? Do these two aspects of the piece complement one another? How do they reflect the voice of the speaker or enact the thematic elements of the poem?

Poets pay attention to the materiality of their work. A poet might use short lines, clipped syntax, and subdued imagery to evoke quietude. She might use small stanzas with extra space between them to encourage careful, introspective reading. When used sparingly, rhyme and metre can propel the piece forward. Alternatively, dissonance, irregular syntax, and the piling on of stressed syllables could be deployed to slow the pace or to evoke frustration and discord.

Again, compare your observations about the poem’s materiality to its subject, tone, and imagery.

When its technical and thematic elements cohere, even the shortest poems can effectively conjure a rich and vivid world. Our favourite poems take us where we don’t want to leave. Reading a poem closely is one way of lingering there a little longer.


Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers! 


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BWS 12.09.18: Emily Sanford


Emily Sanford was born in Nova Scotia and holds an MA in Literature and Performance from Guelph. She is the winner of the 2016 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival Literary Award for Poetry, the 2018 Janice Colbert Award, and was listed in The 10 Best Poems of 2016, by Vancouver Poetry House. Her work appears in Canthius, Grain Magazine, Minola, Plenitude Magazine and the recently released Applebeard Editions anthology of flash fiction, Release Any Words Stuck Inside of You. Emily is the Creative Writing Program Administrator at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and co-hosts the Brockton Writers Series.

Starting Late and Listening to Wisdom

I feel like I’m late to the game. I have always worked in the arts, supporting others in their creative endeavours, but it’s only fairly recently that I started writing and submitting poetry of my own for public consumption. Having my first published poetry out in the world the year I turned forty means I don’t really suit most people’s idea of an “emerging” writer—I have a day job, a wife and kids. I’m on the cusp of needing reading glasses.

Still, it’s never too late to start, right? And as such, I still need all the encouragement that others who are just starting out need. But now I’m old enough to know that even though writing itself is a solitary act (well, more or less—as I’m writing this, my four-year old has his head on my shoulder, waiting patiently for me to explain how marbles, and bubble gum, and bandaids are made), it really works better when you don’t work in isolation. So one of the first tasks I’ve taken upon myself as an “emerging” writer is to pay attention, go to events, hop on social media to find out what’s up (and wow, there’s lots up), introduce myself to established writers whose work inspires me, and listen carefully to any advice they’re willing to give.

So, while I don’t consider myself established or successful enough to be doling out advice for others just yet, I thought it might be valuable to pass along some wisdom from some of the writers whose work I admire:

Elisabeth di Mariaffi – Schedule time to write, and then show up. She warned me to treat it like an important appointment with an industry professional, because it is. Taking yourself seriously by honouring your commitment to writing is really difficult when there are competing forces all battling for your time and attention, but if you want to be a writer, it’s a cold hard fact that you have to actually show up and, well, write. Her latest novel, Hysteria, came out earlier this year.

Farzana Doctor – Confront, acknowledge, and speak to your Fear. Farzana says, “A lot of people will tell you: Don’t listen to it! Just ignore it! but that’s the wrong approach.” She literally suggested saying, “Oh, hello, Fear. I see you there.” And then keep writing. You can even personify your Inner Critic, and tell your Fear about your writing—earlier this year, she asked the folks in the BWS audience to draw a picture of their Inner Critic. This was hilarious and eye-opening to me—and taught me a little bit about what I need to confront when self-doubt is squawking its loudest. If you haven’t read Farzana’s All Inclusive yet, do. You can pick it up in person at Glad Day.

Erin Wunker – Write to a timer and don’t read or edit it until the next day–15 solid minutes of just writing. I love the “no judgement” aspect of this advice—there are critics a-plenty out there, whom we can trust to do their jobs, I’m sure. Non-judgement is so helpful in my own limited practice—I write at lunch time, so shutting the computer and not self-editing in the moment helps with actually getting any writing done at all. Erin also wisely advises to read others and take notes—this can be understood as a simple “do your homework” kind of tip. I’m slowly narrowing my reading lists to reflect my own situatedness with this piece of advice, from “poets” to “Canadian poets” to “Canadian women poets” to “queer Canadian women poets” to “queer Canadian women poets over forty” and the more reading, writing, and work I do to honour those writers, the closer I am to appearing on those lists. Obviously, it’s essential to read widely too, and familiarize yourself with writers whose experiences differ from yours. And supporting (and citing!) other writers is good, supportive work. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is required reading, folks—it just is.

I’m building up a cache of kind words of encouragement for my dark moments, but “get to it, work through it, and just do it” seems to be a forceful and galvanizing mantra that fights off imposter syndrome just long enough to get some good work done. I value these tips like the golden trade secrets they are.

And in the spirit of sharing, I wish for you a stockpile of encouraging words to keep you writing, from all the writers who keep you reading.


Emily Sanford, visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 12, 2018 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Mehri Yalfani, Maia Caron, Clementine Morrigan, and guest speaker Bardia Sinaee who will present, “How to Read a Poem.”

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