The Canine Library: a dog poem blog

I was pawsitively thrilled to volunteer at the VPL and Vancouver Park’s Board second ever Canine Library event on Saturday, September 17 at Trout Lake Park! Kids, families and dog-lovers queued up early to sign up for a 15 minute spot to read to one of the thirteen therapy dogs from St. John’s Ambulance with their handlers.

VPL’s Candie Tanaka organized and coordinated the event, which was last held in 2019 before the pandemic. There was a children’s tent with colouring sheets and crayons, Mad Libs, stickers, magnets and more with the VPL’s amazing children’s librarians on hand to assist. Right next to them, the VPL’s Jonna Milledge and I were there to greet potential poets of all ages with dog poetry worksheets and magnetic poetry sets. I’d chosen some dog poetry books that were displayed on a table for people to pick up and peruse. Some of these actually disappeared for long periods of time before being returned–a good sign they were being read and enjoyed!

Wonderful published dog poems by well-known poets such as Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Mark Strand and others were hung around the tent for inspiration. (See the list below for a sample.) Some folks were even taking photos of their favourite poems! One of my favourites is a haiku by Basho:

Like a saint

dog stepped on by

cat in heat

I witnessed moments of authentic connection during the event. One young woman was moved to tears while writing a lyrical poem of loss about a beloved dog in her life. Another woman picked up Mary Oliver’s book, Dog Songs on display at our table, and sat nearby for half an hour to savour the poems. One fellow stood by the table with a magnetic poetry set for over forty minutes while creating an original poem. A few people wrote poems that they read aloud to me, in preparation for their dog appointments. I took a short break to walk around the 13 dog tents to witness all the human-dog love and affection being given and received.

Here is a handout with a selected list of dog-themed poetry books for kids and adult that was available at the event. Over 70 books were distributed among the therapy dog tents, compiled from a list curated by local poet, Alex Leslie for the 2019 Canine Library, along with books curated by the VPL’s Children’s librarians, augmented by some dog poetry books suggested by me.

Here are some of the terrific dog poems (thanks so much from helpful suggestions from Aislinn Hunter, Billeh Nickerson, Anne Simpson and Alex Leslie) that we displayed around the Dog Poetry Tent that you can also find online here:

And here are a few more book titles for those who are keen to read more dog poems:

  • Bark in the Park! Poems for Dog Lovers by Avery Corman
  • Name That Dog! Puppy Poems from A to Z by Peggy Archer
  • A Dazzling Display of Dogs: Concrete Poems by Betsy Franco
  • I Could Chew on This and Other Poems by Dogs by Francesco Marciuliano
  • Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs by Amy Hempel & Jim Shephard

Besides digging around for good dog poems, I prepared for the Canine Library event by reading Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Dog” to my next door neighbours’ little dog, Hunter (who clearly was blissed out by belly rubs), as well as reading Ted Hughes’ “Roger the Dog” and Eleanor Farjeon’s “Bliss” to Theo, a big friendly dog who recently joined my friend Analee’s household.

I laughed out loud at the hilarious, irreverent short poems written from various dogs’ perspectives in Francesco Marciuliano’s pithy little book, I Could Chew on This and Other Poems by Dogs. But as I plunged further into the realm of dog poetry, I was transfixed by Andre Alexis’ award-winning novel, the apologue Fifteen Dogs, winner of both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize, which I read cover to cover on an airplane trip. The gods Hermes and Apollo make a bet over what will happen if a group of dogs at a Toronto veterinary clinic are granted human consciousness and language. The point of view of each of the dogs is explored as they struggle with their newfound abilities. Somehow Alexis manages to channel the voice and perspective of a dog in an utterly convincing way. Of particular note are the poems ostensibly authored by the dog, Prince, which are judicially sprinkled through the novel, that were inspired by Canadian poets and the Oulipo movement in France. I’ll be thinking about that book for a long time.