National Poetry Month
CBC Poetry Prize winner Jim Johnstone on the merits of blind judging and the slush pile
We're checking in with former CBC Poetry Prize winners to see how their craft has developed since winning the prize. Here's 2008 second-prize winner Jim Johnstone on the power of blind judging.
What did winning the CBC Poetry Prize mean to you?
Primarily, the CBC Poetry Prize meant an opportunity to write. When I found out I’d won I was working on Patternicity and I was able to take some time off to complete the book before returning to my day job.
It also helped raise my profile. Blindly vetted contests are important because they recognize the quality of a poet’s work over their standing in the literary community, and I feel fortunate to have been selected as a winner. It’s certainly made publishing easier but, if anything, I’m publishing less and trying to write more these days.
Who are some of your favourite Canadian poets working today, and why?
Matt Rader, Ian Williams and Jason Guriel are all outstanding. I think Rader’s book A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno is highly underrated. If you look at his meter you’ll see there are moments where he travels 50 feet without taking a breath and then makes a sudden shift to clipped sentences. “Freedom” is a good example of this, where Rader varies line lengths to distort the passage of time.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Marc di Saverio—a lesser known but exceedingly talented writer whose work displays a formal mastery that’s uncommon in contemporary poetry. I’ve read few poets who can match the kinetic energy of his lines.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that poets in Canada face today?
Visibility is always a challenge in poetry, especially compared to other genres. Prize culture is a burden too—he idea that if a book fails to win a major award, it’s somehow less. Of course, the CBC Poetry Prize helped me market Patternicity, so I’ve taken advantage of this phenomenon. Still, it’s disturbing how dependent readers have become on awards to guide their reading choices. I try to counteract this by distributing poetry hand to hand—it shouldn’t take an award and all the inherent biases that come with it to market great work, and my work at Cactus Press is my attempt to bypass that expectation.
How do you work to cultivate an audience for your work? Do you take any particular steps to bring your poetry to the public?
This is a tough question because I don’t think I’ve been entirely successful in cultivating an audience for my work. Part of that is due to the fact that I’m apprehensive about self-promotion—I dislike social media platforms and although I use them, I do so sparingly.
In my experience, public readings seem to be the best way to sell books, and I find meeting readers face to face gratifying, so I perform as much as I can. But really, I think a commitment to poetry is preferable to public exposure—with the right words exposure will come.
What advice do you give your poets about getting their work out there?
Everyone travels a different path when it comes to publishing. I started publishing too early and seeing my work in print urged me to focus my craft and improve. I don’t regret publishing before I was ready, but I do wish I could destroy the evidence of my early attempts.
I’d advise poets to start small—I learned more from publishing my first chapbook than anything I’ve published since. I’ll always be grateful to Dani Couture for producing that book and for challenging me to see my poems in a way I hadn’t previously considered. She pushed me to become a more dynamic writer.
As Cactus Press, I often solicit manuscripts. So it’s possible that someone will come to you when you’re ready—although some of the best chapbooks I’ve published have come from the slush pile.
Jim Johnstone is the author of four books of poetry: The Velocity of Escape (2008), Patternicity (2010), Sunday, the locusts (2011) and Dog Ear (2014). He is the recipient of a CBC Literary Prize, The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, and Matrix Magazine’s LitPop Award. Currently he’s the Poetry Editor at Palimpsest Press, and an Associate Editor at Representative Poetry Online. He lives in Toronto.