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National Poetry Month

Poetry Month Q&A: Steven Ross Smith

As this year's CBC Poetry Prize includes a coveted residency at the Banff Centre, we thought a check-in in with the Director of Literary Programs would be in order. Here, Steven Ross Smith's thoughts the state of publishing today, the Canadian poets who inspire him, and the power of "writing into uncertainty."

What does your job entail as Director of Literary Programs?
I oversee 10 writing residency programs, 3 short literary conferences, and Banff Centre Press. Our writing programs include: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, literary translation, spoken word, and new writing practices including digital literature, collaborative work, performance, and cross-genre and multi-media work. The Press publishes books and e-books—literary anthologies, curatorial study books, art books and books on writing craft. It also publishes the on-line magazine of Arts & Ideas, Boulderpavement.

What do you look for when putting together your poetry faculty? 
 We look for a range of poetics and aesthetics, publication record, mentoring experience, personality.

Can someone learn to become a poet? 
I think so, but there has to be an inclination, a calling, a spark of interest. Then that impetus can be developed through writing, reading, writing, listening, writing, hanging out with poets, writing, reading.

What is it about poetry that compels you as a writer?
It’s the challenge of finding new modes of poetic composition with language as the primary material, to push myself outside my comfort zone, into the unforeseen, to give up intention, to forsake my control over language..

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from other poets, and from continuing to write into uncertainty.

Who are some of your favourite Canadian poets working today? 
Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt, Gerry Shikatani, Jennifer Still, Sylvia Legris, Tim Lilburn, Hilary Clark, Nicole Brossard.

What are you reading right now?
A Kindness Colder than the Elements, Charles Noble (poetry); Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, Alastair Brotchie (biography); Why I Love Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet (Essays, Talks)

What are the biggest challenges that poets in Canada face today?   
To write beyond received conventions, to write innovative, challenging work, to electrify the work, to write with a sharp ear.

Given the changes we are currently seeing in technology and the publishing industry, do you think any of it will have an affect how people consume, or interact with, poetry? 
The poetry field is very charged right now in particular forms—rap, slam, spoken word, dub, digital—and even in print. Publication is happening on YouTube, websites, live readings, festivals, in self-published books, small press books. There are more forms of poetry and more forms of publication than ever, and more events than ever. The means are in the poet’s hands if they wish to take them. I think there are more creators and creations than there are poetry consumers, but I think the reader/listener/viewer quotient will continue to grow. 

What's your most essential writing tip to give to aspiring poets? 
The old adage: Write. Write as regularly as possible—every day if you can, if even for just 30-60 minutes a day. Read, read, read, other poets and poetry criticism and aesthetics. Go to readings. Look for poetry that truly speaks to you. Be open to difficult work. Learn everything you can about your craft, your art. With your social media turned off.

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