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National Poetry Month

CBC Poetry Prize winner Tanis Rideout on how technology could save poetry

We're checking in with former CBC Poetry Prize winners to see how their craft has developed since winning the prize. Here's 2009 winner Tanis Rideout on making poetry into an art object, the power of questions and why technology could help, not hinder, the pursuit of poetry.  

What did winning the CBC Poetry Prize mean to you? 
The CBC Poetry Prize allowed me to continue talking publicly about Lake Ontario and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper—on the CBC and in The Toronto Star for example—and so helped to bring some attention to the ongoing environmental issues on the lake. And the poems were accepted to be published in book form next year—I’ve no doubt that the CBC Poetry Prize helped with that.

The poems you won with in 2009, "Arguments with the Lake," were loosely based on the lives of Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell. They were part of your MFA thesis at Guelph-Humber. Do you have any future plans for them?
The immediate plans are to go back to editing them so they’ll be ready to go out next year! It’s been some time since I’ve worked in poetry and after spending so much time editing something the scope of a novel I’m really looking forward to the specificity, the detail work that will come in heading back in to poetry. The poems that won were a rather small snippet of a larger story of Marilyn and Shirley and the Lake. I’m looking forward to diving (if you’ll forgive the pun) back in to them.

What is it about poetry that compels you as a writer?
There are certain ideas, images, conceits that draw me as a poet as opposed to a fiction writer. There’s a movement in poetry, a brevity of breath that is hard to accomplish, for me at any rate, in fiction. I love the ability to work poetry down to the barest bones—to focus on every space, word, syllable. It’s fine work. Lace making. Which seems very compelling to me right now after the more broadcloth work of a novel.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I think I draw inspiration from questions. That’s where I tend to start on a project—on a why, or a how. Both with Above All Things and Arguments it was a question of obsession and commitment that I was interested in worrying at and how these obsessions shaped not just the characters, but the stories that people told about them. I was interested in exploring the idea of mythologizing both people and spaces, geographies. Inspiration, is to me, a slightly problematic word in talking about writing—certainly for me, inspiration doesn’t get me past more than a first glimpse. I need a thought, a question, an idea, I can dig my teeth in to and be prepared to gnaw at for the next few years.

Who are some of your favourite Canadian poets working today, and why?
Lists like this always make me nervous! I’m bound to leave out a zillion people that I really admire. So let’s assume that to begin with and I’ll put down a few names that spring to mind and why: 

  • Carolyn Smart—for voice. Her last work and upcoming one focuses on monologue, which I quite love—narrative poems driven by voice.
  • Lynn Crosbie—I love how fierce Lynn is on the page—I would love to be that fearless, that brave.
  • Dionne Brand—I love Dionne’s restraint?—I’m not quite sure that’s the way to put it, tension maybe. There is a real sense of pace in the work that’s always pushing against something. 
  • Jacob McArthur Mooney—I love how Jake works space, our physical space, connecting it with our imagined space, with our psychological space.
There are a ton more that could be named, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that poets in Canada face today? 
Certainly we’re luckier than a lot of other poets in other places—most of us are pretty free to write how and what we want, so we’ll accept that as a given and think about other difficulties. There is a small market for poetry—and while that can be seen as a difficulty, certainly compared to say fiction, or what have you—at the same time the audience is passionate and engaged, which I don’t think is always the case for other genres. 

I think too that poets (myself included) and poetry publishers need to find a way to embrace and use the new technology that’s arrived and continues to arrive. I think there are ways that poetry could flourish in the digital world.

Given the changes we have been seeing in technology and the publishing industry (e-books, mobile technology, etc.), do you think any of it will have an affect how people consume, or interact with, poetry? 
I think it’s possible that e-books etc. could be really great for poetry. It allows for much more texture on the page in some ways—shape and colour etc. But also, I think because a person can read a single poem on an e-reader or phone, they can dip in and out of it on websites, blogs, quarterlies and such; and in many ways I think that can be a less intimidating way to get engaged with poetry—sampling one poem—than perhaps looking at a whole collection, or collected works. 

How do you bring your poetry to the public? 
I’ve been really lucky to get to tour with some great musicians, dancers and other writers in support of environmental causes in Ontario resulting in some pretty sizeable audiences for my poetry that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And I published my first collection on my own, making all the books by hand from recycled materials, so that the book itself became an object that people liked as much as the poems. 

Tanis Rideout is a poet and writer living and working in Toronto. She has published two books of poetry: Delineation and Arguments with the Lake, and a novel, Above All Things. She has toured with Sarah Harmer and Gord Downie, reading her poetry and drawing attention to environmental issues concerning Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment. She won second place in the 2009 CBC Poetry Prize.


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