Short Story Prize: Readers
Meet the readers: Bruce Taylor
We're introducing you to the 10 talented Canadian poets who helped narrow down more than 2,300 entries for the 2011-2012 CBC Poetry Prize to create the longlist.
Up next, the Science and Technology Museum's Poet Laureate Bruce Taylor on his tips for writing poetry, writing in general, and what to do when your eyes wander from the page.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live near the village of Wakefield, in the Gatineau hills, twenty minutes north of Ottawa, with my wife and three children. I am a poet.
What's your day job?
I renovate our big, confusing old house, prepare meals, and drive the kids around. Which is to say, I am a housewife. Sometimes, I take on odd jobs, such as building custom furniture, or extremely odd jobs, such as being the Poet Laureate at the Science and Technology Museum.
What's your literary street cred?
Irving Layton kissed my firstborn child.
Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Poetry Competition?
I listen to the CBC, so whenever our national broadcaster asks for help with some little thing I always say 'yes'. But I'm a compulsive reader, so if you had simply left this foot-high stack of poems in a basket at my door I would have read them anyway.
What do you like most about poetry?
This short question needs a very long answer. The most I can say in a few sentences is that I am very disloyal to "poetry," and the fact that a certain thing happens to be a poem does not make me love it more than the things that aren't poems.
Where did you read the entries?
I sat in a red leather couch, with the Gatineau river over my left shoulder. Whenever my attention started to wander, I put the poems aside and worked at translating passages from an old German book I'd bought (Wimpertiere oder Ciliata by Alfred Kahl).
When you’re reading hundreds of poems and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
I am looking for something that startles me into becoming more than myself, for a moment or two. A good poem leaves the reader larger (a good critic, I should add, leaves the poem larger).
Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
The poem entry "Question and Answer" asks odd questions and gives oddly confident, unsettling answers, to them. The answers lead to new questions. It takes a lot of risks. The surrealism, the Zen-Masterish riddling, and the solemn mythologizing, could turn ridiculous very quickly. Instead, I found it teasingly strange, and sometimes thrilling. The poem steps off a cliff, but doesn't fall.
"A String of Sonnets" is an anachronism, but skillfully made. It brings nothing to the sonnet form that hasn't been there for hundreds of years; but it is quite fluently written and technically adept.
"Barachois" is a meditation on the shifting sandbar that separates the calm, wakeful mind from an oceanic expanse of anxious reverie, fear, metaphoric drift. Small, sudden panics destabilize the poet's little world—a "thud under the window," a crow dashing across the lawn with it's wings spread "like a trench coat unbuttoned"—but these moments often resolve in persuasive or amusing images.
Having read all these poems, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for aspiring poets?
My suggestions would be the kind that can be found in any guide to writing.
Remove (or, at least, subvert) stock phrases: "time and time again," "leaps and bounds," "thick as thieves." Less easy to spot are what Martin Amis calls "clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart." Unfortunately, avoiding those can tempt a poet into lazy absurdism and obscurity; or, at the other extreme, inoffensive blandness.
The subject matter can't carry the poem. It is not wrong to retell a tragic or violent incident, but it will not necessarily result in a powerful poem. It is good to be wise in poetry, as it is in life, but a worthy message won't make up for faults of expression.
Don't print your document with novelty fonts or decorative borders.
Enough with the parenthesis-puns, already.
Read more than is good for you. Read poets you hate, and try to figure out why some readers love them.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
I enjoyed spending time with the sort of impractical people who write poems. Not everyone does that, and I found myself feeling fond of those who do.
Bruce Taylor has published four books of poetry, and has won the A.M. Klein award twice. His most recent collection is No End in Strangeness (Cormorant, 2011). He lives in Wakefield, Quebec.