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Short Story Prize: Readers

Meet the readers: Dave Margoshes

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 and create the longlist. 

Up next, the Saskatoon-based, Stephen Leacock Prize for Poetry winner chats with us about where a writer's paycheque really comes from. 

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I'm a poet and fiction writer living on a farm west of Saskatoon. My partner is a writer too. We spend long hours at our respective computers. All for fame, glory and riches.

What's your day job?
Just writing. Of course, "just" is a very elastic word. I do some freelance journalism, some editing, teach an occasional class or lead a workshop, serve on a jury like this one—a patchwork quilt kind of living, but all connected to writing. Like most writers I know in Canada, I make more money from opportunities created by "being a writer" than I do from my writing itself. Another one of life's little ironies.

What's your literary street cred?
I've published fifteen books—novels, short story collections, poetry collections. Won a few contests and prizes, been a writer-in-residence a few times, done a lot of teaching of writing, edited quite a few books. My most recent book, A Book of Great Worth, came out this spring. It's linked short stories about a character called "my father" who happens to be a lot like my father.

Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Poetry Competition?
I was asked—but didn't hesitate. Some years I enter the contest, but this year I had already decided not to—just didn't have anything I thought was good enough—so there was nothing to stop me being a reader. Over the years, I've made the long list several times—in poetry and short fiction. I read a lot of poetry, mostly in magazines, but when I get interested in a poet, I look for books. Being a reader for the poetry competition was an opportunity to read a lot of poetry in a "raw" state—in other words, before they've gone through the editing process implied by appearance in a magazine or book. And it's fun reading "blind," with no idea who wrote what. Of course, most of the poems were by people unknown to me—not professional poets—but some poems jumped out and I thought, 'oh, I bet that's by so-and-so.' Some poets do have distinctive styles.

What do you like most about poetry?
Now there's a loaded question, asking poet what he likes about poetry. What's not to like? It's short, sweet, salty, sour, bitter—all the flavours rolled up into one. But mostly it's the amazing elasticity of language that poetry employs. 

Where did you read the entries?
Mostly sitting in my reading chair in front of the fireplace (cold now, since it's summer), in my office, and in what we call the sunroom because it's mostly glass. Our cat Shmata was often in my lap, helping me with the adjudication. 

When you’re reading hundreds of poems and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
On my first pass through the stacks of poems, I'm looking for work that declares itself as of professional quality. Craftsmanship shows. Out of over 400 poems that I read, I set aside as "maybes" a long list of about 40. Then the hard work of narrowing down to a shortlist of 10 began. At that point, I’m reading “beyond craftsmanship,” looking for art.

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
One poem that sticks with me is "Flight log," a fictional account of the bombing of Hiroshima, told in the form of the bombardier's log. It's a gripping story, but the heightened use of language that marks it as poetry raises it to another dimension.

Another one I liked a lot, "Women's work," is comprised of two ekphrastic poems—poems about art, in this case two paintings. It's not just a matter of describing the paintings, which is difficult enough, but of getting into the head of the painter, allowing the reader to see the painting through the painter's eyes.

What is it about a poem that makes you put it in the YES pile?
First of all, it needs to display a level of craftsmanship that is competent or better, in terms of diction, syntax, imagery, metaphor, rhythm, musicality, line breaks—in short, the whole poet's tool box. That's just to get into the Maybe pile. To move on to "Yes," there has to be a freshness, originality, emotional punch - and surprise.

Having read all these poems, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for aspiring poets?
Writing poetry isn't easy—not for the faint of heart, as they say. Beginners should take some classes and workshops to learn the craft. But probably most important is to read poetry—good poetry—and learn as much as you can through osmosis. Read, read, read. Then, of course, write as much as you can—imitate poets you like, try different things. When you produce a first draft you like, remember that's just the starting point, not the finished poem. Make every word count. Strive for clarity. Write, rewrite, rewrite some more.

What did you enjoy most about the experience?
Reading such a wide variety of poetry. And as I said above, reading it "raw."

Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan writer whose stories and poems have appeared widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies. He’s published over a dozen books, including five collections of poetry - the most recent, Dimensions of an Orchard won the Anne Szumigalski Poetry Prize at the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Awards. His poetry has won a number of other awards, including the Stephen Leacock Prize for Poetry. A collection of linked short stories, A Book of Great Worth, was published earlier this year.

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