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Poetry Prize

The Shortlist: Q&A with Marion Quednau

There are five names on the shortlist for this year’s CBC Poetry Prize. But before we announce the winner, we want to let you know a little about the poets whose creations rose to the top. 

Marion Quednau's poem, “Yesterday, I looked inside," is shortlisted for the 2011-2012 CBC Poetry Prize. We talk to the poet and novelist about courage, guidance counsellors and the bear-plum tree connection.

Marion Quednau.jpg
1. Tell us about yourself
Until recently I lived at the base of mountains and among forests, amid the busyness of the natural world, everything stirring and just out of sight. Or so it often seemed; myself on the margins of a previous existence. The last thing I'd do before going out was throw feed to my horses; I was known to have a delicate wisp of hay somewhere on my person at public functions. Since selling my farm I've been looking for "replacement joys" for my watching of horses afield and bears straddling the plum tree.
In addition to my writing, I edit and try to find creative contract work. This past spring I facilitated a multimedia art show on loan at The Reach Gallery in Abbotsford, BC, called "Bearing Witness." Drop-in artists of all sorts—school kids, dropped-out-of-school youth, and adults of all stripes made "postcards" as a response to the exhibit. They were encouraged to use things they'd witnessed in their own lives that were difficult to react to morally or courageously. It reminded me how brave artists have to be to create new response. The poet Mark Doty once said:" Courage is not something that you just get once and then you keep it. It's something that you lose every single day, and you find some more if you're lucky."
2. What do you usually write?
I move around a lot in my writing, from fiction (I'm finishing a novel, and starting another), to stories for young readers, and for respite or renewal, I turn to poetry. There's typically an implicit sense of "story" in my longer poems, or sometimes an anecdotal voice. Poetry is good honing practise for any writing, for making "music"—a quality I want to retain in prose, because a story with a clear, strong sound is more compelling, like a memorable melody, leading you on....
3. Have you submitted to the competition before?
Yes, I've entered the poetry competition at CBC a couple of times; got long-listed once.
4. What themes did you choose to explore in your poetry entry?
I think our themes often choose us. "Yesterday, I looked inside" is based on an experience years ago. The event made me wonder why we stop and help some, and not others—what kind of bystanding or taking part we perform on a daily basis. Whether we are more poised to be empathetic if we've had some trying scrapes ourselves. The writer Alexander McCall Smith once said that "injustice he'd witnessed as a child" had fuelled his writing. I wonder if that isn't true for most writers getting an "engine" for their seemingly opaque craft.
5. What inspired you to write these poems?
I was moved to writing this poem by witnessing the man's aloneness, fragility, mortality. And wondering about my own courage. As writers, we frequently ask ourselves "did we do enough?" in evoking a scene to engage others. And as humans, bound to fail at something extraordinary before we even contemplate writing about it, we consider (mostly in splendid hindsight) whether some greater sensitivity or commitment was required.
6. How long did you work on the poem? How many drafts did you write?
The poem was rewritten and then put away to gestate over a number of years. Mostly I edit over a sustained period because the poem has a good core, but needs reworking in language, in capturing the sensation or essence. In this case I was also reconsidering the actual event—my first reactions over time. Whether I'd repeat the same gestures—foolish or brave—given similar circumstances; those are perhaps our "truest" moments.  
7. Aside from poetry, you also write books for young readers. Are there any similarities in writing for both genres?
All genres in writing are some form of persuasion. We want something, want to be believed, need an audience. A writer's greatest ongoing challenge is to convince the not easily persuaded reader or listener.  
The similarities in writing for children and writing verse might be a vividness in sensory detail. Almost all youth write closet poetry, and appreciate good song lyrics that strike emotional chords. So if you consider what something "feels like"—rejection, loyalty, loneliness, or swallowing down grape juice—then you're going to stir a young reader.
8. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was getting into a lot of trouble at school for being a smart-mouth, so was sent to the guidance counsellor to see what form my "settled down" older life might take. First he showed me pamphlets of nicely coiffed nurses, teachers and stewardesses. I blurted out indignantly that I wanted to become a writer, where perms and neatly pressed A-line skirts wouldn't count. The counsellor then more boldly challenged me to phone a real writer—maybe Morley Callaghan could give me the straight goods. Well, Morley did give me some good advice; to read all the great literature and then forget to imitate or be overly impressed, to just find my own voice and get rolling. 
My English teacher in high school also helped by steering me into a poetry competition. I was daunted by the fact that I had to appear onstage at York University, before those with more life experience, i.e. older and cooler, and by the fact that I was wearing a velvet miniskirt. But when I fell into that trance of reading, and started really listening to my own words, I found I actually enjoyed the experience. I knew I could and should do it again in the future (maybe not the miniskirt!) and by the rapt silence at the end (terrifying, before it was followed by applause) I could tell I had moved the audience by putting it out there, all the raw stuff, and that felt good. 
9. What other poets inspire you?
Two poets who have inspired me, both in their work and in their mentoring when I took workshops with them, are Tim Lilburn and Galway Kinnel. Both gave remarkably similar advice; that I should take emotional risks and run with them, find the organic language and length of line to suit my voice. I also admire the poetry of Ruth Stone, and the work of Matthew Zapruder blew me away at the Vancouver Writers' Festival last year. On hearing him I felt the kind of "despair" a student of mine, all of seventeen at the time, once described in realizing she'd never be able to read all the great books in the world. I respect Rilke like the "good bones" all other poets discover sooner or later, and also the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, for her sense of irony and juxtaposition.      

10. How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize?              
It feels like being granted permission to keep on construing the world in glimpses, and make sense of the looking. But it also feels like a confused limelight; writers want to be better understood, yet want to keep privacies intact, as their best resources for this desired communication. I want ... I saw... Believe me. 

Marion Quednau's novel, The Butterfly Chair [Random House, 1987] won the Smithbooks-Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1988.  Her children's fiction, The Gift of Odin [Annick, 2007] was a Top Ten selection by the Ontario Libraries Assoc. and Children's Book Centre in 2008.  Marion's poetry, Kissing: Selected Chronicles won  The League of Canadian Poets' National Chapbook Award in 1999.  A long poem, Paradise, Later Years won the Malahat's Long Poem Prize in 2009, and a National Magazine Award: Gold, in 2010. Marion currently has several novels and a collection of verse on the go.  She has lived for many years in Mission, B.C. and is biding her time this autumn on the Sunshine Coast.

Photo credit: Kat Wahamaa

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