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Poetry Prize

The Shortlist: Q&A with Stephanie Bolster

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. 

Stephanie Bolster's poem, “Long Exposure," is shortlisted for the 2011-2012 CBC Poetry Prize. We talk to this Quebec-based poet and creative writing teacher about dangling carrots, Judy Blume and finding beauty in the wreckage.

Stephanie Bolster.JPG
1. Tell us about yourself.
I live with my husband and two daughters in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, and teach creative writing in the Department of English at Concordia University. I grew up in Burnaby, B.C. and return to my first home as often as I can.

2. What do you usually write?
In terms of quantity and time commitment, I'd have to say e-mails and workshop critiques! But in terms of my creative work, poetry. I tend to work on longer projects (long poems, series, book-length manuscripts) rather than on individual poems, and often draw upon research, whether that consists of looking at others' photographs or paintings or travelling to zoos dating back to the nineteenth century. Often, too, I write essays, sometimes of the personal kind, sometimes of the critical kind.

3. Have you submitted to the competition before?
Yes, a number of times, although this is the first time I've made it this far. This competition, in its various incarnations, has always provided the motivation of a deadline, the constraint of a word-limit, and the possibility of that carrot at the end of a stick. Many of the writers I admire have been winners or finalists in the past. When a year goes by and I don't have a submission ready, I feel guilty. 

4. What themes did you choose to explore in your poetry entry?
I don't choose themes but feel chosen by them, and don't articulate them until after the fact—or if applying for a grant! Looking back on the entry now, from the perspective of midway through the longer manuscript from which it is drawn, I would say that it concerns itself with ruin and beauty, chaos and control, catastrophes of natural and of human origin, mortality, progress, detritus, the value of objects, self-representation, the nature and function of rooms, and the nature and boundaries of the self. Perhaps most crucially, it examines the act and responsibility of witnessing and of artistic transformation. Those are subjects, I realize, not themes, but I'm writing this as a poet, not an English teacher!

5. What inspired you to write this poem?
Since I first saw one of Robert Polidori's photographs of Chernobyl, I've been drawn to his images of post-disaster sites. I hesitated to write about his work—which also includes photos of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and photographs of New York apartments taken after their owners had passed away—for a number of years because it seemed too predictable a subject for me, given that I've written many poems inspired by photographs and many drawn from grim settings, such as zoo enclosures. However, while visiting an exhibition of Polidori's work at Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain in 2009, I realized that I needed to give in to the temptation his photographs posed for me, and that I needed to do so by interrogating this very temptation. What is it that inspires both Polidori and me to be drawn to such sad, unpeopled images of devastation? Who owns grief? What is beauty? What is art? There are many questions I'm asking, though I realize I'll never find satisfying answers.

6. How long did you work on the poem? How many drafts did you write?
As this poem is part of a longer project, I can honestly say that I've been working on it on and off for three years. I've lost track of the number of drafts. Many, many. And there will be many, many more, at least of the overall project.

7. You’re currently working on a book-length poem based on Robert Polidori’s photographs. Was this poem an excerpt of that larger work? If so, how difficult is it to choose such a small selection?
This poem represents one part of one thread of the overall manuscript, which remains very much in progress. Choosing such a small selection was extremely challenging—at first the word limit seemed an impossible obstacle—but ultimately instructive, as it forced me to separate some of the parts from the whole and to isolate and trace one of the many trajectories. It's difficult to hold the whole project in my head at once, so looking at a microcosm of it gives me a sense of what's going on on the larger level as well.

8. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I've been making up stories, verbally and in writing, for as long as I can remember. Certainly by the end of elementary school I'd already written in my Judy Blume diary that I wanted to be an author. (In the entry, I specified that I was already a writer; the next step was to make the leap to "author" by getting published.) Of course, at that time I wanted to be the next incarnation of Judy Blume. It wasn't until I was sixteen that I knew that I wanted to be a poet. 

9. What other poets inspire you?
Back then, Sylvia Plath was my greatest influence (little did I know that discovering oneself as a poet through Sylvia Plath was not unlike discovering oneself as a writer of YA novels through reading Judy Blume), and I've never entirely shaken her. Robert Hass is another big one; when I'm stuck, I turn to his work and feel opened and encouraged. The Japanese greats: Basho, Buson, Issa. Anne Carson. Cole Swenson. John Ashbery. Although W. G. Sebald wrote in prose, I consider him an honourary poet, and the writer whose works I would most like to have written. And my contemporaries and friends, too many to mention.

10. How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize?
It's very gratifying. Working on a long poem is a messy business, full of doubt. I'm encouraged to learn that at least this part of the project is of interest to these particular readers. This recognition is a gold star that will shine over me as I continue to wade through the muck and the questions of the larger manuscript. 

Stephanie Bolster’s most recent book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth (Brick Books, 2011), was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award. Her first book, White Stone: The Alice Poems, won the Governor General's Award and the Gerald Lampert Award in 1998. Her work has also received the Bronwen Wallace Award, the Archibald Lampman Award, The Malahat Review’s long poem prize, and other awards, and been translated into French, Spanish, and German. She edited The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008, as well as The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems by the Ottawa poet Diana Brebner, and co-edited Penned: Zoo Poems. Raised in Burnaby, B.C., she teaches creative writing at Concordia University and lives in Pointe-Claire, Québec. 

Photo credit: Thomas Bolster

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