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8 Canadian poets on how to make your poetry better

From fresh air and a balaclava to scissors and 1970s pop—eight Canadian poets share their surefire tips on crafting powerful poems.


"Find peers and ask them to edit your work. Feedback can only make you better and learning how to handle and incorporate criticism is crucial for writers in every genre. This sounds obvious, but it can be a difficult hurdle for prospective authors to overcome."

Jim Johnstone won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2008. He's published two books since winning the CBC Poetry Prize: Patternicity and Sunday, the locusts. Jim also runs Cactus Press, a micropress specializing in hand crafted, limited-edition chapbooks.

"Pay attention to the craft, to the small moments around you. Do not be sloppy. Treat each word carefully in your revisions. Fill yourself up with poetry and words. Send your work out. Some beginning poets are good enough, but they're really shy about sending their work to literary magazines, and that's what they're there for. In the long slog of a book, it helps on so many different levels to get a few poems published here and there. It makes you feel like you're on the right track."

Evelyn Lau is the city of Vancouver's third poet laureate. She published her first memoir, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid at the age of 18—the book went on to become a Canadian bestseller. She is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Living Under Plastic, which won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She is currently working on a sixth collection of poetry. 

Photo credit: John Patterson


"Just put the words in the right order; it’s that easy. Then get an editor who’s smarter than you. Then put on your favourite frockcoat and balaclava and wait by your postbox."

Jeramy Dodds is the winner of the 2006 Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award and the 2007 CBC Literary Award for poetry. His first collection of poems, Crabwise to the Hounds, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Gerald Lampert Award, and won the Trillium Book Award for poetry. He currently lives in Calgary, Alberta, where is the Canadian Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary.


"Take a pile of poems you’ve given up on and take scissors to them. Rearrange and discard lines, combine words and images from other poems. Try your best to forget your original intentions and impulses. Not only can you create new poems out of abandoned poems this way, but you can also discover interesting editing strategies that you can apply to other works."

Time Out London U.K. recently dubbed Priscila Uppal “Canada’s coolest poet.” Her international publications include Ontological Necessities (shortlisted for the $50,000 Griffin Poetry Prize), Traumatology, and Winter Sport: Poems (written as Canadian Athletes Now poet-in-residence for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games), the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern, and the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy. 

Photo credit: Daniel Ehrenworth

"My greatest tip is simple: to read and write. That’s where it all starts. You have to read—there’s a whole conversation already going on and if you want to be a part of it you have to listen so you can know what you want to and can contribute.

And then write. All the time. I write most days, certainly when I’m working on a project. You have to show up at the computer or paper. You can’t wait for inspiration; it doesn’t hit that often and you want to make sure you’re sitting there ready if it does finally show up."

Tanis Rideout won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2009. Her first novel, Above All Things, will be available in June 2012 from McClelland and Stewart. She has performed on CBC Radio, BookTelevision, ZeD and Citytv. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including A Room of One’s Own, Black Heart Magazine, grey borders, Spire, Pontiac Quarterly, Fireweed, echolocation, Witual and Chart, and has been short-listed for a number of prizes, including the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award.

"In writing, as in reading, it’s good to set out with a sense of adventure and an eye for detail. Poetry especially delights in capturing in its net those brief flashes of wit or love that might otherwise pass unseen, keeping them to glint like fireflies in a jar."

Roo Borson has published ten previous books of poems, most recently
Rain, road, an open boat. This book was preceded by the multi-award-winning Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida. She has also won awards for her essays. With Kim Maltman and Andy Patton, she is a member of the collaborative poetry group Pain Not Bread, whose first book, Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei, was published in 2000. She lives in Toronto.

Photo credit: Steve Schwartz


"Soak yourself in some obsession—rural West Africa (current and historical), pop music from the mid 1970s, ceremonial Taoism—and see how this bends your language and syntax and deepens your eye. Allow these bends and deepenings to share the leadership of your work. But let the preoccupations be true obsessions, not just research.This suggestion, yes, resembles Charles Olson's saturation method, but my plan has less of the will in it. Maybe your past will thrust such a focus on you; maybe you'll find it in a core eros; either way, you discern, then acquiesce."

Tim Lilburn's latest book of poetry is Assiniboia. Tim is the author of seven previous books of poetry, including To the River, Kill-site, and Orphic Politics. His work has received the Governor General's Award and the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award, among other prizes. Lilburn is also the author of two essay collections, Living in the World as if It Were Home and Going Home, and edited two other collections on poetics. He teaches at the University of Victoria.

Photo credit: Dallas V. Duobaitis


"Kerouac's advice is to 'write only what kicks you and keeps you overtime awake from sheer mad joy.' Mine is a bit more motherly: Get some fresh air. Run, swim, set your mind wandering. To write poetry you need to get the song in your head. Re-read the books that made you want to be a writer in the first place. Give yourself permission to write total hooey, but go through your old notes with generosity and you might find a line that opens the whole thing up. Don't be too hard on yourself, except at 5 a.m. when the choice is either to roll over and sleep or get up and write. And if something interests you, don't ask why or worry about whether it's worthy. Follow it."

Erin Knight is the critically acclaimed author of The Sweet Fuels, which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and longlisted for the ReLit Award in 2008. Erin Knight's new book of poetry, Chaser, will be available April 7. She lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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