CBC Poetry Prize
Poetry is the most intimate road between writer and reader
James Scoles is the winner of this year's CBC Poetry Prize. He talks to us about being inspired by "a dangerous combination of love and heartache," the travel poetry he's working on, and playing games with language.
Tell us about yourself.
I live in Winnipeg, where I try to write fiction, poems, and travel stories as much as possible. I also teach two creative writing courses at the University of Winnipeg, so I enjoy reading student writing and grading, and even do so in my spare time. I’ve taught and worked overseas a few times and I’ve traveled five of the world’s continents extensively. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a cabin I built on our old family homestead in southern Manitoba, and my part-time studio, vacation place, and dream home in BC’s Interior—The Trailer—also keeps me busy.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a ‘travel’ poetry collection that explores the idea of place not only as somewhere you go or live, but as something you carry with you. Other poems try to capture not just the idea of a stranger traveling through a strange land—whether that’s here, somewhere else, or even internal—but that strange land traveling through the stranger. I’m also working on two very different novels—one set in 1840s Ireland and the other in modern-day Japan—and a second collection of short stories, based on my travels. Another project is Overland, a memoir of my train journey from Hong Kong to Bulgaria. I’m also expecting proofs from Oberon Press, who will feature three of my short stories this fall in their Coming Attractions series, edited by Mark Anthony Jarman.
What inspired you to write "The Trailer?"
A dangerous combination of love and heartache, a truckload of loneliness, a backseat’s worth of lament, a bucketful each of mystery and romance, three cups of satire, a little alliteration, and a dash of good cheer. My students also inspired me by showing me how easy it was to try out new forms.
How long did you work on the poem?
From the moment of conception to submission I worked for over three months on "The Trailer," and I used the contest guidelines as my parameters: 600 words, no more, no less. The form found the poem quickly, as what began as one long narrative block quickly morphed into quatrains and three distinct pieces during the most important stage for me: reading aloud. I wrote at least a dozen drafts and used every inch of each page in revision, but everything began on a bar napkin with the phrase: the most unloved things make for the most lovable stories.
What do you like most about poetry?
I love language and play games with it all the time; ask any of the seven people I know. Words, syntax, punctuation, musicality, and the freedom of the poetic line are such beautiful tools. And poetry has always given my troubles a place to go, and quickly; it’s the most intimate road between writer and reader, and poems, being much closer conversations with the self and soul, open up that journey a lot quicker. Poetry is that comfy little place at the corner of Anywhere and Main, where the bartender’s nod reminds you that it won’t be too long, friend, before you figure things out.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Very young, and the fact that I am still doing it and loving it and not particularly successful at it is very, very satisfying. But I really have my family to blame: we had little in the way of television—just CBC English and French in black and white—and we loved books and reading and travel and storytelling and my older brother set the perfect example by writing poems and novels on old typewriters and traveling the world when I was growing up. I also had the good fortune of having some great high-school English teachers in Thompson, in northern Manitoba, who allowed me to explore and not fear; for one I wrote my first poems, and for the other I wrote my first short story.
What other poets inspire you?
A lot of Irish and French ones: Yeats, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Seamus Heaney, beat poets like Corso and Ginsberg, Lawrence Durrell, and certainly Al Purdy and Charles Bukowski. I love the work of Paul Muldoon, Larry Levis, Philip Larkin and Rodney Jones, but I get just as much poetry out of reading Anais Nin’s Diaries, listening to Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, or sitting just quietly in old town squares.
James Scoles has travelled, lived, and worked in over 90 countries, and his writing—fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction—has appeared in journals, magazines, and newspapers in Japan, the USA, Australia, Ireland, and Canada, and has been nominated for the Western and National Magazine Awards, The Journey Prize, and the Pushcart Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Winnipeg, and his current projects—Spit in the Ocean, a novel set in 1840s Ireland, and Border Stories, a collection of short fiction based on his world travels—are supported by the Winnipeg and Manitoba Arts Councils, and the Canada Council for the Arts.