CBC Poetry Prize
The elegance and power of poetry
There are five names on the shortlist for this year's CBC Poetry Prize. Before we announce the winner, we want to introduce you to the finalists and their poetry.
Pamela Porter talks about being transported to a different time, writing toward the word "unspeakable," and how we turn to poetry in times of great tragedy or celebration.
Tell us about yourself.
I live on the tip of the Saanich peninsula, north of Sidney on Vancouver Island, in a kind of cocoon surrounded by fir trees, where we have to look straight up to see what the weather is on a given day. Hawks, owls and a pair of buck deer also live here and the bucks often venture out into the open to graze beside our horses. Besides my adult poetry, I’ve written several books in the children’s/young adult genre, though they, too, were written as long poems.
What are you currently working on?
At present, I’m writing poems that use a longer line than I’ve employed in the past. “Borealis” is one of these poems. I find it so interesting how the length of a single line shapes and influences everything else in the poem. Also, I’ve been thinking of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, in whose work the appearance of perfect clarity is set against a mysterious, ambiguous quality which creates tension and is exactly what I’m trying for in these poems.
What inspired you to write this poem?
Well, you know how you can be doing some ordinary task, like scrubbing carrots at the sink, and suddenly feel like you’re in a wholly different moment of your life, say, twenty years earlier—different landscape, different house. This kind of thing happens to me a lot, and one day I felt taken back to the era when the kids were very small and I was often alone with them on our ranch on the windy side of the Rockies, when our infant daughter fell ill as a blizzard was blowing in. At the time I had that memory, I’d been reading a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly that ended with the line, “Something completely understood. But unspeakable.” And I wondered how she managed to use such a loaded word as ‘unspeakable’ so seamlessly, and if I could do it too. So I held onto that memory and wrote toward the word ‘unspeakable.’
How long did you work on the poem? How many drafts did you write?
I worked on the poem for a couple of months. After I had a draft on the computer, I’d put the poem up on my screen every day, changing things until I was satisfied. One day I’d think I was finished with the poem, and the next day I’d reread the poem and find another problem to solve. The process continued for weeks.
What do you like most about poetry?
I love the way poetry is the pure distillation of seeing, perceiving, and one’s lived experience. Despite the prevailing notion that most North Americans won’t read poetry because it’s considered to be overly demanding of one’s time and attention, whenever we are visited by great tragedy or a momentous celebratory event, inevitably someone will come forward to read a poem. I once attended a funeral in which there was no music at all, but among the half-dozen people who stepped up to speak, four had brought a poem to read. It’s the one thing that will suffice when we’re standing on the precipice looking at what’s happened to us and wondering what on earth there is to say.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Oh, I was very young. I loved hearing the rhythms and rhymes of poems read aloud before my bedtime, and I remember how my mother used to check out a long-play record from the public library of Robert Frost reading his poems. She played it so often I had most of the poems memorized and would recite them to myself as I walked to school. Somewhere in those early years was the seed of this passion for poetry—that I wanted not only the elegance and power of the poems of others around me, I wanted to learn how to make them myself.
What other poets inspire you?
Canadian poets Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane certainly; American poets Li-Young Lee and Deborah Digges; the Brazillian poet Adelia Prado; the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu, and many others. It’s been decades since I drifted off to sleep hearing the lilting rhymes of children’s poems, but now when I read I still pay special attention to the poet’s use of cadence; if it’s one that catches my ear, I’m off and writing.
Pamela Porter’s third poetry collection, Cathedral, was shortlisted for the 2011 Pat Lowther Award, and her fourth collection, No Ordinary Place, was shortlisted for the 2013 Raymond Souster Award. Her poems have won the Malahat Review 50th Anniversary Poetry Prize, the Prism International Grand Prize in Poetry, and most recently, the inaugural Gwendolyn MacEwan Best Poem Prize. Her novel in verse, The Crazy Man, won the 2005 Governor General’s Award for children’s literature. Pamela lives near Sidney, BC, with her family and a menagerie of rescued horses, dogs, and cats, including a formerly wild mustang.