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CBC Poetry Prize

Approaching dyslexia with "ardent defiance"

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. 

The daughter of a "pool shark" and a "sensitive gambler," Robin Richardson talks about why she's in love with poetry, failing Grade 2, and overcoming dyslexia.

Tell us about yourself.  
Just returned to Toronto after traveling a bit, living off and on in New York, where I received my MFA in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. 

I grew up in Mississauga. My mother's a lawyer and pool shark who reads about a book a day; dad's a sensitive gambler with a great Cadillac. 

I received a BD in Design from OCAD, and have worked in books stores, restaurants, rep cinemas, and most recently at PEN America, where I interned/ spent a great deal of time swooning at the view of Broadway through their floor-to-ceiling windows. 

Currently I pay the bills making paninis at a lovely little bistro by the AGO, and spend whatever free time I have writing. Poetry is it for now, and has been for the past decade, though I'm considering dabbling in nonfiction, essays, and reviews if I can buy the time.  

What are you currently working on? 
My Second book of poems, Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis was just released with ECW Press, and I'm knee-deep in the third, (from which the shortlisted poems are taken), tentatively titled "Maybe Even Realer." It's a bit more personal than what I've previously written, more straightforward too, and rhymey. This is scary, but I think scary's good. 

What inspired you to write these poems?
"Sit How You Want Dear; No One's Looking" comes from how big, beautiful, and horrifying the world is. 

 "Earthquakes are my Favourite Way to Make an Island" is not so much about dating in New York, as it is about dating New York personified. 

"Always end up Trusting Cary Grant" is a movie poem. I have a lot of them. It's loosely based on Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest

How long did you work on the poem?
These poems, like most of my poems, started off as scraps: notes taken from the day-to-day, film, overheard conversations, etc, were formed initially in some three or four hour sittings, then tweaked and reworked for anywhere from three months to a year or more. 

What do you like most about poetry?
There's so much I could say here. I'm obsessively, ridiculously in love with poetry. I don't think I'd be okay if I couldn't work at it for any extended period of time. I get up every morning, put coffee on, and spend hours simultaneously solving language puzzles and exploring the yet-uncharted corners of my mind, or gut, or wherever this stuff comes from. I love how the process teaches me something I never knew about myself and others, how coming up with the right words, in the right order can feel orgasmic. It's also really difficult, (which, call me a masochist, but I like). It has me up nights fretting, fiddling with words, ideas, wondering if I'm headed in the right direction, doing things the right way, then realizing that there's no "right," and that this is just simply what I'm stuck doing, for better or worse, 'til death do us part, etc. 

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I officially dedicated myself to becoming a writer in grade two, after writing a pumpkin poem for Halloween that began something like "Pumpkin, pumpkin, burning bright..." It is, of course, a complete Blake rip-off, but writing it was one of the happiest processes I'd experienced up to that point. Something about sound and meaning coming together to transcend their individual limitations, reaching something new the way they do in poetry sort of blew my mind. It's the only art form that can be kept, in its entirety, by an infinite number of individuals. How astounding is that? 

The irony is that I actually failed grade two because I couldn't read or write. Over the course of the next year I was diagnosed with a severe form of dyslexia, which a specialist in London, Ontario claimed was so crippling I would likely never recover from it, and should not expect to make it as far as high school. I spent the next four years in a "special" school for children with learning disabilities, and by the time high school rolled around there was little trace of the difficulties dyslexia had caused. 

This story is a big part of my life, and career, and I want to take this opportunity, sappy as it is, to tell people, particularly young people, that discouragement, and negative diagnoses like these should be not only ignored, but approached with an ardent defiance. The brain is a marvelous, resilient thing, and no one should ever tell you what yours is or isn't capable of.   

What other poets inspire you? 
Love this question! Okay, here's a list of my favourites right now, in no rational order: 
Frederick Siedel, Galway Kinnell, Ralph Angel, Louise Glück, Tomas Tranströmer, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Timothy Donnelly, David McGimpsey, Karen Solie, Matthew Dickman, Matthea Harvey, Nate Klug, Michael Lista, Jim Harrison, Jack Gilbert, Kay Ryan, James Dickey, Suzanne Buffam, Anthony Madrid, and Bill Knott, whose complete works can be found online, or super cheap on Amazon. 

Oh, also, there are a few folks I came across in New York whose forthcoming debuts I'm pretty excited about: Danniel Schoonebeek, whose collection American Barricade will be out in 2014 with YesYes Books, and Bianca Stone, whose collection, Someone Else's Wedding Vows, will be out in 2014, with Octopus Books.  Start Googling them now if you haven't already. 

Pretty sure, after I send this interview off, I'll think of a dozen others I should have mentioned. Darn. 

Robin Richardson is the author of Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis (ECW Press, 2013) and Grunt of the Minotaur (Insomniac Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in many journals including Best Canadian Poetry 2013, Tin House, Arc, Fjords, Witness, The Berkeley Poetry Review, The Malahat Review, and The Cortland Review. She has been shortlisted for the ReLit award, and has won the John B. Santoianni Award (awarded by The Academy of American Poets) and the Joan t. Baldwin Award. She holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence, and currently divides her time between Toronto and New York.


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