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Poetry Prize

CBC Poetry Prize: Fearlessness, risk, and challenge

As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 CBC Poetry Prize, we're asking the readers for the competition what it's like to read hundreds of poems in search of the best. 

Here's Katherine Bitney on looking for a poem that unfolds with each reading. 

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Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Winnipeg, and I write poetry, essays, some version of what might come under the umbrella of life writing.  

What's your day job?  
I am retired, but still do some contract editing, teaching, mentoring, and jurying. 

What’s your literary street cred?  
I have worked as editor, mentor, creative writing instructor, arts juror and literary creative director for over 30 years. I also co-developed the concept and wrote the text for Cantus Borealis, a choral piece on the Boreal with composer Sid Robinovitch (premiered April, 2011).

What are you currently working on?      
I am currently working on a collection of writings on the body, which will or might include poems, short statements, essays, diary entries, recounting of dreams. 

When you're reading hundreds of poems and trying to choose the most compelling, what do you look for? 
I look always for what calls me into it, my attention and focus, what keeps me reading it: fresh language, the opening of an insight, energy, good rhythm, imagination, risk. I look for a poem that unfolds with each reading. And I look for crafting that does not draw attention to itself, that is organic to and with the content of the poem. 
Don't forget, the CBC Short Story Prize is now open for submissions!

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as stand-outs. 
"Einstein’s Beach" still resonates.  Why did it stand out?  The poet’s fearless pursuit of the inside of the energy and movement of sands as he contemplates a beach through Einstein’s brain, his love of music, his practice of violin. The poet is not afraid to call in all the minds that have looked at time and the universe. The poem heaves, ebbs and flows with the rhythms of sand and sea, and music, and the poet reaches even into the folds of the brain to reveal connections and resonances in the mind and the nature it encounters.  Fresh language, fresh images. I saw what I had not seen before, made connections I had not considered. 

"Fire and Safety, or, If my little brother is jumping out of helicopters into raging flames, I don’t want to know about it": This poem surprised me, both with its emotional honesty, and with its fresh language, skillful use of imagery. The poet tells you just enough to call up images in the mind—the colours of an afghan, the brother finding a lizard in a burning forest. Just enough and no more. What one needs to not know in order to keep one’s heart safe. Nice crafting. 

What do you like most about poetry? 
It says “that thing” in the densest, most compact way it can be said; it challenges one to challenge language. I love the rhythm, the riding with insight and imagery. Good poetry reaches into those locations of the mind and spirit that unpack and unfold language, story, rapidly and without interference from the rational mind. Poetry is immensely powerful, an ancient mode of lore-and-truthtelling.  It is a kind of language trance, you sort of step partway into another world or dimension, as you do with music. And sometimes you can even dance to it.  

In your opinion, what makes a poem great?  
Skilled, unobtrusive, respectful crafting; fearlessness, risk and challenge, with, and of, language and content; the opening of a door of insight, and that whoopsie feeling one gets when reading it, what makes you hold your breath and your eyes go wide.  Return to it, again and again. Surprise. A great poem does not bother with current fashion, but finds itself. 

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Katherine Bitney is author of four books of poetry: While You Were Out (Turnstone Press, 1981), Heart and Stone (Turnstone Press, 1989) and Singing Bone (The Muses’ Company, 1997) and her latest collection of poetry, Firewalk (Turnstone Press, September, 2012). A fifth collection of writings, The Boreal Dragon, essays and meditations on nature, was published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2013. 

Photo credit: Janine Tschunky



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