Thinking of submitting to the CBC Poetry Prize? Here are 10 tips from writers who know what it takes
The CBC Poetry Prize is accepting submissions from April 1 to May 31
The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is open now for submissions, and the winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books. They will also attend a writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, a cultural hub on Toronto Island.
You can submit an original, unpublished poem or collection of poems, up to 600 words in length. The deadline to submit is Wednesday, May 31, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
We know that submitting to a literary prize can be a daunting task. That's why we spoke to some recent CBC Poetry Prize winners and finalists as well as this year's three jurors to ask them what advice they have for those who might be thinking about submitting or are still undecided about it.
1. Learn the power of editing
Lise Gaston says: "Don't spend too much time searching for the perfect word, phrase or idea before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). In my experience, it is the act of writing itself that discovers what it is that I want to say, and how to say it. Don't wait for perfection, because that becomes paralyzing, but create it. For me, often that creation happens through editing: parsing, framing, finding. It's often easier to do when plenty of words are already on the page."
Don't spend too much time searching for the perfect word, phrase, or idea before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).- Lise Gaston
Lise Gaston won the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize for her poem James.
Lise Gaston is the author of Cityscapes in Mating Season, which was named one of the 10 must-read books of 2017 by the League of Canadian Poets. Her other recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brick, Canadian Notes and Queries, the Fiddlehead, the Malahat Review and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
2. Revisit your work
Bren Simmers says: "Let poems (and manuscripts) breathe in between revisions. Setting them aside for a few weeks or months allows you to have a fresh perspective when you revisit the work. Often, new ideas and revision strategies will become apparent."
Let poems (and manuscripts) breathe in between revisions.- Bren Simmers
Bren Simmers is the author of four books, including the wilderness memoir Pivot Point and Hastings-Sunrise, which was a finalist for the Vancouver Book Award. Her most recent collection of poetry is If, When. Her poetry collection Spell World Backwards won the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize. She was previously longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2013 for I Blame MASH For My Addiction To MLS and in 2012 for Science Lessons.
3. Switch up genres
Rachel Lachmansingh says: "I started out as a fiction writer and have only been writing poetry for about three years. I've learned so much from branching out into a different genre and have found my poetry informs my fiction (and vice versa). If you work in only one genre, try your hand at another, and see if that has any impact on your writing. For me, this is a great exercise in diversifying my "writing brain," and I recommend it to all, but especially new writers, since it's allowed me to truly see craft in a different light."
If you work in only one genre, try your hand at another, and see if that has any impact on your writing.- Rachel Lachmansingh
Rachel Lachmansingh is a Guyanese Canadian writer from Toronto. She's been published in Minola Review, Grain, the Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, The Puritan and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing her BA in creative writing at the University of Victoria. Lachmansingh has made the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize shortlist for From the Mouth. She was also longlisted for the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize for The Window of a Stranger's House.
4. Jot it down
Brad Aaron Modlin says: "Poetry is about surprise and mystery and the what-the-hecks that make us stare off into the distance. Before you write, ask yourself, 'What unanswered question have the past twenty-four hours brought me?' Jot it down.
Poetry is about surprise and mystery and the what-the-hecks that make us stare off into the distance.- Brad Aaron Modlin
"Spend time with the question. Sit with it awhile. You can just let it be, or if you want, you can explore it: Why don't you know the answer? What does the question suggest about the way things are? What does it say about the process of being human? If there ever is an answer, will we know it? What do you hope the answer is? Is this question a variation on one you frequently ask? See how the question shows up on your page, directly or not."
Brad Aaron Modlin wrote To the Astronaut Who Hopes Life on Another Planet Will Be More Bearable, which was a finalist for the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize. His poem Pink Fairy Armadillo was also on the longlist for the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize.
His poetry has been the text for orchestral scores, the springboard for an NYC art exhibition and the focus of episodes of The Slowdown with U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón and Poetry Unbound from public radio's On Being Studios. His book Everyone at This Party Has Two Names won the Cowles Poetry Prize. He has participated in residencies with the Banff Centre, Artscape Toronto Island and Biophilium in Gatineau. He wrote/read/sang a poem for a concert with Symphony Nova Scotia and stayed on key. A creative writing professor, he teaches undergraduate and graduate students.
5. Change up the format
Luka Poljak says: "What I find often helps me when I'm stuck with a poem I've been working on for a while is to change up its format. Something as small as experimenting with the spacing of lines/stanzas can really make a big impact. I often find that changing up the way I present my poem allows it to turn into something completely new and exciting that I had never considered before."
Something as small as experimenting with the spacing of lines/stanzas can really make a big impact.- Luka Poljak
Luka Poljak is a Croatian Canadian poet currently in the BFA program at the University of British Columbia. He is a board member of the non-profit YouthCO and is currently working on his first chapbook of poetry. His poem Mouth Prayers was shortlisted for the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize.
6. Take a chance on yourself
Kerry Ryan says: "You have to be brave to be a writer, to submit, accept rejection and carry on. It's hard and it's humbling and it can shake your confidence but you are in incredibly talented company. There is always that hope, the possibility that you could be longlisted or shortlisted or win. It won't happen if you don't get that piece in the best shape you can, and write with the intention of reaching out, heart to heart. It won't happen if you don't take a chance on yourself. If you don't, no one else will."
You have to be brave to be a writer, to submit and accept rejection, and carry on.- Kerry Ryan
Kerry Ryan has published two books of poetry: The Sleeping Life and Vs., which was a finalist for the Acorn-Plantos Award for People's Poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada. Her third poetry collection, Diagnosing Minor Illness in Children, was published in spring 2023. She lives and writes in Winnipeg.
Ryan was on the shortlist for the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize for Grief white. She was previously longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2020 for Driver's Seat & Grief Knot.
7. Put fragments together
Tolu Oloruntoba says: "Poetry is a refuge for people like me that cannot write fiction or construct a credible plot. It enables me to put down fragments at a time. I don't necessarily need to have a grand vision of what I want to achieve. I can just let the truth lead me.
You put two disparate things together and you try to make sense of them.- Tolu Oloruntoba
"Poetry lends itself very well to indirect language, conflated ideas, unusual turns of phrase and strange juxtapositions. You put two disparate things together and you try to make sense of them. There's a lot about life that I feel is not very linear or very simple to explain away. And sometimes in the fuzziness of poetry, we can come close to describing the indescribable. It doesn't always give us answers, but being able to frame the scene is itself very powerful for me."
Tolu Oloruntoba is a writer from Nigeria who now lives in Surrey, B.C. He practiced medicine for six years, and has harboured a love for writing poetry since he was 16. Oloruntoba's debut poetry collection, The Junta of Happenstance, won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry and was the Canadian winner for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize. He's also the founder of the literary magazine Klorofyl.
8. Read your work out loud
Catherine Graham says: "Read your poem out loud to hone the sonic architecture. Let the ear help you shape it."
Catherine Graham is an award-winning poet and novelist. Her books include Æther: An Out-of-Body Lyric, which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award and the Toronto Book Award and won Fred Kerner Book Award. She co-hosts The Hummingbird Podcast and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We're Dead: New and Selected Poems is her latest book. Graham lives in Toronto, where she teaches creative writing and leads the Toronto International Festival of Authors Book Club.
9. No excuses, just get it down
Joseph Dandurand says: "For me writing is a way to escape who I am, but not really, as I am what I write about, and it helps, and it hurts and it is who I am. For writers I believe a sense of structure that allows you to create without much pain in the art of your craft and yet pain is one of the good ones to use and to share.
No writer's block here. No excuses here. Just the desire to get it down.-Joseph A. Dandurand
"For me, I write every day at 5 a.m. and when I am about to finish one project, I am already creating the next one. No writer's block here. No excuses here. Just the desire to get it down. Just the need to feel the pain and the love that is inside of me."
Poet, storyteller and playwright Joseph Dandurand is a member of the Kwantlen First Nation and director of the Kwantlen Cultural Centre. His book of poetry The East Side of It All was shortlisted for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize. Dandurand received the 2021 BC Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. In 2022, he won the winner of the Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize. His book for children, The Girl Who Loved the Birds, is forthcoming in 2023.
10. Focus on the beginnings (and endings)
Michael Fraser says: "Focus on excising the beginnings and endings of poems. I've noticed what I think is the beginning is often a preamble into the poem. The poem often truly begins a line or two further down. The great Yusef Komunyakaa said we often write past the poem's true essence in our zeal to provide the reader with everything."
Focus on excising the beginnings and endings of poems.- Michael Fraser
Michael Fraser is a Canadian poet based in Toronto. His newest poetry collection, The Day-Breakers, was published in April 2022. He won the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize for the poem African Canadian in Union Blue. He is the author of the poetry collections The Serenity of Stone, which won the 2007 Canadian Aid Literary Award Contest, and To Greet Yourself Arriving. Fraser was a reader for the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize.