Past CBC Poetry Prize winner Erin Noteboom reflects on the science behind writing poetry

The 2001 CBC Poetry Prize winner reflects on how she wrote the poetry collection A knife so sharp its edge cannot be seen.
A close-up portrait of a woman with short purple hair, purple rimmed glasses and wearing a purple t-shirt smiling at the camera.
Erin Noteboom is a physicist, poet and children's book author from Kitchener, Ont. (Submitted by Erin Noteboom)

Erin Noteboom is a former physicist who currently writes poetry and young adult novels under the name Erin Bow. In her most recent poetry collection, A knife so sharp its edge cannot be seen, she tests hypotheses about sadness, science and love to ask important existential questions. 

Noteboom won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2001 for Poems for Carl Hruska. More recently, she made the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize longlist for her poem How to write at the end of the world, a poem that ends her most recent book.

The beige book cover features a close-up image of the tip of an old knife. The knife tip is illustrated with grooves and lines.
A knife so sharp its edge cannot be seen is a book by Erin Noteboom. (Brick Books)

The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is currently accepting submissions. 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. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books

You can submit an original, unpublished poem or collection of poems, up to 600 words in length. There is no minimum word requirement. The deadline to submit is Wednesday, May 31, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Noteboom uses the lyric form to write about illness, grief, loss and science in her latest poetry collection. She spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote A knife so sharp its edge cannot be seen

The science of poetry

"It feels to me as if poems and books should add up to something greater than a collection of individual poems. So I have this book. Some of it is directly and literally scientific. Some of it is more loosely about questioning and knowing and forgetting and remembering. It also is about the more general idea of what science is and how it works in the world and how we know things and what we know and what we can't know and how we put all that into systems.

"This idea that there are two separate realms [poetry and science] is just this falseness. I think science is not off-limits as a topic for poetry or for writing, or for metaphor for our general conversation. Science is not holy ground, and it gets treated a little bit like holy ground, suitable only for the priesthood and the experts.

"I hope people maybe have some interest in some piece of science. That's kind of lofty, but nevertheless that would be great."

Old-school writing

"I keep a notebook, I describe it as a poet's notebook, of just like little shiny things where I'm like, 'Oh, there's a poem in that.' I'm very old school. Everything's handwritten. I keep a notebook and I write in it every day. I do morning pages, it's like getting up and dumping your stuff on the page first thing.

I'm very old school. Everything's handwritten. I keep a notebook and I write in it every day.- Erin Noteboom

"I also have a practice where, if my brain is just whirling too much, I stop and I write for 30 minutes. And quite often that's just a to do list, but sometimes there's a piece in it that turns into a poem later. I can't really start poems with the spreadsheet half of my brain. So it's a good way to uncover something, the underground pieces that might have a poem inside them.

A black desk against a wall with a window and cork board with a lamp and notebooks on it and a writing journal
The desk and cork board in Erin Noteboom's writing shed. (Submitted by Erin Noteboom)

"I usually write a first draft of a poem, and sometimes a second draft, in my notebook. There's something about being able to scribble around it, but not erase. If you scribble on the screen, you're erasing what you've done. So there's something nice about having it on hard copy and being able to retrace your steps. Sometimes they need some work and it's like being an archaeologist: set out your squares and lay your flags and things so that you can backtrack a little bit."

Putting it all together

"I do type them up [afterwards] and then the question becomes — when I was putting together the collection — which poems go in the collection and which poems don't. That was the trick: taking this enormous pile of poetry and finding true threads and putting them together.

"I actually worked quite a bit with actual print-outs of the poems. I moved them around in stacks and then after a while I put them in three-ring binders and moved them around so I could read them through.

"When I'm making loose initial decisions, I use index cards. I use index cards for a lot of things. When I'm trying to get a bird's eye view of a book or a scene or a problem that I'm working out. I'll come back to index cards and I'll move them around."

Different moods for different kinds of writing

"When I get really into poetry, I get quite intense about it and I'm a little bit hunched over it and I tend to be entirely focused. But one doesn't spend a lot of time in that state. It's a somewhat intense place when you're actually trying to uncover a poem for the first time.

Poetry is, at least in its first draft, it's little bursts: very intense, an almost unsustainable intense thing.- Erin Noteboom

"Poetry is, at least in its first draft, it's little bursts: very intense, an almost unsustainable intense thing. It's a bit of a sprint, really. It's a give it your all, push it through and I can't do it for more than an hour or two, probably. A book, it's a little bit cooler as a process, it's a little bit more intellectual, a little bit more controlled. It can still sneak up on you and surprise you, but it surprises you at a different pace.

"Poetry is just very concentrated and very powerful and interesting to me for that reason."

Erin Noteboom's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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