Books·How I Wrote It

Why David Martin wrote a poetry collection about the Alberta oil sands

The 2014 CBC Poetry Prize winner turned his winning entry Tar Swan into a book-length narrative poem of the same name.
David Martin won the 2014 CBC Poetry Prize for the poem Tar Swan. (David Martin/NeWest Press)

David Martin won the 2014 CBC Poetry Prize for Tar Swan, a poem about the history and myth of the Alberta oil sands.

The 2014 prize jury — Roy Miki, Rachel Rose and Katherena Vermette — described the poem as speaking to "central concerns of our time, particularly here in Canada: the consequences of coal and oil extraction, environmental degradation and our responsibility to the natural world." 

Martin developed a poetry collection that includes his prize-winning work. Also titled Tar Swanthe richly written poems explore the human and environmental cost of drawing too much from the land.

Martin told CBC Books how he wrote the collection of poems. 

A unique take on a familiar story

"It was a different way to think about the oil sands. It's something that we read about in the newspaper nearly every day. In Alberta, it dominates the political conversation. Even nationally, this is something coming up all the time. There's a lot of concern about this industry and its environmental impacts.

"For me, this was a different way to approach it  — to think about the oil sands, to think about the history and how it got started. It's gotten beyond us, and that's where the mythical angle comes in — the swan of Tar Swan. The swan is this character weaving in and out of other people's experiences, guiding their work and undoing their work and influencing them. That's a metaphor for the oil sands that has become this enormous idea that we can't escape." 

The poetry of history

"One of the things I had to keep in mind as I was writing was that this was not a history book. There are a lot of history books about the oil sands. The big advantage that poetry offers is a focus on language. Each of the four characters in the collection speak in their own poetic style and language.

"There's an oil sands developer who writes in block text pieces because he's usually giving speeches. His plant mechanic writes in crisp, terse lyrical short poems. There's an archeologist who writes poems made up of two-line stanzas; they take on a grid-like structure that reflects his scientific mind. The swan's poems are 13-line poems that seem like sonnets but there's something not quite quite right about them — there is a more traditional look to his poems. I developed this dramatic narrative to escort characters rather than offer a traditional history of the industry."

Advice for emerging poets

"For people getting into writing poetry, I usually advise to read as much poetry as you can — and to read widely. Sometimes we find certain types of poets that we like and we stick with that vein of poetry, but there is such a range of poetry being produced today. Even if it's not the style you're going to be writing, you can glean so many different ideas and inspiration from the wide variety that you come across."

David Martin's comments have been edited and condensed.​


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