Malahat volunteer Tyler Gabrysh talks with Long Poem Prize judge Anita Lahey about the value of the long poem and writing contests, and what poetic elements should stand out in a winning entry.
As a previous winner in contests such as the The Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron Poetry Prize, and now as a judge in the Malahat’s Long Poem Prize, do you believe that in any poetry competition, the longer work is generally favoured, and if so, why?
In most cases I think judges strive to read a given entry on its own terms with regards to style, subject matter, form, length and other factors. But there is a danger, I think, when reading the many submissions that come in, for shorter, snappier poems that offer a quicker satisfaction, even a kind of punch, to stand out. This is not systemic; it is a hazard most judges (I hope) are aware of and try to guard against. The Malahat’s Long Poem Prize, calling explicitly for longer work, functions as an antidote to this, at least with regards to the matter of length. It also puts a spotlight on a quirk and strength in the Canadian poetry universe, a tradition toward longer, complex works that has long been established, and that contemporary poets are steering into new and exciting directions.
After two acclaimed books of poetry, Out to Dry in Cape Breton (2006), and Spinning Side Kick (2011), you wrote a book of essays entitled The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture (2013). How would you compare the approaches to crafting the material and the processes involved?
Most of the pieces in The Mystery Shopping Cart were published in magazines and journals over a decade or more, so the book is a compilation of many years’ work, during which I was also writing the poems that appeared in my other books. Writing the essays was utterly different not just because it’s prose, but because it’s largely about poetry and the work of particular poets. The attention I pay to the work of others certainly informs my understanding and approach when I turn back to my own poems, not always in ways I can identify or articulate. When crafting this kind of prose I’m more conscious of creating, following and sustaining an idea or argument, of building or finding coherence in that upper level meaning in a piece of writing. What am I trying to say? Why does this matter? Whereas in poetry I’m trying hard not to do that, to let the underlayers (which in large measure I’m unaware of when I sit down to write) seep up and through and into view. That means letting imagery and metaphor and sound, other sensory elements, serve as the driving forces, and also, in the later stages of crafting, the glue (talk about competing metaphors!).
Now, take all that with a grain of salt, for the elements I’ve attached to prose do come into play in the poetry, and vice versa. And I don’t mean to suggest prose writing to be one-dimensional or not exploratory. When writing prose, too, I am often surprised by what happens, by where the writing leads me. And when writing poetry I want the poem, in the end, to find its way to some kind of sense. I guess the nature of that “sense” is different, as well as the manner of arriving at it.
Do you believe that in the longer poem, a poet is afforded more provision to free form, as if a jazz soloist, or does he or she still need to adhere largely to form and strictly unified content? Or ultimately, is the greatly successful poem driven by other factors such as voice, appeal to the senses, etc.?
Much like shorter poems, a long poem may legitimately take many forms. It might seem to meander; it might be a series of tightly connected sonnets; it might fragment; it might be polyphonic; it might encompass a rich and singular narrative. I would not prescribe a style or approach that supposedly best suits the long poem. What matters is that, however it’s constructed, whatever its style, it sustains its length, by which I mean it’s not long for the sake of being long, but because that particular poem needs to be that length. Even a jazz solo, in the end, constitutes a whole: by its own rules, it begins and it ends; it coheres.
As long time editor of Arc magazine, with its well-known Poem of the Year contest, how do you believe a contest winning poem affects a poet’s career? Is there sudden name recognition, momentum to a poet’s body of work, if any, or should it be classified as an impressive yet singular achievement?
I can’t help but smile at the phrase “a poet’s career.” I don’t know how many of us think of our writing practice in that way, or what the term “career” really means when applied to a poet and a poet’s circumstances or motivations. But to get to your question. I think winning a contest can be a very good thing for a poet because it is one of the few ways a poet can “earn” what feels like a proper pay cheque for her work, and she can often use those funds to buy herself a little time to pursue the craft further. So it’s a reprieve. It’s also a vote of confidence, surely, a buoying moment in a very solitary pursuit, a lift that hopefully a writer can jump down from into her next project with renewed vigor. Where that leads, what the long-term effects may or may not be, will be different in every case. A prize is not a definitive, forever seal of approval on a poet or her work, nor is not winning a prize the opposite. I think most people entering a contest, or reading the contest-wining work in a magazine, understand this.
Has the purpose of writing contests, in general, changed in recent years? Is its motivation now primarily as a driving revenue stream for literary magazines in the face of governmental cutbacks? Does the market now appeared saturated with paying contests by often web-based, fleeting magazines?
In answer to this question, let me point to a fantastic back issue of Arc Poetry Magazine, Arc Annual 2012: Poet vs. Poet, an issue that delves into questions of competition among poets. Within is an essay written by the editor of the Malahat himself, John Barton, in which he talks about how the nature and proliferation of literary prizes has changed, how magazines have indeed come to rely to an extent on the revenue they generate, and how they are gradually, unfortunately, taking the place of the broader critical discussion of literature, which finds less and less room in mainstream print publications. This shrinking critical discussion may re-emerge, as quality online venues such as Numero Cinq, Lemon Hound, The Puritan—to mention a few that come quickly to mind—further establish themselves and build wider readerships.
That said, prizes are not in and of themselves evil. At a very basic level, they provide useful deadlines for writers, introduce beginning authors especially to a wide variety of publications and their thriving communities of readers and contributors, and they also provide a gathering place for certain kinds of work to be created and shared. The Malahat’s Long Poem Prize is a long established example of this, a high watermark that highlights, as I said above, the venerable institution and ongoing project of the Canadian long poem. Its winning works are, for me, a must-read, in the annual national poetry publication cycle. A more recently established prize that I also love reading the results of is The New Quarterly’s Occasional Verse Contest, which has already begun to remind us all of the respect due to one of the oldest uses and purposes of poem-writing: to mark or make an occasion. These contests, no question, are helpful to the magazines that run them. But they are also a great deal of work to pull off, and they have integrity: they are making a real contribution to the literary conversation.
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