TORONTO – September 19, 2018 – The trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry are pleased to announce that Ulrikka Gernes (Denmark), Kim Maltman (Canada) and Srikanth Reddy (US) are the judges for the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize.
i fall into the opening between subject and object
and call it a condition of possibility.
when i speak only the ceiling listens.
sometimes it moans.
if i have a name
let it be the sound his lips make.
there is no word in my language for this.
sometimes my kookum begins to cry
and a world falls out.
grieve is the name i give to myself.
i carve it into the bed frame.
i am make-believe.
this is an archive.
it hurts to be a story.
i am the boundary between reality and fiction.
it is a ghost town.
you dreamt me out of existence.
you are at once a map to nowhere and everywhere.
yesterday was an optical illusion.
i kiss a stranger and give him a middle name.
i call this love.
it lasts for exactly twenty minutes.
i chase after that feeling.
which is to say:
i want to almost not exist.
almost is the closest i can get to the sky.
heaven is a wormhole.
i first found it in another man’s armpit.
last night i gave birth to a woman and named her becoming.
she is four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan.
we are a home movie
i threw out by accident.
all that is left is the signified.
people die that way.
Notes on the PoemBilly-Ray Belcourt's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection This Wound is a World offers, from beginning to end, a poetic journey both elucidating and starkly affecting. Each poem along the way manages that dual achievement differently, but helps build meaningful momentum over the course of the book. In "Gay Incantations", Belcourt renders the poem even more moving by using language in seemingly counterintuitive ways. From the poem's opening lines "i fall into the opening between subject and object and call it a condition of possibility." Belcourt uses the technical language of language, in effect, to show how feelings and interactions can be depicted dispassionately, in fact coldly, as intersections of grammatical components. One can fall into that clinical void between words, be left unsignified ("there is no word in my language for this"), even be dismissed as "make-believe." At the same time, Belcourt calls out those linguistic constructs for creating isolation and alienation when the opposite is so urgently needed. Most poignantly, this plea comes at the aching heart of the poem: "it hurts to be a story." The audio version here of Belcourt reading a slightly varied version of the poem has the not unpleasant cadence of someone carefully but not perfunctorily, but also wistfully rhyming off a list. That delivery balances what we've just observed, a struggle between what is depersonalized because it is seemingly reduced to a mere list, but cumulatively cries out for connection before it is reduced and dismissed. The poem's title is the clue: these are incantations, perhaps unlikely in form and content - sometimes intimate, sometimes grim, but all evoking hope for something magically transformative. If words can't bring back "four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan", the plea is that words can somehow at least keep them signified and remembered. The last line of the poem is an emphatic full stop.
With the glove on, her pixellated breast every
demonstrably offensive line about young plums
and buds budding. With the glove and helmet on, “her”
is a proposition. With the helmet on she likes it when I
read to her from the book of desires I wrote
with the helmet on. Under the glove and helmet,
day indiscernible from night and want from love.
The other helmet cues God whispering in his quadrant.
There’s no visor or need of one on the God helmet;
face a mask of contemptuous ecstasies, road
map of heaven on earth and the helmet on.
There’s a crash helmet and infantry helmet
over in the corner that no longer fit as the head
of the poem has developed macrocephallicly.
Our universe, said to be coming apart at the seams,
poorly made, a Jofa from the mid-eighties, placing
us, like Butch Goring’s head, at no small risk.
Jousting viable with the helmet on with the helmet
on time soups finally and selves sift. Horizons converge
in the mouth under the helmet and the glove
grips them like floss. This is Helmut Lang; I got
it at a consignment store. There’s a Spartan
helmet behind glass; there’s not much on it.
The helmet you were born
with very nearly obsolete, its list of incompatible
attachments growing longer by the day. Take trees,
for instance. Think of all the songs. Think of all the songs
without a helmet on and how they seem to weep
torrents over nothing for no reason. Put this on. Put
this on feel time die bewildered, binary, purchased
but no purchase gained, drainage
streaming out over the chinstrap.
Notes on the PoemWe've marveled before at Ken Babstock's rapier wordplay in previous Poem of the Week selections from his Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted and winning works. (So has Griffin Poetry Prize judge Heather McHugh.) "Which Helmet?" from Methodist Hatchet is another dazzling example, with yet more breathtaking twists and angles. "Which helmet?" indeed. All manner of headgear are launched at us - some for us to wear, some donned by others - from the get-go. The poem tosses out new meanings, interpretations and revelations with each reading and each chapeau. As words and meanings shift line after line, the line between reality versus virtual reality and even unreality wavers, and it's increasingly difficult to establish just exactly where we're performing this juggling act. "[H]er pixellated breast" suggests that both she and the narrator, wearing helmets, are in some digital or virtual reality. Then again, "God whispering in his quadrant" could be some heavenly realm. What functions are these helmets performing? Protection, yes, but some seem to be symbols of aggression (jousting, for example), while others are just trivial fashion items (Helmut Lang, perfectly) purchased on sale. "There's a crash helmet and infantry helmet over in the corner that no longer fit as the head of the poem has developed macrocephallicly." How interesting that rather than getting a swelled head as "head of the poem", the narrator confesses in self-deprecating fashion that his head is abnormally small, likely due to incomplete brain development. However one tries to arm or protect one's brain or reasoning or intellect, it turns out that, in fact, it's the emotions no helmet can contain, as the poem concludes with "drainage streaming out over the chinstrap."
He has to bray.
To pull his rope leash in the light.
He did it again in the black-blue sky
Of my leaving.
It is death.
He has to fucking bray
Because he is alive
I asked Fadwa what
A phrase meant;
It had hooked my bad ear and what
She said is it meant
You should be
And then Manuela said my buns were horns
Were my tied-up
I released them.
Je ne sais pas how to say this en anglais mais
I suppose we
Gave me a course
Making our soul of a fitness enough
To scorn you
But not enough to
Not scorn you –
Notes on the PoemThe poem "The goat" is an excellent example of the unique ways in which Aisha Sasha John draws the reader into her experiences in her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection I have to live. Griffin Poetry Prize judge Ian Williams offered a wonderful overview of what Aisha Sasha John accomplishes in her collection when he introduced her at the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings:“Aisha Sasha John delivers a master class in voice. In fact, the voice of her collection I have to live is so masterfully constructed that one can misapprehend it as effortless or easy. But better adjectives might be 'confident', 'assured', 'secure in its right to exist and to speak'. Over the course of the book, that voice sustains itself through a number of complex intersections with gender, sexuality and race. In addition to the pleasure of the voice, this collection is also infectious. After reading it the first time, I set it down and found myself quoting it, after just one time. The very title I have to live, according to David B. Hobbs in The Globe and Mail, is 'repeated enough to become a sort of heartbeat for the collection.' True, the collection as a whole has a sort of recursive quality that draws you back to itself through some current, some magnetism, some need. One final pleasure is how Aisha Sasha John's commitment to declarative sentences turn into affirmations. She courts a line between what is tacitly understood and what needs to be stated. It's hard not to fill in your own name in a poem like this one: 'He thinks I should be glad because they / Like the idea of Aisha. I am not the idea of Aisha. / I am Aisha. / You I know you / Love the idea of Aisha. / I am not the idea of Aisha. / I am not the idea of Aisha. / I am Aisha.' Urgent, sincere, confident, unforgettable – here's Aisha Sasha John and I have to live.”(You can read the full review Williams mentions in his introduction here.) Williams remarks on the power of Aisha Sasha John's use of declarative sentences. If, in real life, someone spoke to you almost exclusively in this fashion, it might quickly become off-putting. The speaker would come across as too focused on self, with no inclusive or at least polite interest in you or others. In poems like "The goat", the narrator balances her own story and observations with that of a goat who "has to fucking bray Because he is alive And Tied up." That this might be a justification for the narrator's own tendencies, but that justification is illustrated with this creature, couches it with both acute, even harsh awareness and humility, and maybe even a bit of self-deprecating humour. The use of proper names in the poem adds a layer of specificity and intimacy to the poem - it's as if we're invited to listen in on the narrator's conversations with her friends - yet simultaneously it excludes us, as we don't necessarily know who Fadwa and Manuela are. Similarly, the French/English mash-up with which she closes the poem suggests she is simultaneously striving to make her contentions clear, but maybe also striving to obscure them just a bit. What does she mean by "To scorn you But not enough to Not scorn you - D'accord?" We are indeed drawn in and intrigued, even though we don't know for certain if she wants to bring us closer or keep us at arms' length.
Vastness of dusk, after a day –
what is a person? Too late
to ask this now. The court has ruled
a corporation is a person.
Persons used to be called souls.
On the avenue, a lucky person
stands in a convenience store
scratching powder from his ticket –
silver flecks fall from his thumbs
to galaxies below.
Deep in the night
a trough of chaos forms;
your lover’s body stops it every time.
Meteors of the season over minnows
in the creek with two kinds of crayfish,
tiny mouths & claws
– nervous, perfect, perfect
life – the flesh of a dreamer,
facing the wall –
Around each word you’re reading
there spins the unknowable flame.
When you wake, a style
of world shakes free
from the dream. It doesn’t stop
when you go out;
it doesn’t stop when you come back
as you were meant to-
Notes on the PoemBrenda Hillman's Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire won the 2014 International Griffin Poetry Prize. 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize judge Robert Bringhurst selected her poem "In the Evening of the Search" from that collection for that year's anthology. It's a wonderful choice that quietly surprises on repeated readings. With each reading, we find ourselves unearthing fresh examples of images and ideas suggesting a struggle between pessimism and optimism in the poem. As this tussle produces different reactions each time, this observation from the judges' citation is applicable every time: "The mighty challenges of now are fully engaged." As the poem opens with "Vastness of dusk, after a day - what is a person?" Hillman captures succinctly and poignantly that end-of-day weariness and despair we've all felt at one time or another - or more so, more often nowadays? The crisp, sardonic "The court has ruled a corporation is a person. Persons used to be called souls." darkens things further. Does the next image swing just as emphatically to a sense of hope? Or are we just like those silver flecks, mere specks among the vast galaxies? Yes, perhaps so ... "Deep in the night a trough of chaos forms" ... but wait ... "your lover's body stops it every time." There is hope. We all have ways, means, resources, defences against whatever the world throws us into or tries to throw at us. Are the next words a frustrating intimation, pragmatic guidance or acceptance? "Around each word you're reading there spins the unknowable flame." However positively or negatively you interpret those words, what follows simply states that the world - some form of world - will always be there and will not stop. We must choose to go out, come back, do something, endure. It is as if Hillman has sent us out to face things, with a gentle push and a subtle benediction.
On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it,
a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed
many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,
were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,
a longing without end, fills them all:
first name in search of family name, date of death seeks
dead man’s birthplace, son’s name wishes to locate
name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul
that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found
one another, they will not find a perfect rest.
Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”
But now the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness
by a sad good man. He cleanses them of every blemish,
photographs them one by one, arranges them on the floor
in the great hall, makes each gravestone whole again,
one again: fragment to fragment,
like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic,
a jigsaw puzzle. Child’s play.
Notes on the PoemYehuda Amichai takes us on an eye-opening journey by starting with a simple but potent object. As translated with care and respect by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, that object is given profound, talismanic meaning. From that broad sweep, it is then brought back to an intimate and resonant place among like objects. It's a powerful experience produced by a brief but unforgettable poem, well worth a revisit after it was previously featured as Poem of the Week. We see the object first on Amichai's / the narrator's desk. We are swiftly assured that this is no mundane paperweight, although it is a tangible reminder of immense, weighty and tragic forces. The object is one piece of many that have been cruelly scattered. The inventory of yearning that proceeds from that scattering is heart wrenching. Each broken connection, from "first name in search of family name" to "date of birth seeks reunion with soul that wishes to rest in peace" is a depiction of physical fragments tossed asunder as well as the vast devastation of many human lives torn apart. At the mid-point of the poem, there is an echo of the serenity with which the poem commenced: "Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”" ... and then ... "the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness by a sad good man" Amichai/Bloch/Kronfeld brings us full circle back to a type of peace and hope, by beautifully, subtly and simply bringing an object to life and imbuing it with both gravitas and the warmth of a collective human experience that is first tragic, and then transcendent. As the scattered fragments are reunited and restored, the phrase "Child's play" seems seems to be a gentle but telling rebuke, as if bringing things back together could ever really be that simple.
Everything becomes small
only the ocean makes the night’s leather clothes
open up the further out it spreads.
to the right is Tianjin
to the left is Beijing
two clusters of moths flinging themselves at fire.
Then the East China Sea suddenly moves
the wind brings silver bits that can’t be more shattered
and many thick wrinkles whip up
I see the face of the ocean
I see the aged seashore
trembling and hugging the world too tightly.
I have seen death
but never seen death come back to life like that.
Notes on the PoemIn "Seeing the Ocean from a Night Flight", Eleanor Goodman, translating from an original poem in Chinese by Wang Xiaoni, encapsulates an experience that many have had but few know how to express so beautifully. This poem, from the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Something Crosses My Mind, grows more haunting with every reading. The poem depicts the breathtaking, somewhat bewildering and even unnerving feelings of an air traveller. Whether one is travelling by airplane for the first or the gazillionth (sigh) time, the miracle of air flight and what it presents for the traveller to see, take in and process is always fresh. It never becomes mundane that suddenly, knowing you're inexplicably far above the immensity of the world "Everything becomes small" ... does it? From this truly elevated place of dislocation, one's thoughts can roam in fascinating ways. The poem's closing couplet captures that in startling and sublime fashion.
I don’t want to see the city through
myself anymore. I imagine an open body
stuck with pins and flags ready
for labelling. The city is a city of constant
sidewalk repairs and household renovations.
If I could lay my hands on the interior walls
I would know enough to miss myself.
The city is a city of streets named
after saints and explorers. On the dock
I am cold. I imagine myself
at an art gallery looking at installations
and not pretending there can be
any sort of understanding.
But somewhere the water
may meet the unseen shore
and someone like you believes
it happens. There
is a line where they touch.
I would like to speak
to that line and have it speak
to me in return.
Notes on the PoemThe poems of The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall all have that clear-eyed, precise and utterly wacky conviction about what is right according to the opaque, hilarious and sometimes terrifying logic of dreams. This conviction, which could be the certainty of the collection’s title, permeates almost every poem in this collection, and “Dream in Which I Am Separated from Myself” is no exception. This poem from Hall's 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted book is definitely worth another visit. “I don’t want to see the city through myself anymore.” You could interpret the opening line of this poem in a pretty straightforward fashion: the speaker doesn’t want to experience the city through her own senses and perceptions, but maybe through someone else’s. But wait. Maybe the speaker’s body had become transparent, and the city was literally visible through it … and somehow, this is making perfect sense in the context of a dream, which often juxtaposes the mundane with the bizarre, but treats the bizarre as the mundane. Then this follows: “I imagine an open body stuck with pins and flags ready for labelling.” That line between the water and the “unseen shore” can mean the separation, or the bringing together, of many things. Sometimes, it’s only in a dream that the connection is made, and you get to speak to and understand that line. Kate Hall captures here and throughout The Certainty Dream the truths that are driven home to us through the whimsy and sudden clarity of the dream state.
Keep in mind, I am not a historian.
So I will recount facts as best as I can, given limited resources and understanding.
Before Minnesota was a state, the Minnesota region, generally speaking, was the traditional homeland for Dakota, Anishnaabeg and Ho-Chunk people.
During the 1800s, when the US expanded territory, they “purchased” land from the Dakota people as well as the other tribes.
But another way to understand that sort of “purchase” is: Dakota leaders ceded land to the US government in exchange for money and goods, but most importantly, the safety of their people.
Some say that Dakota leaders did not understand the terms they were entering, or they never would have agreed.
Even others call the entire negotiation, “trickery.”
But to make whatever-it-was official and binding, the US government drew up an initial treaty.
This treaty was later replaced by another (more convenient) treaty, and then another.
I’ve had difficulty unraveling the terms of these treaties, given the legal speak and congressional language.
As treaties were abrogated (broken) and new treaties were drafted, one after another, the new treaties often referenced old defunct treaties and it is a muddy, switchback trail to follow.
Although I often feel lost on this trail, I know I am not alone.
However, as best as I can put the facts together, in 1851, Dakota territory was contained to a twelve-mile by one-hundred-fifty-mile long strip along the Minnesota River.
But just seven years later, in 1858, the northern portion was ceded (taken) and the southern portion was (conveniently) allotted, which reduced Dakota land to a stark ten-mile tract.
These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as the Minnesota Treaties.
The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.
Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.
Everything is in the language we use.
For example, a treaty is, essentially, a contract between two sovereign nations.
The US treaties with the Dakota Nation were legal contracts that promised money.
It could be said, this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting territory which, in turn, made Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.
The previous sentence is circular, which is akin to so many aspects of history.
As you may have guessed by now, the money promised in the turbid treaties did not make it into the hands of Dakota people.
In addition, local government traders would not offer credit to “Indians” to purchase food or goods.
Without money, store credit or rights to hunt beyond their ten-mile tract of land, Dakota people began to starve.
The Dakota people were starving.
The Dakota people starved.
In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.
One should read, “The Dakota people starved,” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact.
As a result—and without other options but to continue to starve—Dakota people retaliated.
Dakota warriors organized, struck out and killed settlers and traders.
This revolt is called the Sioux Uprising.
Eventually, the US Cavalry came to Mnisota to confront the Uprising.
More than one thousand Dakota people were sent to prison.
As already mentioned, thirty-eight Dakota men were subsequently hanged.
After the hanging, those one thousand Dakota prisoners were released.
However, as further consequence, what remained of Dakota territory in Mnisota was dissolved (stolen).
The Dakota people had no land to return to.
This means they were exiled.
Homeless, the Dakota people of Mnisota were relocated (forced) onto reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska.
Now, every year, a group called the The Dakota 38 + 2 Riders conduct a memorial horse ride from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Mnisota.
The Memorial Riders travel 325 miles on horseback for eighteen days, sometimes through sub-zero blizzards.
They conclude their journey on December 26th, the day of the hanging.
Memorials help focus our memory on particular people or events.
Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues or gravestones.
The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words, but an act.
Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.
So, there is one other event to include, although it’s not in chronological order and we must backtrack a little.
When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to “Indians.”
One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakotas by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”
There are variations of Myrick’s words, but they are all something to that effect.
When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.
When Myrick’s body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.
I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.
There’s irony in their poem.
There was no text.
“Real” poems do not “really” require words.
I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue; a revealing moment.
But, on second thought, the particular words “Let them eat grass,” click the gears of the poem into place.
So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work.
Things are circling back again.
Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.
And let the body
From the platform.
to the grasses.
Notes on the PoemLayli Long Soldier's "38" from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Whereas is a potent centerpiece of, as the prize judges express it in their citation, "an intricate and urgent counter-history, a work of elegy, outrage and profound generosity", striving for interconnection in the present while grappling with the past. We are privileged to be able to see and hear Long Soldier present this complex work with startling and edifying clarity. Long Soldier's presentation of "38", which was part of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings at Toronto's Koerner Hall on June 6, 2018, could be construed as commencing almost apologetically. She seems to caution: "Keep in mind, I am not a historian." From this ostensibly modest start, the poem and how she performs it build to a firm, resolute force for truth that stuns with its final, striking words. In the poem's closing crescendo, Long Soldier deftly deconstructs the very use of words to convey her message: "“Real” poems do not “really” require words." Long Soldier simultaneously reinforces her message, bolsters her poetic platform, yet also shines spotlights on the images - the grasses, the swinging bodies - that resonate long after the words have stopped reverberating. How the poem's subtle, cumulative power and wisdom mount with each line - whether read quietly and with reverence, or taken in via Long Soldier's measured yet fierce delivery - is pure and palpable.
I live in a room named East
on the map of the West at the edge
near the door cedars and alders
mix and tower,
full of ravens first thing each morning,
whose song is
we quarrelled so
over the genius
of the heart
whose voice is capable
they come on horseback
in the middle of the night,
two of them, with a horse for me,
and we ride, bareback
clinging to the white manes,
at the edge of the sea-splash,
the hidden and forgotten source,
who is transparent
where the moon drops out of the fog
but not to us
the retied heart
where the wind glitters
for Ellen Tallman
Notes on the PoemRobin Blaser's "Suddenly," from his 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection The Holy Forest, fascinates in myriad ways and on many levels. Deceptively simple and arresting is how he wields word and line spacing to guide the reader and create haunting, subliminal effects. We think this previous Poem of the Week is worth a revisit. We've remarked before how spacing in a poem's layout on the page (or screen, where the poem's print form can be rendered accurately) influences how a reader experiences a poem. This excerpt from C.D. Wright's Rising, Falling, Hovering is a great example. The images in Blaser's poem are already vivid, strung together with dream-like logic, and this is further emphasized by both spacing and punctuation, which even achieves intriguing and unexpectedly dramatic impact in the poem's title. Jed Rasula, Professor of English at the University of Georgia, observes how beautifully Blaser arranges spacing in his poems:"The poet's sensitivity to the tenuous grasp of words, reflected in the awesome grip of the hidden and "bitten" heart, is accentuated by the poem's spacing. The words are semantically informative, yet blank spaces are deployed where punctuation might customarily serve. Blaser's meticulous attention to spatial detail reinforces the rhythmic allure of the images. The pages of Image-nations 1–12 [also found in The Holy Forest] are choreographies, imprints of movement that return the emotions to their transitive order in motion.""Historically, fragmentation has been used as a troubling effect, or to indicate a subject under stress." This observation comes from a recent article about Anne Carson's latest work Float, which takes the concept of spacing even further.