The Rez Sisters II

by Billy-Ray Belcourt

girl of surplus. girl who is made from fragments. she who can only
be spoken of by way of synecdoche. she whose name cannot be
enunciated only mouthed.

mother of that which cannot be mothered. mother who wants
nothing and everything at the same time. she who gave birth to
herself three times: 1. the miscarriage. 2. the shrunken world.
3.the aftermath.

sister of forest fire. sister who dwells in the wreckage. she who forages
for the right things in the wrong places. nothing is utopia and so she
prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to
make room for the heat.

aunt of the sovereignty of dust. aunt of that which cannot be
negated entirely. she who is magic because she goes missing and
comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the
world and does not fall.

kookum of love in spite of it all. kookum who made a man out of
a memory. she who is a country unto herself.

father of ash. father of a past without a mouth. he who ate too much
of the sunset.

Notes on the Poem

Next up in our Poem of the Week tour through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist is "The Rez Sisters II", a selection from Billy-Ray Belcourt's This Wound is a World. The poem's distinctive title will probably already ring a bell. The attribution "after tomson highway" confirms that the poem takes its inspiration from Cree Canadian playwright and novelist Highway's 1986 play The Rez Sisters. The cast of characters comprising Highway's work are described vividly here. As this definition clarifies the use of "after", the work that follows is considered to be "a direct imitation of an original artwork, made at a later date". Belcourt's poem definitely takes its cues from the play, but it is no mere imitation. The poem's spare and striking depictions of damage, such as: "girl who is made from fragments" and "sister who dwells in the wreckage" are analogous to what Highway's characters have contended with, but the moments of transcendence: "she prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to make room for the heat." and "she who is magic because she goes missing and comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the world and does not fall." are homage to Highway's themes of survival, by whatever feisty, whimsical and resourceful means necessary. Tomson Highway has acknowledged that his work was inspired in part by Michel Tremblay's 1965 play Les Belles-soeurs. It's interesting to see that core themes of a potent collective feminine energy facing life's adversities have carried through and informed three such powerful interpretations and tributes.

Hard Child

by Natalie Shapero

So I had two lists of names for a girl, so
what. The president’s allowed to
have two speeches, in case the hostage
comes home in a bag. The geese
in the metropark don’t want
for bread crumbs, despite the signs
proclaiming the land provides them all
they need. I was a hard child, by which
I mean I was callous from the start.
Even now, were I to find myself after
a grand disease or blast, among the pasty
scattering of survivors, there isn’t one
human tradition I would choose to carry
forward. Not marking feast days, not
assembling roadside shrines, not marrying
up, not researching the colloquialism
representing paste pearls as the real
things, not recounting how the advent
of photography altered painting,
soured us on the acrylic portrait, thrust us
toward the abstract, sent us seeking
to capture in oil that which film would
never be wasted on: umbrella stands,
unlovely grates, assorted drains, body casts.
I typically hate discussing the past
and treasure the option, rarer and rarer,
to turn from it, as when K’s twins
were born and one of them
nearly died — I don’t remember which,
that’s how much they got better.

Notes on the Poem

We hope you're sharing our delight as we make our way through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, a Poem of the Week at a time. This week, we're savouring the many pleasures of Natalie Shapero's "Hard Child", the eponymous poem of her shortlisted work. The judges' citation for Hard Child the poetry collection describes "Hard Child" the poem perfectly:
“The poems in Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child come as close as lyric poems can to perfection. We feel the effect of them before noticing their machinery. Yet every poetic instinct Shapero possesses, every decision of line, image, stanza, diction, and tone, results in poems that are limber, athletic, powerful, and balanced. And behind her technical choices lie an emerging ethics: “I don’t want any more of what I have. / I don’t want another spider plant. I don’t //want another lover.” Her poems take us to the purest evolutionary point of the lyric form through their single-speaker stance, the movement of a mind over subjects, the emotional weight carried on the backs of images, the unpredictable associations, the satisfying call-backs. She teaches us how to retain the self without disappearing into the object we behold. She holds herself at various distances from the thing considered. She drives us toward a view and back again. This is how to write a lyric poem.”
"Hard Child" launches with the immediacy, intimacy and intensity that every definition of lyric poetry and poems suggests. We certainly feel like the poet is speaking to us directly - maybe not singing, but certainly with animation - and is abundantly expressing her thoughts and feelings. The lightly sardonic tone (which, if you haven't heard Shapero's voice, you'll always happily hear henceforth), describes situations ranging from the troubling, tacky or vulgar to the downright horrific, but it's all paced and leavened with dark humour. The poem abounds with intriguing examples of twinning and pairing. There are two lists of names, the president's two speeches, faux and real gems, as well as photography versus painting, marrying versus divorcing (you can decide if you want to research that one or not) and infant twins, one briefly imperilled. Because she was apparently alone as a child, is that why the narrator of this lyric poem "was a hard child, by which I mean I was callous from the start" Maybe hearing Shapero read it will help resolve it. We hope she'll bring this poem to life when the 2018 shortlisted poets gather to read from their work on Thursday, June 6th in Toronto.

from Vaporative

by Layli Long Soldier

However a light may come
through vaporative
glass pane or dry dermis
of hand winter bent
I follow that light
capacity that I have
cup-sized capture
snap-like seizure I
remember small
is less to forget
less to carry
tiny gears mini-
armature I gun
the spark light
I blink eye blink
at me to look
at me in
light eye
look twice
and I eye

Notes on the Poem

As we make our way through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, Poem of the Week now casts its gaze at "Vaporative", a selection from Layli Long Soldier's Whereas. As the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize judges observe, Long Soldier "lay[s] bare the murderous hypocrisy lurking behind the official language of the state" by "deftly deploying a variety of techniques and idioms". The slim icicle of simultaneously precise and elusive wordplay that is the opening section of "Vaporative" might not, at first glance, seem to be as pointed an examination of troubling and deceptive uses of language as, for example, the "Whereas" section of the book is. But in fact, "Vaporative" is pointed: figuratively, as it unspools words that as they're spoken can artfully mislead ("I blink eye blink"), and literally, as the words on the page assemble into the honed tip of a knife. Concrete poetry is clearly one of the forms the judges commend Long Soldier for wielding with such effect. We're reminded of the combination of visual interest and emotional resonance that Liz Howard achieved in her poem "Boreal Swing". While the power of concrete poetry is lost when the poem is read aloud, Long Soldier also bolsters this poem's potency with delectable words. This sequence cries out to be read aloud: "I follow that light capacity that I have cup-sized capture snap-like seizure I remember small is less to forget less to carry" In the introduction to the Whereas Statements at the heart of this collection, it's a dagger thrust of trenchant irony when Long Soldier points out that the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans was never read aloud, publicly. Even though the suggestion in this poem that words spoken or recorded on the page are perhaps ephemeral - they vaporize - Long Soldier has combined visual impact with sonic powers that drive home the point (yes, that word bears repeating) that whether or not words are viewed, not viewed, spoken or not spoken, they can endure, for good or for bad.

Epistolary Correspondences

by Susan Howe

Before I was sent to Little Sir Echo I had an imaginary friend who lived in our Buffalo mailbox. His name was Mr. Bickle. When we moved to Cambridge he vanished as transitional objects tend to do although his name lives on as a family anecdote.

     Strange that one half-suffocated picnic in the course of life can disappear into Lake Armington’s hanging rock echo portals. Until the replication of love prevails in art and Periscope – one of Paul Thek’s late “picture-light” paintings, bubbles up from puddle blue depths

     So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden. Lilting betwixt and between. Between what? Oh everything. Take your microphone. Cross your voice with the ocean.
     I’m here, I’m still American

Notes on the Poem

Poem of the Week is now on the second week of a seven-week exploration of selections from the just announced 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This time, we're delving into the riches of the extended Foreword of Susan Howe's work, Debths. "Epistolary Correspondences" picks up from the very beginning of the Foreword section, where Howe reminisces, but in somewhat pointed fashion, about the summer camp her parents sent her to when seh was eight. "I hated the place." In one visit where she had a solemn picnic with her parents, "I begged them to ransom me" ... but they departed at the end of the day and left her at the camp. Clearly, that incident still haunts her, not only raising the spectre of Mr. Bickle (although surely we think fondly about childhood imaginary friends, he's rather coldly referred to as a "transitional object") but earning the troubling adjective "half-suffocated" and other haunting analogies for that unfortunate picnic. The leap from there to the paintings of Paul Threk - here is a gallery of them to capture the mood - is fascinating. Did Threk's images somehow disinter the unhappy summer camp and perceived parental insensitivity? "So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden." That images - not words - provoked this unearthing of memories further intrigues. If Mr. Bickle lived in a mailbox, perhaps he would have witnessed some written missives petitioning for a summer camp reprieve ... but no, he had already transitioned and vanished, perhaps taking the power of words with him. As we delve into Howe's Debths, we see that images and text often battle it out on the page, deepening our curiosity and drawing us into her explorations.

from Heaven Is All Goodbyes

by Tongo Eisen-Martin

Father’s ashes on the back seat behind two sons

In a lane not for metaphor
Well, maybe a metaphor about something unfinished
-One million hands passing us through the Midwest

Last wishes by way of fishtail / Day dreams by way of collision /
   Home in the badlands of translation / Relaxed passing / Great
   grandparents’ finger bones / Father’s ashes / No longer arms /
   Just tattoos

Badlands imagination
A father’s last trip home

We don’t know what else we good at besides this traveling

Exits in collage / Exits in pieces / Pieces of 1970s kitchen plates /
   In a good luck refrigerator / We still ain’t ate / The narcotic
   swing of how we see yesterday

Get out of the car against desperate white supremacy

Notes on the Poem

Over the next seven weeks, our Poem of the Week choices will come from the freshly announced 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. The first selection is an excerpt from the titular poem of Tongo Eisen-Martin's powerful collection Heaven Is All Goodbyes. Eisen-Martin offers moving storytelling made particularly powerful by how simply and strikingly it is delivered - there is so much packed into just one line: "Father's ashes on the back seat behind two sons" Skilfully, he juxtaposes that with a smooth deconstruction of the tools and techniques for telling stories, singling out metaphor, which he points out elsewhere in this collection, and which we have examined in other Poems of the Week. Because he has expressly mentioned metaphor, we're then on tenterhooks as we follow the two sons on their tender journey on "a father's last trip home". Is the journey literally fraught with fishtails, collisions and other vehicular mishaps, or are those stand-ins for emotional calamities? We want them to reach their destination as they ruefully observe that "We don't know what else we good at besides this traveling" How literally versus symbolically do we take the potent and disturbing last line of this excerpt? We just want the two brothers to peacefully resume or conclude their travels.

The Griffin Poetry Prize Announces the 2018 International and Canadian Shortlist

TORONTO – April 10, 2018 – Scott Griffin, on behalf of the trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry, is pleased to announce the International and Canadian shortlist for this year’s prize. Judges Sarah Howe (UK), Ben Lerner (USA), and Ian Williams (Canada) each read 542 books of poetry, from 33 countries, including 17 translations.

Continue reading “The Griffin Poetry Prize Announces the 2018 International and Canadian Shortlist”


by Jordan Abel

he heard snatches of comment
going up from the river bank

all them injuns is people first
and besides for this buckskin

why we even shoot at them
and seems like a sign of warm

dead as a horse friendship
and time to pedal their eyes

to lean out and say the truth3
all you injuns is just white keys

Notes on the Poem

As we await the announcement of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, let's take a look back at selections from 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection Injun by Jordan Abel. We learned a lot in previous Poem of the Week discussions about his powerful use of found poetry. Other techniques contribute to the impact of his work, as he revealed in an interview last year. When Abel spoke with Anna Bowen of the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, he described how one of his strategies for managing and shaping the source materials was inspired by the "cutup method". You can listen to the interview here while you read the rest of our notes. Artist and writer Brion Gysin and author William Burroughs were two early proponents of applying the painterly collage methodology of the cut-up method to words. The following is an interesting description of the effects of the cut up method, taken from this piece on the subject:
The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut up method was made explicit -- (all writing is in fact cut ups. I will return to this point)-- had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.
To the physical cut-up process, Abel has added a kind of digital cut-up process facilitated by the electronic searches and filtering of he applied to his collected source materials. As well, how he presents the work in performance (as illustrated in the video on this page) could be characterized as a kind of audio cut-up process. Perhaps the title of one of his earlier works, A Place of Scraps is an especially prescient name in terms of the evolution of Abel's process. He has employed it memorably to cast new, unflinching light on, as he terms it, the "antiquated language" of his source materials.

The Fable of the Open Book

by Don Paterson

Once upon a time there was a book.
The book lay open to a page. The page
had a margin, and they shared a dirty look –
though the truth is they were practically engaged.
The page said roughly what it thought it should,
the margin said exactly what it wanted,
and all was grand. But one thing spoiled the mood
of the wee verge. ‘I’m so squished and tiny-fonted!
Why the hell should that guy hog the floor?
I’ll shove that silly bigmouth out the door!’
And soon the page was lying in the gutter.
Now it could weep and wail, and spit and splutter!
‘Time,’ the margin cried, ‘to make my mark!’
And suddenly it went completely dark.

Notes on the Poem

We were charmed once before by Don Paterson's "The Fable of the Open Book" from his 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection 40 Sonnets and we're pretty sure you were, too. Let's visit it again. It's easy to immerse yourself in fascinating examinations of the sonnet form and all its variations, to which Paterson adds his own lively, resonant, even subversive interpretations. "The Fable of the Open Book" seemingly effortlessly assumes the 14-line format, tackles and masters the rhyme scheme, and trots steadily to its surprising ending with metrical aplomb. The poem is a structural marvel. Then again, you need not focus on the poem's technical prowess to relish it. There are tumbling plays on words: "practically engaged" is a subtly rich example, while "the page was lying in the gutter" produces outright laughter). There are sharp rhymes: "wanted / tiny-fonted", "gutter / splutter" and more beg for the poem to be read aloud. Finally, how each character in the poem is animated will have you gazing about with rueful apprehension the next time you open a book.

First Flowers

by Hoa Nguyen

Wasps out of the birdhouse
for spring     my boys shook
    out the dead wasps

New fly west
New fly west

for spring? To sip it?
Little gatherings of birds

Why does this feel like weeping?

My friends     we love

It is two kinds of lost
that I’m lost in

Notes on the Poem

Let's savour another intriguing selection from 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted colletion Violet Energy Ingots by Hoa Nguyen. At the same time, let's consider the poem relative to insights Nguyen offered in an interview around the time the collection was shortlisted, in the spring of 2017. How apropos that the poem is about spring ... In her chat with Trevor Corkum of 49th Shelf, a lively compendium and celebration of Canadian books, Nguyen reveals this about her poetic practice:
"My practice is one of engagement, an engagement that questions and continues what came before and also attempts an unafraid, messy beauty. I’m after poems that are both rooted and unruly."
Not only does "First Flowers" engage, as it does from the outset as you're both charmed and a bit apprehensive as her boys clear out the birdhouse, its look at simple seasonal milestones does both question ("for spring? To sip it?") and continue what came before. And yes, it's all of unafraid, a bit messy and definitely beautiful. At the end ... "It is two kinds of lost that I'm lost in" is somehow rooted because she's able to admit she's different kinds of lost. In the interview, Nguyen also shares:
"I prefer poems that are sonically compelling and risk saying something. These are the poems that endure for me."
The repetition, the tumble of sentences and sentence fragments, delicious words like "snowdrops", the bittersweet juxtaposition of love and lost and what that might hint at ... her own poem easily fits her criteria and will fascinatingly endure for us, her readers.

On Clear Nights

by Suzanne Buffam

At most two thousand stars
Can be seen with the naked eye from earth.

A difficult number to grapple with,
Too large and, on the other hand, too small.

A simple mathematical equation
May throw the problem into relief.

Consider a battlefield.
The fighting has ended

And the bodies lie still in the grass.
How many dead soldiers

Equal the sky overhead?

Notes on the Poem

Suzanne Buffam offers 73 "Little Commentaries" in her 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poetry collection. Their brevity might suggest they are all unambiguous and to the point - there are few words and little time to waste, it seems. However, the ostensibly light format, in length and tone, is often disarming in the purest sense. Many contain depths not evident at first glance, or that clutch the reader in the final lines and beats. The "little commentaries" we've considered previously include "On Joy" and "On Flags". Does the voice in those pieces and even how they and their companion pieces are classified as "little" come across as humble, self-deprecating, but maybe go so far as to diminish the important themes woven between the lines? Is the potent comparison of the night sky and the tangible, tragic aftermath of war minimized by being labelled as "little"? In fact, is this equation actually made more powerful because it is - perhaps disingenuously - described as simple? All of the "little commentaries" are titled in the same fashion: "On [subject]", suggesting "This poem is on the subject of ..." Interestingly, this piece's title is in the same form, but carries with it some poignant ambiguity. While it is "on the subject of clear nights", the phrase "on clear nights" could mean the time at which contemplations resulting in such powerful analogies occur.