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.

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by Jordan Abel

copyright ©2016 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

copyright ©2015 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

copyright ©2016 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

copyright ©2010 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.

from Flagelliform 61: Tilted Away

by Shane Book

copyright ©Shane Book 2014

I broke off the dangling shrub     and inserted it     above my ear.
Bent in at the belly     I sweated,     to fit     to try to fit.

The dangling shrub     was bruised
It moved a little move     and Lady Song-of-Jamestown
said in my hear: Why     is broken.

Spooked     I
leapt     a leafy thwart
into my thinking vessel     the aluminum canoe
and in my here said Lady Song-of-Jamestown:
“Why     its smelters long ago felled at The-Task-Is-
    Incomplete,     a falling
artist felling them     name of
who wears     crown of shells     partly concealing
a turban of layered light.”

I stared straight ahead,     paddling
My canoe walls hung with barkcloth     a giant dentalium
and four figureheads in lignified paste     (We watching).

The ivory one, called     Tapping-Out-of-Time.
And the dark muscular one,     Below-the-Galleon-Decks.
And the remembered one named,     Palm-Thatch-Floor.
And the little one called,     Fruit-of-the-Distant-Weep
    (mothered black,     from sleeping).

Lady Song-of-Jamestown     mending her fishnets
pulled the water-hook     from my hand.

Notes on the Poem

What clues will help us solve the mystery pulsing through Shane Book's Flagelliform poems, from his 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Congotronic? Let's find out more about the vivid word associated with the title of a series of poems in Congotronic. The adjective "flagelliform" means to be shaped like a whiplash; long, slender, round, flexible, tapered. This chillingly connects the poems to some of Book's stated sources for the collection: slave narratives and the diaries of plantation owners. The poet has also revealed in the notes accompanying Congotronic that some of the Flagelliforms are inspired by the West African epic of Sundiata (also known as Sundiata Keita or Sunjata Epic). Sundiata is an epic poem originating around the 13th century of Africa's Malinke people, descendants of the Mali Empire. The poem had a strong oral tradition from those early times, narrated by generations of griot poets, and then started to be gathered in written form in the early 20th century. Wonderfully, examples and insights into the story of Sundiata Keita and how he fought to found Mali and how those stories were conveyed abound, including this recent rendition: Read this Flagelliform excerpt aloud and its roots in the Sundiata oral tradition are loud, clear and draw you in to its fascinating storytelling. At the same time, gaze at it on the page or screen and you'll discover that Book has deftly melded oral and written traditions, by virtue of subtle and mischievous wordplay, including: "said in my hear" then "and in my here" ... grounding the words in place as well as time. The reader is enticingly invited to steer and turn one's "thinking vessel" to these words with one's full attention. As this reviewer of Congotronic expresses it: "Sometimes the words flow with a rhythm of a rap, other times they flow like cut-up, making the reader stop, think, and reorganize the words he read."

Citation for Ken Babstock’s “Methodist Hatchet”

by Heather McHugh

Babstock is the live wire in the gene pool: stirring things up, rocking boats, disjoining easier conjunctions, jolting the culture’s DNA. From sea-and-skyscapes literally lettered, from the suspect core of our ‘décors? (‘lost heart’ informs that fashion’s stock and trade), he winds past mere mundanities to find the world again, with words for his divining wands. ‘Money’s the more virtual virtual,’ Babstock writes. ‘I don’t talk this way in Real Life.’ Cable-stitched by shopping channels, across northernmost America and more, desire is wired: With HGTV’s IV, or the PC’s ICU, we feed our merchandizing minds. ‘We bought this stuff,’ he says. Disclosure’s what he’s after, as wary of the cosy center as of the so-called cutting-edge. But get a load of those poetic closures: master craft in ‘Wikileaks and sea smoke’ weaving worlds of words together. Man of letters, he remarks the X’s on workmen’s safety vests; the V’s descending out of Gander, headed for the kind of down discounted in an Army-Navy store. A shapely mind will note the uppers, too; they’re cut with aspirin and talc. This guy is one ferocious logophile. A signature device, the ‘disconnected current gauge,’ trips all the switches: current cut off into currency – but also presents. It was ‘a gift,’ writes Babstock, with ‘its needle stilled between / ‘Reverse clips’ and ‘Start charge.’ Consult it / and it shivers on a hash mark.’ Thus, in a flash, the disused item (mere décor) becomes occasion for a gift: the wordsmith talent, not the dollar sign, with other hashes hinted, other hushes marked. The old and new worlds hackable in just one comprehensive stun, this shock of shiver to be had. Methodist Hatchet lets us have it. Thus do local gifts turn into global ones.

Notes on the Poem

When we consider each Poem of the Week, we regularly take as our cue the observations of our judges as they include the collection from which a poem came in that year's Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. The judges capture those observations beautifully in the citations that accompany each shortlist announcement. Here are some of the thoughtful and well-crafted tributes to poetry collections that have been shortlisted for and won the Griffin Poetry Prize:
  • Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson Griffin Poetry Prize 2001 - Canadian Winner (Judges: Carolyn Forche, Dennis Lee, Paul Muldoon)
  • Born to Slow Horses by Kamau Brathwaite Griffin Poetry Prize 2006 - International Winner (Judges: Lavinia Greenlaw, Lisa Robertson, Eliot Weinberger)
  • Ocean by Sue Goyette Griffin Poetry Prize 2014 - Canadian Shortlist (Judges: Robert Bringhurst, Jo Shapcott, CD Wright)
  • Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo Griffin Poetry Prize 2016 - International Shortlist (Judges: Alice Oswald, Tracy K Smith, Adam Sol)
One of the most striking citations concocted for a Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted work is Heather McHugh's jauntily rhapsodic commendation for 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian winner Methodist Hatchet by Ken Babstock. (McHugh teamed up with David O'Meara and Fiona Sampson to judge the 2012 poetry contenders.) The citation riffs on Babstock's words, phrases, themes and rhythms with such infectious verve that it's loosely a glosa, certainly a poem unto itself. McHugh's accolades are warmly colloquial ... "But get a load of those poetic closures" and "This guy is one ferocious logophile" ... and clearly Babstock's crackling work has inspired the judge's own potent zingers, including: "Cable-stitched by shopping channels, across northernmost America and more, desire is wired: With HGTV’s IV, or the PC’s ICU, we feed our merchandizing minds." Electrified by the citation, we can't wait to devour the subject of such singular praise.

Losing My Page

by Rachael Boast

copyright ©Rachael Boast 2013

Nothing was ever straightforward with you
and so, instead of returning to where
I left off, I re-entered the poem
from afar – it hardly mattered where –

and eventually reached the same clearing
marked, I’d noticed, by the hands of time
held up in prayer, where I’d seen you before –
or thought I had – at the midnight hour

you rhyme yourself with. Page after page
the light would change, to dark and back again,
reminding me of someone who, when put

on the spot, knows the dance of gain and loss
by the secret fidelity of moving
from one foot to the other, to the other.

Notes on the Poem

Even as she professes to be lost, Rachael Boast forges a path through the thoughts laid out with striking clarity in her poem "Losing My Page" from the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection "Pilgrim's Flower." This poem is definitely worth revisiting. In fact, it doesn't seem the narrator is the one who is lost at all, judging by the blunt opening line: "Nothing was ever straightforward with you" ... but she is resourcefully finding ways to regain her purchase and orientation, whether it's with a challenging poem or an equally enigmatic, perhaps even frustrating person. The narrator is patient and methodical though, trying different solutions and coping mechanisms, from coming at something from different angles to prayer. She remains optimistic, even as: "Page after page the light would change, to dark and back again" Finally, the "secret fidelity" of balance "moving from one foot to the other, to the other" seems to bring her to a fine, determined and satisfying conclusion.

A Singer Must Die

Title: A Singer Must Die

Date: February 26, 2018

Location: Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Description: Art of Time Ensemble has assembled a group of artists – singers, authors, and musicians alike – with profound love and respect for Leonard Cohen’s work to pay tribute to his legacy.

Singers Steven Page, Sarah Harmer, Sarah Slean, Tom Wilson, and Gregory Hoskins will perform Cohen’s songs in arrangements by top Canadian composers, and a rotating cast of writers – including Michael Redhill, Karen Solie, Barbara Gowdy and more – will share personal anecdotes.

Learn more here.

Return to the International Poetry Calendar.