Toronto’s David W. McFadden appeared utterly shocked to win the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize on Thursday night, thanking his daughter Jennifer for being “such a wonderful person” and providing inspiration for his collection.
McFadden’s What’s the Score? (Mansfield Press) was named the winner of the lucrative prize for a Canadian work of poetry at a gala attended by literary luminaries including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Susan Swan and Michael Winter.
“I can’t talk, I’m sorry, but I can read,” said a tongue-tied McFadden as he referred to a prepared speech in which he also thanked the prize creators, his family and his editor and publisher.
“I didn’t expect this. I didn’t know what I was doing up there,” he said with a laugh in an interview after receiving the prize.
“All I know is that I feel sorry for all the great poets that haven’t had this experience.”
The author of 35 books of poetry, fiction and travel writing, McFadden started publishing poetry in 1958 and has been previously shortlisted for the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize, as well as for three Governor-General’s Awards.
In their citation of What’s the Score? the judges said: “With their arch yet affable tone, these ninety-nine irreverent and mock-earnest poems lay siege to the feelings of boredom, anxiety, and alienation that afflict a culture obsessed with wealth and prestige, leading us, again and again, down the road of excess to the palace of wisdom.”
Meanwhile, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems (Yale University Press), by Ramallah-based Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah of Houston, won $65,000 for the international Griffin honour. Zaqtan has written 10 poetry collections while Joudah is an internal medicine doctor as well as a translator and poet himself.
Speaking in Arabic translated by Joudah, Zaqtan thanked his fellow nominees, the prize creators, his poet father and his mother, “who was essentially the librarian of the house.”
He and Joudah also thanked late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who published Zaqtan’s work in a magazine that caught the translator’s attention.
“That’s how we came together as two brotherly souls, I think, who had never met or spoken,” Joudah said in an interview.
“I began on the work simply by asking him permission through email and he sent me the texts and then later on, as time passed, we spoke and then years later we met.”
Zaqtan’s visa to enter Canada to attend the Griffin gala was initially denied by the Canadian embassy in Cairo but after Joudah and other writer groups took to social media to garner support for him, the visa was eventually granted.
“I think the visa thing is recognizably an unfortunate twist of events,” said Joudah. “But it was solved and I think one’s thoughts turn most importantly to the celebration of beauty and poetry.”
The Griffin prize, he added, “really puts, in part, Palestinian poetry in a light that it should have been under and in for quite some time. And it’s about time and I am happy for that.”
This is the 13th year for the Griffin, which recognizes one Canadian and one international poet.
Judges Suzanne Buffam of Vancouver, Mark Doty of the U.S., and China’s Wang Ping each read 509 books of poetry, from 40 countries, including 15 translations.
Toronto businessman Scott Griffin created the honour along with trustees including Atwood and Ondaatje.
The prize money includes $10,000 each finalist received for participating in Wednesday evening’s readings.
Guests at the Thursday bash feasted on shrimp tacos, truffled wild mushrooms, beef tenderloin and mini chocolate bars. The night was a celebration of poetry, which former Griffin winner A.F. Moritz called “a guardian of the health of language and the creativity of language.”
He lamented its marginalization, adding: “If there were more of a balance of poetry and all that it represents, or (it was) more central in our culture, our culture would be doing a lot better.”
Last year’s winners were Toronto’s Ken Babstock and Britain’s David Harsent.