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How Liz Howard went from studying science to the Griffin Prize short list

Liz Howard’s first book, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, is up for the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

About two years ago, Liz Howard received an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Dionne Brand. An award-winning poet and novelist, Brand had recently been tasked with helping to relaunch McClelland & Stewart's poetry program, and she wondered if Howard, whom she had taught creative writing at the University of Guelph, had a manuscript ready to submit.

"I was like, 'Okay, will you give me one week?' " Howard recalls, laughing. "In a mad flurry, I just pulled everything that I'd written over the past four or five years and tried to quickly edit it and sequence it in a way that made some kind of sense, and then I submitted that. I was like, 'There's no way they're going to take it.'

"Within a week after I'd submitted it, they [said], 'We would like to offer you a book contract.' It was madness."

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Unlikely as the story may be, what has happened since is perhaps more unbelievable.

Last fall, Howard's book, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, a challenging, thought-provoking exploration of concerns environmental, social and personal, anchored by the author's Northern Ontario childhood, was nominated for the Governor-General's Literary Award for Poetry.

In April, the book was on the Canadian short list for the Griffin Poetry Prize – along with Soraya Peerbaye's Tell: poems for a girlhood and Patrick Friesen and Per Brask's translation of the Danish writer Ulrikka S. Gernes's collection Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments – the winner of which will be announced on Thursday.

"These last few months have just been absolutely bonkers," says Howard, 31, sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy afternoon, having just come from her job as a research officer in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. (She also works part-time in a geriatric-research hospital.) We're just a couple of blocks away from Koerner Hall, where Howard will read to more than a thousand people on Wednesday night as part of the annual Griffin Prize readings, but 800 kilometres from Chapleau, Ont., the community of about two thousand people where Howard was raised.

"I always joke that people are including their dogs in the census," she says. "Almost everyone knows each other. It's very isolated – if you look it up on Wikipedia, it says 'geographically isolated.' It's right at the start of the Arctic watershed. The nearest town is Wawa, which is an hour-and-a-half drive west. And then there's Timmins" – where Howard was born – "which is a two-hour drive east. We're so small, we don't have a Tim Hortons."

What they do have, she adds, is natural beauty; the town is "completely surrounded by literal wilderness." It's a wilderness she conjures in the collection – forests and marshlands, fields and rivers, "all of which has been impacted or tainted by human use," she points out, her work filled with lumber mills, tailing ponds and logging trucks rumbling the foundations of houses as they drive by.

"My childhood was quite poor," she says, and "it didn't even occur to me that I could be a poet or say that I was poet. People like us don't do that. Other people, in New York or in Toronto – big cities – people who have time and money to do that write poetry. But not people like us."

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Instead, she studied science at the University of Toronto – "I've studied neuroanatomy and neuroscience and physiology and psychopathology, so those are the realms that I draw from," she says. "This is the language and the ideas and the frameworks that I spent so much time trying to wrap my head around" – only finally taking a poetry course through the school of continuing studies after graduating.

"I remember being very struck by how much aesthetic identity was already in her work," says poet Margaret Christakos, who taught the course and has worked with Howard for much of the past decade. "When she read her work aloud, in particular, I have to say I had a very strong internal response that I was hearing a very powerful, interesting, original voice. I can say that about a lot of students in passing, but I had one of those self-aware moments, that Liz really had something really particular going on in the voice that she'd already created. It was pretty amazing."

Howard reached a point, a few years ago, where she experienced what she calls a "total crisis." Work felt unrewarding, various relationships with friends and family were "tumultuous and falling apart," and she knew she needed to make a change. "What I had always wanted to do was write," she says, but instead she ordered a stack of entrance-exam prep books, intending to apply for a masters in science program, perhaps in psychology.

"I sat myself down, and I started going through them," she says. "And I was almost viscerally ill. I started panicking. I was just like, 'I'm applying to Guelph, my parents are not going to understand, I'm probably going to go bankrupt, but I can't do this any more. I have to do something different.' And it was the right choice. I'm lucky that it was the right choice."

As she finishes the story, we notice the rain has stopped and the sun has broken through the clouds.

"It's very poetic," she says.

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"A metaphor," I offer.

She laughs, and then adopts a deep, serious voice: "And then the sun came out as she mentioned choosing to become a poet."

The Griffin Poetry Prize short list readings take place on Wednesday at Koerner Hall in Toronto. The prizes will be awarded on Thursday.

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