Shane Book was living on the island of Itaparica, off the coast of Brazil, trying to finish his first collection of poems, when he was bitten by a mosquito. Instead of spending all day "writing crappy poems," as he'd been doing, he lay in a hammock for weeks on end, immobile and hallucinating.
"I got dengue fever," he explains, sitting in his publisher's office one morning earlier this spring. "The doctor came and told me, 'Well, there's nothing you can do. If your brain starts bleeding or something, and you can get to the next village – it's a very low-tech island; people are living like it's the 17th century in some parts – we can maybe give you an IV, but that's all.' When I emerged from this fever, I wrote like five poems in one morning," he continues. "It was shocking. And then every day I would write like 10 poems. It was just like coming out of me. And I just coined the word congotronic in one of the poems. I just thought I really like that word."
Congotronic, his second book of poems, earned him a nomination for the Griffin Poetry Prize. On Wednesday, Book and his fellow finalists will take the stage at Toronto's Koerner Hall for the annual short-list readings; on Thursday, the winners of both prizes – one for Canadians; the other for the rest of the world – will be announced. (Joining Book on the Canadian short list are Jane Munro and Russell Thornton, while the international list features the American Spencer Reece, Ireland's Michael Longley, Poland's Wioletta Greg and her translator Marek Kazmierski and Chinese poet Wang Xiaoni and her translator Eleanor Goodman.) Finalists receive $10,000 for participating in the readings, while the winners earn an additional $65,000 each. For an emerging poet such as Book, winning is a life-changing event.
He was in Minnesota visiting a friend at St. Cloud State University, when he learned of the nomination. Book recalls turning on his computer, logging onto Facebook, and seeing dozens of notifications in the navigation bar. He hurriedly closed his laptop, convinced it must be bad news, "like someone died or something." (He'd forgotten nominations were being announced that day.) He took a walk around campus to steel himself for what was to come, then turned on his computer again.
"I felt overwhelmed with emotion," he says. "I wanted to weep." He had a meeting on campus, but couldn't find the right room. "I kept walking in circles. I was in a daze."
In March, the Canadian poet Colin Fulton posted the results of a study showing "that prize culture in Canadian Poetry is explicitly white supremacist." Book, who was born in Peru to a white father and a Trinidadian mother, is just the fifth Canadian of colour nominated for the Griffin Prize in its 15-year-history. (Dionne Brand takes up two of those spots.) The results of Fulton's research, which circulated in Canadian writing circles, are unsurprising to Book.
"You didn't need to do a study," he says. "You just had to pay attention."
Book, a filmmaker and screenwriter as well as a poet, sees the trend not only in cultural industries but the culture at large.
"I think it's just symptomatic of the superstructure in place which is: People of colour in North America [are] most popular with law enforcement and the penal system," he says. "It seems to be that brown and black bodies – in North America, at least – are threats. The idea is to control those people. It's all about maintaining dominance over them. That's not directly related to publishing, but I think it's illustrative of what the culture is interested in doing with people who look like that. It's more about 'Let's keep those people in place.' "
His work – which runs the gamut from outraged to absurd, and often frames the contemporary in the historical – fights against this. Book spent part of his adolescence in Ghana, where his father worked for the now-defunct Canadian International Development Agency and, though he himself has lived a fairly nomadic life, there's a pronounced African influence in his poetry. In their citation, the judges described the collection as "contemporary world music" and as "a door held open to varieties of sound and content from multiple cultures."
Book, who attended the University of Western Ontario, the University of Victoria, New York University, the University of Iowa, Stanford and Temple ("My whole thing with going to school so much is I just went to places where they would give me money, and they wouldn't bother me," he explains. "It was like a writing residency") Book says he possesses an "impulse" to document what he's witnessed – reportage camouflaged in verse – and his first book, for instance, 2010's Ceiling of Sticks, was influenced by the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado's work in Africa more than any particular poet.
"There's a documentary quality of his observation, a journalistic level of crucial detail," says his friend, collaborator, and former classmate, the poet David Lau, in an e-mail. "The restlessness in his work in Congotronic is on speaking terms with truly sublime art, the self-exceeding, uncompromising kind that characterized avant-garde modern and postmodern poetry. But this old work is sped up, ultra-contemporary, a transcontinental rumba of the global digital."
The title, Congotronic, suggests this blending of old and new forms ("Everybody thinks Africa is primitive," he says. "But I feel like the technology makes the iPhone look like a joke.") His own creative output blends several forms, too. Book just got a job teaching film and poetry at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky., an hour north of Nashville, and recently wrapped up production on a short film called Praise and Blame. The film, which he wrote, directed and co-produced, stars Costas Mandylor ("In the nineties he was [one of] People magazine's [most] beautiful men on Earth") as a Belarusian poet who, after being released from prison, where he was held as a political prisoner, comes to the United States to teach at a college. He describes it as a Coen brothers-esque black comedy – a far cry from the sort of "poetic cinema" he thought he'd be making while still in film school at Temple University. One weekend he showed some people a comedy he'd written and directed. To his surprise, they laughed.
"I was hooked," he says. "Poetry doesn't get a lot of laughs."