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Books ‘This is a debut book – holy crap’: Liz Howard takes the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize

Michael Wiegers, left to right, publisher of international winner Norman Dubie, businessman and philanthropist Scott Griffin and Canadian winner Liz Howard pose for a photo following the presentation of the Griffin Poetry Prize in Toronto.

Tom Sandler/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Liz Howard became the youngest winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize on Thursday, receiving the $65,000 award for her collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent.

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

"I sort of feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience," said Howard, 31, standing off-stage a few minutes after the announcement was made. "It may seem really strange but I feel as though I actually died some time ago and [I'm] living in an afterlife."

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Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is the first debut collection to win the prize, as well.

Howard, who also received $10,000 for taking part in the Griffin Prize readings on Wednesday, said the award would allow her to pay off her student loans and concentrate on her next book.

"I have several different projects in my mind, and it's hard to focus," she said. "All I want to do is write. All I want to do is do this one thing. And this is such a confirmation."

Adam Sol, who served on the jury alongside Alice Oswald and Tracy K. Smith (they considered 633 books of poetry from more than 40 countries) said it was the "ambition and reach" of Howard's book that "made her work stand out. This is a debut book – holy crap. Who knows what she'll do next."

The other nominees for the Canadian prize were Soraya Peerbaye for her book Tell: poems for a girlhood, and Per Brask and Patrick Friesen for their translation of the Danish poet Ulrikka S. Gernes's Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments.

The winner of the International Prize was American poet Norman Dubie, who was unable to attend, for his collection The Quotations of Bone, and the ceremony also featured a reading by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, the recipient of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry's 2016 Lifetime Recognition Award. While both men have long, distinguished careers behind them, Howard's is just beginning.

"My upbringing was quite difficult and impoverished, and when I was young I sort of thought that perhaps it would be best to not exist," said an emotional Howard, originally from the small northern Ontario community of Chapleau, during her acceptance speech. "I guess I just want to say that it can get better. And for me, poetry made life possible."

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