Canada’s richest prize for poetry is eliminating the category reserved for Canadian poets, meaning they’ll now have to compete against their peers from around the world for a single international award, the prize’s founder says.
Since its inception more than two decades ago, the Griffin Poetry Prize has given one prize for a book by a Canadian poet and another for an international poet. The two $65,000 prizes are being combined into a $130,000 award for what the jury selects as the best work of poetry – Canadian or international.
This will make it the largest international prize for a single book of poetry written in or translated into English.
“I know there’s going to be some feeling that the elimination of the big Canadian prize is a loss, but Canadian poets were unable to win the international prize and so it was seen as Canadians can’t, don’t measure up,” said prize founder Scott Griffin in an interview. (While technically not ineligible for the international prize, Canadians have always been shortlisted for the Canadian award only.)
“By continuing with the Canadian prize, there is an implied impression that Canadian poets are unable to sit with the best internationally in the world. And this is just not true,” Griffin said, offering examples such as Margaret Atwood and Anne Carson. “It’s time that Canadians are recognized that they can play on the international field.”
The Griffin Prize was established in 2000, with a generous purse ($40,000 for the Canadian award and $40,000 for the international prize originally) recognizing a single book of poetry, rather than a poet’s body of work.
Founding trustees included Atwood and Michael Ondaatje (both of whom remain trustees emeriti) as well as Griffin himself, a philanthropist and poetry lover who has made a fortune in business. Among his ventures, he purchased House of Anansi Press in 2002, effectively saving it.
Winners in the Canadian category have included Carson – who won the inaugural prize in 2001 and again in 2014 – as well as Karen Solie, Dionne Brand, Jordan Abel, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Canisia Lubrin. International winners have included Irish poet Paul Muldoon, British poet Alice Oswald and, most recently, U.S. poet Douglas Kearney.
The objective of the prize is to raise the profile of poets and poetry in Canada and internationally. Griffin says the elimination of the Canadian category is not at odds with that mandate. “Because it is international, it will raise the profile of poetry. Whether it will raise the profile specifically of Canadian poetry is a subtle difference there. But I think it will,” Griffin said. He emphasizes that it is not a Canadian prize, but rather an international prize that is based in Canada.
“We don’t want to be as Canadians parochial, you know, saying ‘well, we’ve just got to have our own prize.’ And if we say that, which we did for 22 years, it gives the impression that we can’t compete … with the big poets. And we can.”
Griffin trustee Ian Williams, a Canadian poet and author who has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, acknowledges that there may be pushback over this decision, but he stands by it.
“We for a long time have been protecting our Canadian space and by protecting it we’ve been keeping it separate as a means of protection and I think we’re ready to go beyond that; to think of Canada as not separate from the world and Canada as part of the world,” said Williams, who was shortlisted for the Griffin in 2013 for his book Personals.
“As Canadian poets we’ve been in this little room and then suddenly there’s this opportunity to go into a big room with everybody,” he added.
Another major change is the introduction of a longlist: ten works, to be announced next March, and a shortlist of five books to be announced in April. The shortlisted poets who don’t win will each receive $10,000 (the same amount as shortlisted authors previously received).
The prize will be awarded at a public poetry reading in June at Toronto’s Koerner Hall – a ticketed event, open to anyone. In the past, the gala was held separately, for an invitation-only audience. That’s being eliminated too.
There’s a new prize open exclusively to Canadians: $10,000 for a first book of poetry, which also comes with a six-week residency in Italy.
And the lifetime recognition award will now be worth $25,000 in years when it is handed out (it is at the discretion of the trustees, rather than the jury) – up from the previous $20,000.
If a winning book is a translation into English, 60 per cent of the prize will go to the translator and 40 per cent to the original poet – a way to recognize the important and often underrepresented work of translators, prize officials say.
The trustees have been discussing the possible changes for more than a year, with a variety of scenarios proposed. In the end, the decision to scrap the Canadian-only prize and merge it into the international prize was unanimous, Griffin told The Globe and Mail.
“We feel that $130,000 for a single book of poetry should rank high in the world’s literary stage and make its mark,” said Griffin. “There’s a big statement here on the importance of poetry.”
The League of Canadian Poets was congratulatory about the move with interim executive director Nic Brewer calling the change “exciting” and the new prize money “a life-changing amount.” But others were less enthusiastic. Poet and McLelland & Stewart poetry editor Canisia Lubrin called the news “a little bit shocking.” She said while not a fan of competitions, winning the Griffin in 2021 has been “terrifically helpful” in bringing an audience to her work, and continues to open doors. “Collapsing of the prizes kind of reveals a strange kind of inferiority complex,” she said. “I never really understood the Canadian prize as a prize for poets who cannot compete on the world stage. It simply was a prize that was allocated to Canadians.”
Paul Vermeersch, a senior editor of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers and a publishing professor at Sheridan College, urged Griffin officials to reconsider. “What’s excited me about [the prize] is how it treated Canadian poetry with respect and showcased it next to poetry from around the world. And I don’t see that commitment anymore and I find it deflating and sad,” said Vermeersch. “It ignores the reality of Canadian publishing and it assumes a meritocracy based solely on the quality of craft and not on the realities of changing media landscapes and diminishing marketing opportunities.” He said with fewer opportunities for poetry to be written about in journals, prize shortlists are an important marketing source.
“I think it’s extremely unlikely a Canadian poet will win that, like highly unlikely. I cannot imagine,” said Jen Sookfong Lee, an author, editor with ECW Press, and poet who published her first collection last year. She said the loss is not just about the prize money, but the career advancement that comes with being recognized by the Griffin: access to teaching jobs, grants and other opportunities.
Vicki Ziegler, who worked for the Griffin Prize for many years and blogs about Canadian literature and publishing, said she worries that with the new format, Canadian poets – even those who make the longlist – could get lost in the shuffle, whereas before they would be showcased side-by-side with the likes of Seamus Heaney. “I don’t think there’s anything parochial in wanting to look in your own backyard. And I think the previous Griffin format did a good job of that without compromising its ability to have some international flavour and heft.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said the Griffin Prize is the richest literary prize in Canada. In fact, the Carol Shields Prize – which is a Canadian/U.S. award – will be worth more.
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