The Griffin Prize Gala is the one night each year when Canadian poets get to dress up, drink expensive cocktails and mingle with people who get to their cottages by private float plane – all in the name of celebrating great verse. Like almost every other major cultural event, however, the gala has had to adjust to the new COVID-19 reality. Instead of a luxe party at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, the winners (one Canadian and one international) of the country’s richest poetry prize – $65,000 to each – will be announced online May 19. We asked the three authors on the Canadian shortlist about their nominated books, what they’ll miss about not having a night out on the Griffin’s tab, and the poetry that’s helping them get through this moment.
How is your new book different from your previous work?
Chantal Gibson, shortlisted for How She Read (Caitlin Press): Both my visual and literary art challenge the ways individuals, communities and institutions construct knowledge. My art installations and altered-book sculptures question historical narratives, the story, the storyteller, what’s included, what’s not. How She Read is another kind of altered book. The poems are text sculptures made from marks, gaps, spaces and exclusions, positive and negative space.
Doyali Islam, shortlisted for heft (McClelland & Stewart): Because I’m voluntarily self-isolating in the room where I keep the 10 handwritten journals of my thoughts while creating heft, I’ve had an opportunity to skim them. The journal entries begin in 2010 and end in 2019 when the book was published. A 2013 entry reveals that I was thinking about poetry-making as “an exocrinic task” because language is secreted onto “something epithelial, tissue-thin.” But today I would say the opposite: poetry is endocrinic – it’s music and silence entering the bloodstream directly.
Kaie Kellough, shortlisted for Magnetic Equator (McClelland & Stewart): While writing Magnetic Equator, I learned to love the long poem, the way it can expand beyond the tidiness and precision demanded by shorter poems, the way it can sprawl like the prairie or the Atlantic Ocean, the way it can become ragged, and the way it can incorporate other forms of writing while still remaining a poem.