Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Doyali Islam is shortlisted for her book heft.Handout

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.

Open this photo in gallery:

Kaie Kellough is shortlisted for his book Magnetic Equator./The Canadian Press

What is a line or image from the book that you are particularly proud of, and why?

Chantal Gibson: Lately, I am drawn to the circular poem reciprocal pronouns, how it can be read clockwise and counter-clockwise, how the form shifts with each stanza, how it sounds like an undulating ocean when read aloud. I have my editor to thank for that poem, the brilliant and necessary Canisia Lubrin, who kept asking me for more iterations.

Doyali Islam: I’m proud of the line “so too, one day, will he be ushered out ” in the poem the ant. I remember how the poem came alive when I finalized that line. Its earlier version was “so too, one day, will i be ushered out.” My journal marks the day I realized the verse’s first-person “i” needed to be a third-person “he.” It was a necessary change that allowed the poem’s centre to remain in my father rather than shifting into my own ego. By speaking to my father’s mortality, I would anyway be speaking – simultaneously, obliquely – to a reader’s or listener’s mortality, as well as my own.

Kaie Kellough: Pride is the first casualty of the editorial process, but a friend did tell me that the title Magnetic Equator reminded him of the titles of spiritual jazz records from the 1960s.

Open this photo in gallery:

Chantal Gibson is shortlisted for her book How She Read.Dale Northey/Handout

Not having an actual awards gala is a bummer. What part of the event were you looking forward to?

Chantal Gibson: I really like a nice party – new shoes, pretty dress, my partner in a tux – but this historical moment is heavy, and I’m fastened to the present. I’m thinking about social distancing – in all the ways that means. It would have been nice to see my publisher acknowledged at the gala. Vici, Sarah, and Monica at Caitlin Press in tiny Halfmoon Bay, B.C. – this is their first Griffin nomination, too.

Doyali Islam: I read that the gala had been cancelled before I found out I was nominated, so I didn’t have a chance to feel robbed of an experience, although I’m sure the night would have been stellar. Over the past few years, I really loved attending the shortlist readings at Koerner Hall, which has a special place in my heart. Before my partner, Daniel, and I became partners, he said to me on a bench at Philosopher’s Walk: “It’s you or no one.” So Koerner Hall means love. But I’m glad that the Griffin Trust prioritized public safety, and now I don’t need to debate what to wear to a gala or reading – a romantic dress that Daniel bought me when we were in Vancouver, or the “cat dress” I’m known for in poetry circles.

Kaie Kellough: I was looking forward to the readings, to hearing the other shortlisted poets, but also to sounding the poems aloud in front of an audience, to emphasizing the rhythms of the text, to being amplified, and to using the podium as a percussive device. I was dreading the sense of my fellow writers as competition. I admire Doyali’s work and Chantal’s work, and I would prefer to spend an evening talking poetry with them.

Is there is a line or image from another poet’s work that has taken on new significance for you during this pandemic?

Chantal Gibson: This is from Alessandra Naccarato’s Re-Origin of Species, from a poem called It Could Be A Virus:

It could be the wolves / they shot, the deer that overbred, until Lyme disease /

went viral. It could be pollution, or loneliness. / Or maybe bacteria. It could all be your fault.

Doyali Islam: The title of Noor Naga’s masterful debut poetry book – Washes, Prays – takes on an entirely new resonance. Naga’s book is so rich it doesn’t need this extra resonance, but it is there, and it shows us what poetry can do – how capaciously it can operate.

Kaie Kellough: I have been revisiting the work of Miguel Syjuco, Jamaica Kincaid and Derek Walcott. In a time of confinement, their work opens onto the world. It spans oceans, continents, hemispheres, it soars with the sweep of history. Its gift is a sense of expanse, of possibility. It functions as an antidote to our restricted circumstances.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.