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Dionne Brand is a member of the Order of Canada, winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Toronto Book Award, the Trillium Prize and many other honours.Clea Christakos-Gee/Handout

For Canisia Lubrin, being named poetry editor of McClelland & Stewart was tremendous in and of itself. It felt particularly special to take over the position, which she begins next week, from her former editor and literary guiding light, Dionne Brand. Then on Monday, the world learned that the two Canadian writers have something else extraordinary in common: They are both winners this year of the lucrative and prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize.

It’s the first time two Canadians have won the US$165,000 prize, awarded by Yale University, in the same year. Lubrin says it is especially remarkable to be honoured along with Brand, whom she calls the major influence in her writerly life.

“I’m just a little girl from an extremely poor fishing village on an island in the Caribbean who loves language and storytelling and who took a great leap of imagination. It does not feel like a leap of faith – it feels like a leap of imagination, because I think imagination’s a lot faster than faith,” says Lubrin, 37, who was born in Saint Lucia and moved to Toronto when she was 17.

“And I’ve landed in this place where … I’m on a list including these brilliant, brilliant writers whose works I love, with the one person who probably is the most responsible for the writer I’ve become, Dionne Brand. And thinking of the astronomical improbability of that just blows my mind.”

The Windham-Campbell prizes are named for Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell, a long-time couple who both wrote and had a great appreciation for writing. When Campbell died unexpectedly in 1988, he left the money he had inherited through his family to Windham. Heartbroken, Windham lived a modest life and, when he died in 2010, left his estate to Yale to create a prize in his partner’s honour. The award, according to his will, would “allow a writer to pursue his or her writing without having to be concerned with outside support.”

It is given annually to eight people – two in each category of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama – after a nearly year-long, three-stage process by nominators and judges whose names are kept confidential.

The process for all categories is the same. Fifteen invited nominators each suggest two works. One nomination, generally, is for a writer’s body of work (although it is not a lifetime achievement award) and one is for promise. Then a group of three judges whittles the nominees down to four finalists. Finally, a new, nine-person selection committee selects the winners after months of reading and, in non-pandemic years, a meeting at Yale. At the end of that day, emails are sent to the winners, asking them to give prize director Michael Kelleher a call.

This year, the judging was conducted remotely and those calls happened on Zoom. Kelleher, a poet himself, says he’s not going back to doing it by phone. “Zoom calls are the way to go. It’s just wonderful for everybody to get to share in that moment.”

Lubrin read the email after shovelling snow from the driveway of her Whitby, Ont., home after a snowstorm. At first, she thought it might be a joke.

“So I emailed back, seemingly out of my senses. Because if I were less shocked I might have cleaned up,” she says. “I was sitting there looking like Bigfoot Junior.”

Lubrin is the author of two poetry collections, Voodoo Hypothesis and The Dyzgraphxst. She teaches creative writing at OCAD and poetry at the University of Toronto.

Canisia Lubrin routinely warns her students that they will not be able to make a living from poetry.Clea Christakos-Gee/Handout

“This is no small measure of a miracle in the time it opens up,” she says of the prize.

Brand, who is a professor at the University of Guelph, first came to prominence as a poet but also writes in many other genres. She won this prize for fiction.

“I began as a poet and I began because I really marvelled at the ways in which poetry can do about five things at the same time,” she says in a video produced by Windham-Campbell. This is why, she explains, there is little exposition in her fiction and a lot of layered language. “I thought that the gifts that poetry had could be lent to fiction.”

Brand was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1953 and moved to Toronto in 1970. She is a member of the Order of Canada, winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Toronto Book Award, the Trillium Prize and many other honours. Her most recent novel, Theory, was published in 2018.

“In my novels, my characters live in the Black diaspora and I’m trying to attend to the ways in which the conditions under which they live make their lives discontinuous,” she says in the video. “The ways in which they don’t show up in the dominant narratives.”

Kelleher says Brand could have just as easily won this prize for poetry and perhaps even non-fiction.

“There’s a sense of excitement in the way that she uses language. It’s not just about telling a story, it’s like kind of revelling in the joy and pleasure of language ... There’s this endlessly unrolling sense of the possibilities of language and story and song that you see in all of her work, whether it’s in her fiction or her poetry or her non-fiction.”

Lubrin is currently working on a collection of short stories – to be published by Knopf Canada tentatively next spring – as well as two poetry collections, a book of essays and a novel.

“I feel alive in language. I feel complex and some degree of completion in language. But this is a really practical way of encouraging a writer to continue on,” she says. “And that’s invaluable. Because most of us are dirt poor.”

Lubrin routinely warns her students that they will not be able to make a living from poetry. “It’s very commonplace to get a $100 or a $200 or a $500 advance for poetry that you spend 10 years writing.”

The other winners this year are: Nathan Alan Davis and Michael R. Jackson for drama; Kate Briggs and Vivian Gornick for non-fiction; Renee Gladman for fiction and Natalie Scenters-Zapico for poetry.

Past Canadian winners include David Chariandy, Lorna Goodison, André Alexis, Hannah Moscovitch and John Vaillant.

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