The Chat: 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize Roundtable

It’s that time of year again. The Griffin Poetry Prize will be handed out early next month, and a lucky Canadian poet will go home with $65,000 and the nation’s most prestigious poetry award.

In honour of all things Griffin, this week’s Chat is a conversation with the three 2018 Canadian Griffin Prize finalists—Billy-Ray Belcourt, Aisha Sasha John, and Donato Mancinci—whose collections are challenging, provocative, and wholly original.


Billy-Ray Belcourt is nominated for his collection This World is a Wound (Frontenac House).


“Blending the resources of love song and elegy, prayer and manifesto, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World shows us poetry at its most intimate and politically necessary. Mindful of tangled lineages and the lingering erasures of settler colonialism, Belcourt crafts poems in which “history lays itself bare”.... Belcourt ... chart[s] the constellations of queerness and indigeneity, rebellion and survival, desire and embodiedness ..."


Aisha Sasha John is a finalist for I have to live (McClelland & Stewart).


“Aisha Sasha John’s I have to live shows what poetry can become when stripped of prettiness and polite convention—when in survival mode. Spontaneous, its subjects unposed, its language unrehearsed, each poem has the effect of being taken with a Polaroid camera. John writes poems that are resistant to overwrought aesthetics, poems that have popular appeal yet are uninhibited by audience, poems whose casual demeanour belie their fight against casualty."


Donato Mancini is nominated for his collection Same Diff (Talonbooks).


“Donato Mancini’s Same Diff crosses pre-existing texts with a strong design impulse to assemble a work of unusual beauty, resonance, and timelessness .... Mancini’s primary methods are curatorial (he assembles), orchestral (he co-ordinates), mechanical (he repeats), and archaeological (he excavates language rather than the world for his materials). He fractures words to let out their yolk. Same Diff is a monument to Mancini’s accomplishments: he uses the words of others without appropriation; he negotiates self-effacement, humility, and invisibility; he offers a way to recover a self, not through self-assertion, but by attending to the voices and needs of others. What belongs to any of us? Even Mancini’s words never seem to be his. He is a custodian of language who returns it to us cleaned.”




What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Griffin Prize?

Aisha Sasha John: a prayer of gratitude

Donato Mancini: I was in an airport, on a two-hour layover. When I pulled my selfphone out of my bag and switched it out of “airplane mode,” a larger-than-usual batch of text messages popped up, urging me to get online. I paced around and phoned a few friends to help me process this news that I still have not processed. After that, there was not much I could do but wait faster.

Billy-Ray Belcourt: I composed and posted this tweet: “WTF I JUST SAW THIS (JUST WOKE UP) I AM SCREAMING.”

What scares you most when you write?  

Billy-Ray Belcourt: Lately, I’ve been turned off by the ways in which readers come to texts with suffocating expectations—i.e., wanting the act of reading a text to be a pleasurable one or an aversion to so-called “academic language.” This to me stymies creativity and forecloses the possibilities for surprise that empower critical inquiry.

Aisha Sasha John: I write from to for from love.

Donato Mancini: As I said somewhere before, writing today (for me) is a perfect little hell-ride in a skull-shape. So much could go wrong in so many ways, and so much could be regretted afterwards. But it seems that I'm just a little bit more afraid of *not* writing than I am of writing, and so writing still happens.


It seems that I'm just a little bit more afraid of *not* writing than I am of writing, and so writing still happens.


Which of the poems in your nominated collection was most challenging to write, and why?

Donato Mancini: Each piece in Same Diff presented a very different set of challenges. Much of the book is built out of material that is itself extremely challenging and painful, and each set demanded a distinct treatment. Several of the pieces required me to inhabit and/or articulate human suffering at a threshold way beyond any place I've gone in my writing before. To paraphrase a friend, it felt like a slow, systemic heart-attack.

Aisha Sasha John: The middle section of the book, "Rat vs. Lamb," was resurrected from over-editing by re-transcribing the notebook it was conceived in and beginning again.


Billy-Ray Belcourt: “Ode to Northern Alberta” is a poem that I rewrote a number of times. In its earliest iterations, it was clunky and too matter-of-fact. I wanted instead to thicken the imagery with semantic and emotional possibility, which would shift depending on the social locus of the reader. Hopefully I did that.

There’s been a lot of critical discussion recently about power and privilege in Canadian literature. What more needs to be done to celebrate and recognize diversity within our literary ecosystem?

Billy-Ray Belcourt: What needs to be foregrounded in discussions like these is that people of color, queers, and those who aren’t normatively gendered have been producing complex and profound bodies of writing for decades. It is not that we weren’t writing, it is that the industry was actively suppressing it. Like many institutions, “Canadian literature” was and in some ways still is a bastion of whiteness. There are many practical ways to repair this: funnel resources to Indigenous publishing houses and magazines/journals and those operated by people from minority populations; hire more minority editors and publishers with anti-oppressive stances; implement anti-oppression education in mainstream publishing houses and magazines/journals; diversify award juries and editorial boards; have expansive notions of “literary merit”; do outreach in ways that reach communities of color. I could go on, but I think y’all get the gist.


What needs to be foregrounded in discussions like these is that people of color, queers, and those who aren’t normatively gendered have been producing complex and profound bodies of writing for decades. It is not that we weren’t writing, it is that the industry was actively suppressing it.


Donato Mancini: Readers can do a little shelf-critique, to start with. Ask your shelves: Are you reading diversely? You know what to do if the answer is no. Writers, for their part, can try to learn when it's best to shut up and listen, and when it's best to step out of the way—or even when they should just recuse themselves entirely.
Aisha Sasha John: White supremacist sex-negative patriarchal society = white supremacist sex-negative patriarchal literary ecosystem.
The entire world would need to begin again.


White supremacist sex-negative patriarchal society = white supremacist sex-negative patriarchal literary ecosystem.
The entire world would need to begin again.


What would winning the Griffin Prize mean to you?

Aisha Sasha John: We’ll see.

Donato Mancini: Until this year, I've lived most of my adult life below the “poverty line,” so there's that. I could buy a lot more dried beans for the journey. It feels like I am about 1/3 of the way along. In terms of worldly benefits, and in terms of self-confidence, it could help me a lot in achieving the stability I need to keep going.

Billy-Ray Belcourt: Oh man, this is hard to say. I’m trying to avoid ratcheting up too much hope in the very possible event that this doesn’t happen. Suffice it to say that I would probably cry a lot.


2018 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian Shortlist: Excerpts

Everyone is Lonely

everyone is lonely
but no one knows
what to do about it.
once a week
i curate
on my facebook wall
without even trying.
the wind
makes away
with parts of my body
but i don't
notice the difference.
my mom
couldn't get enough
of the sight
of broken twigs
and thus
i was born.
i am single
because i haven't dated
anyone who is
broken twig enough.
he's a little bit
i'm a little bit
barbed-wire fence.

From This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Copyright © 2017 by Billy-Ray Belcourt


I have to live lest I die-live.

R. says he wants to be here til 250, but
He's young.
M. says by then he plans on
Somewhere else.
I have to
Live here while I
When I die
I'll just be
Me again -
And soft.
I was will
Have been
A baby.

From I have to live. by Aisha Sasha John
Copyright © 2017 by Aisha Sasha John


Bottom of the Pot

Each woman received a ladleful.


Hand-made utensils (author's drawing): (a) bowl made from a turtle's shell, (b) spoon made from half a coconut, (c) cup made from a gourd, (d) lamp using coconut oil, (e) cooking stove made from scrap aluminum.


By the time we had all acquired soup containers - a round tin with two holes punched near the top through which a string or narrow piece of material or wire was threaded.


Not having any utensils, he fashioned a fork from one of the dog's ribs.


"This is good wire for spoons," she said. "Will you teach me how to make a spoon?"


I made a spoon from a piece of drainage pipe.

From Same Diff by Donato Mancini
Copyright © 2017 by Donato Mancini



Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a PhD student at the University of Alberta, and a 2016 Rhodes Scholar who holds a M.St. in Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford. In 2016, he was named one of six Indigenous writers to watch by CBC Books, and was the winner of the 2016 P.K. Page Founder’s Award for Poetry. His work has been published in Assaraus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, Decolonization, Red Rising Magazine, mâmawai-âcimowak, SAD Mag, Yellow Medicine Review, The Malahat Review, PRISM International, and The Next Quarterly.



Aisha Sasha John is a poet, dancer and choreographer. Her solo performance ‘The Aisha of Oz’ premiered at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2017. Another iteration of the show will take place at the MAI in Montreal in 2018. Her previous poetry collection, Thou (2014), was a finalist for both the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the ReLit Poetry Award. In addition to her solo work, she has choreographed, performed, and curated as a member of the performance collective WIVES. Aisha’s video work and text art have been exhibited in galleries and public installations. Born in Montreal, Aisha has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and a BA in African Studies and Semiotics from the University of Toronto.



The interdisciplinary practice of Donato Mancini focuses mainly on poetry, bookworks, text-based visual art and cultural criticism. His books and chapbooks include Snowline (2015), Loitersack (2014), Buffet World (2011), Fact ‘N’ Value (2011), Hell Passport no.22 (2008), Æthel (2007), 58 Free Coffees (2006), and Ligatures (2005). Ligatures and Æthel were each nominated for the ReLit Poetry Award, and Ligatures received honourable mention in the Alcuin Society book design awards. Mancini’s published critical writing includes work on the archive, time, and memory in Anamnesia: Unforgetting (2011), and a discourse analysis of poetry reviews in You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence (2012). He holds a PhD in English from the University of British Columbia.

May 24, 2018
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