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The Chat: 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize Roundtable

We’re thrilled to once again work in partnership with our friends at the Griffin Poetry Prize to bring you a special roundtable edition of The Chat with all three 2019 Canadian Griffin Prize finalists.

We’re thrilled to once again work in partnership with our friends at the Griffin Poetry Prize to bring you a special roundtable edition of The Chat with all three 2019 Canadian Griffin Prize finalists.

Dionne Brand is a finalist for The Blue Clerk (McClelland & Stewart). The jury citation reads: “Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk is many things at once: a book-length ars poetica; an act of memo


ry and reconfiguration; an extended meditation (one that moves at times directly, at others by a kind of philosophical osmosis) touching on the realms of history, politics, race and gender; an internal, consciously curated and interrogated dialogue that manages to create a space for all of these. Expansive, beautifully written, structurally compelling, and above all moving, The Blue Clerk is a book to be read (and re-read), not just for the pleasures of its language, but for the breadth of its vision, and the capaciousness of its thinking.” 


Eve Joseph’s collection Quarrels (Anvil) is also a finalist. The jury citation reads: “In Quarrels, Eve Joseph’s delightful collection of prose poems, you enter the marvellous and that is the truth! The poet has surrendered herself to the realm of the illogical, trusting that it has a logic of its own, and the outcome is, indeed, a new music. These poems are intriguing spaces and moments defeating the boundaries of the real, but rest assured, Joseph leads you by the hand with warmth, wit and empathy.

Perhaps these poems are crystallisations of a deeply human, spiritual knowledge, gathered over decades working in a hospice. Joseph’s previous book, the exceptional memoir, In the Slender Margin, renders this experience. Certainly, without gravity, poems wouldn’t be able to sing. As distillations of life, these poems, with beauty and charm, hold their own credibility: an omnipresent, merely-in-glimpses-tangible marvelousness, miraculously fastened to the pages of a single slender volume that will fit into most pockets and assure magnificent company on any given journey.”


Finally, Sarah Tolmie’s The Art of Dying (McGill-Queen’s University Press) is the third finalist. The jury citation reads: “A modern danse macabre in eighty-nine parts, Sarah Tolmie’s The Art of Dying conceals a multifaceted meditation on mortality beneath its deceptively simple lyric surface. An irreverent feminist in the tradition of Dorothy Parker and Stevie Smith, Tolmie leverages the subversive possibilities of doggerel to upend our assumptions about everything from abortion to the Anthropocene. Wickedly funny, this is work of great intimacy, too, introducing us to a mother, concerned citizen, social media addict, bookworm, and bon vivant who wants nothing more than to remain ‘Here on the quiet earth that I still love, / Where the last humans are.’” 




What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for the 2019 Griffin Prize?

Dionne Brand: I thanked the Blue Clerk.


Eve Joseph: I woke up that morning with the recurring belief that my writing life was over. My husband, also a writer, takes these things in stride and suggested that I could become a dog walker. When I opened my emails, a whack of them had congratulations in the heading. I clicked on one, saw my name and “Griffin nomination” beside it, shut down the computer and went to the gym. Totally stunned, didn’t read any of them till later. I was completely overwhelmed and then thrilled.

Sarah Tolmie: My husband yelled up the stairs at about 7:30 a.m., “You’d better see this RIGHT NOW!” I assumed it was a plumbing problem. He brought up his computer—his inbox was filling up with congratulations he was supposed to pass on—and showed me a Globe headline someone had forwarded. I was dumbfounded. The first thing I said was, “I’ll have to get my hair cut.”

Can you talk about a poem or a particular passage in the work you found especially challenging?

DB: The whole book was challenging. All of it was contentious. It required acute levels of honesty and clarity. To remain at those levels made me want to give up at every turn.

EJ: The poems in the first section of the book were both challenging and rewarding to write. I was interested in the intersection between the real and the unreal, between fact and fiction; in how, if we scratch the surface of the ordinary, the extraordinary is often just beneath it. The challenge was to let go of logic and narrative and create space for the strange and peculiar without just making things up. The more I worked with these poems, the more I was drawn to the surreal and illogical, to the boundary where the contradictory impulses of prose and poetry collide and something new becomes possible. I still don’t feel as if I have mastered the form.


ST: These poems came fairly easily, once I trusted myself enough to just let them be funny. Humour is a shibboleth in serious poetry, something you dance around with great care. Always a risk. Many high-minded readers don’t like it.

In recent years, discussions around power and privilege are at the forefront of many important conversations in Canadian literature. How can poetry speak back to power differently than other forms of art?

DB: Adrienne Rich said that poetry is the least commoditized art. That alone allows it to stay outside of certain regimes of power, but there are also regimes of power within literary forms, which coincide or synchronize with relations of ruling. But the beauty of poetry is its always-contested terrain, its always-upheavals so these literary regimes don't last very long but are undermined and under cut by poetry’s itinerancy and its unofficial economy.

EJ: Poetry can cut through reason and rhetoric and reach us with an immediacy that speaks directly to our humanity. The key, for me, is that imagery touches us intellectually and emotionally in an instant. It is in that instantaneous flare of recognition that one can experience a shift in perception and a sense of sudden liberation. Poetry introduces us to voices we have not heard before and challenges our tired assumptions. From its earliest beginnings, poetry has acted as witness. It holds memory and has a history of resistance as evidenced by writers such as Nazim Hikmet, Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda, Joy Harjo and many others. It affords us the opportunity to see the familiar in new, unsettling ways and it does so—not through overt political rhetoric—but by filtering experience through the lens of ordinary life.

Poetry can cut through reason and rhetoric and reach us with an immediacy that speaks directly to our humanity. The key, for me, is that imagery touches us intellectually and emotionally in an instant.

ST: I’m not sure that it can, except perhaps by holding its ground as a genre, insisting on its value as the most primal form of language—the one every culture hits on first, and can maintain for millennia, even before writing, because all its formal structures make it stick in the mind.

How do you feel about the current state of poetry in Canada? Are there up and coming poets you particularly admire or who inspire you?

DB: Lots. Too many to mention, just read all the poetry published in the last five years or so. Brilliant stuff.


EJ: I am excited by the range of Indigenous voices across all genres. Poets Billy-Ray Belcourt and Jordan Abel bring fresh, new perspectives to their work. I am inspired by poets whose words decolonize language and challenge our ways of thinking.

I’ve just finished reading Port of Being by Shazia Hafiz Ramji and was so impressed by the unapologetic authority with which she writes.

ST: I could not define the current state of poetry in Canada. My writing career lies aslant the CanLit scene in many ways: I did not come up through any creative writing curriculum, my academic specialization is in medieval English for which I trained in another country, and my work as a poet had a nearly-15-year hiatus. If I had stayed on the poet career track (can we call it that?) I had established as a U of T undergrad I would likely be more on top of things.

But I didn’t. I did other stuff: wrote academic articles on visionary literature, wrote novels, had two children. I have recently ended up teaching creative writing courses, in a highly idiosyncratic way, and I will say that there I am continuously impressed at what students can pull out of their heads, especially once they have relaxed a bit. There’s usually a three-week period of politeness recovery they have to go through. Then they can let it rip. I have seen some great stuff.

What would winning the Griffin Prize this year mean for you?

DB: (I can’t summon an answer to this)

EJ: I’m thrilled with the nomination. For now, that’s enough.

ST: I would be thrilled to have this work recognized. But prizes fundamentally exist to leverage the next thing, from a writer’s perspective. So, practically, it would make placing the book I’m finishing up now, called Confirmation Bias, much easier. (Though I have to acknowledge MQUP, and the editors in the MacLennan poetry series, as always being incredibly good to me.)

Likewise, winning something of Griffin scale would boost visibility of my current novel, The Little Animals, which just came out this month. The sums of money involved in this award are quite amazing—it would be the one and only time I would make middle-class pay as a poet, I assure you—but really, it’s about the transformation such a prize can make in a writing career.



Dionne Brand was born in Trinidad and is a poet, novelist, non-fiction writer, filmmaker, educator, and activist. She has written 10 previous books of poetry, and is a winner of the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and a past winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize. She was Toronto’s third Poet Laureate from 2009–2012. In 2017 she was named to the Order of Canada. Brand is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. She lives in Toronto.

Eve Joseph’s two previous books of poetry, The Startled Heart (2004) and The Secret Signature of Things (2010) were both nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Award. Her nonfiction book, In the Slender Margin (2014) won the Hubert Evans award for nonfiction. Joseph grew up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, and now lives in Victoria.

Sarah Tolmie is an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Her poetry collection, Trio, was shortlisted for the 2016 Pat Lowther Award. She is a medievalist trained at the University of Toronto and University of Cambridge.



From Dionne Brand's The Blue Clerk

Verso 40.6

M sent me a photograph by Daguerre. It is of the first human being to be photographed. Someone is cleaning the shoes of someone. All descriptions of the photograph claim that the first human being to be photographed is the figure having his shoes cleaned. I see first the figure cleaning the shoes as the photograph’s subject. Secondly, the event of the shoe-cleaning. From this immediately I saw the state of the world.

From The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand
 Copyright © 2018 Dionne Brand


From Eve Joseph's Quarrels

We met at a birthday party.

We met at a birthday party. You were the only rum drinker in the room. On the couch, Al Purdy was going on about the stunted trees in the Arctic. Upon closer examination, we could see that the leaves were tiny parkas. The illogical must have a logic of its own you said. The first two drinks don’t count, it’s the third that blows the door open. With every gust of wind the little coats raised their arms and waved shyly at us. You were a new music, something I had not heard before. As they used to say about that Estonian composer: he only had to shake his sleeves and the notes would fall out.

From Quarrels by Eve Joseph
Copyright © 2018 by Eve Joseph


From Sarah Tolmie's The Art of Dying


In memoriam Tennyson said
Nine years of things about his friend
Who’d died. He brought him back by slow
Degrees, from sunsets, wind in the trees,

Gathering pieces painstakingly.
Tennyson, in his purity,
He never lied, never missed his line.
Grief became him metrically.

It made him blind. All he could see
Was Hallam’s absence: the whole world
A cancelled cheque, crumpled and furled,
Unspent inside his pocketbook.

There its yellowing edges curled
Until his friend crept out, imbued
Everything and made it new.
At second look, he saw it through

Lost eyes, and it was dearer far
Than it had been before. A borrowed
Death does that for you. Your own cannot.
We each will miss the lesson that

We’ve taught. Compassion is what we learn
From those who die and don’t return.
Grief gives us that hitch in the eye,
Catching on things as they pass by.

From The Art of Dying by Sarah Tolmie
Copyright © Sarah Tolmie 2018

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