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The Chat with the Canadian finalists for the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry

Once again this year, we’re so pleased to partner with our friends at the Griffin Poetry Prize to present a special edition of The Chat.

Once again this year, we’re so pleased to partner with our friends at the Griffin Poetry Prize to present a special edition of The Chat. We’ve put together a fabulous roundtable conversation with this year’s Canadian finalists (please scroll to the end to read each poet's bio). Check out all of this year’s finalists and count down with us ...this year’s winners will be announced May 19! 


Chantal Gibson has been nominated for How She Read. Here's what the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize jury has to say:

“Chantal Gibson invites scrutiny of where language maps, or fails to map, the quiddity of the world. Here the English language carries and transmits the burden of its service to the imperial 'adventure,' in schoolbooks, in literature, in historical artifacts and through image and portraiture in paint and photograph. Her interanimation of the visual and the verbal energises a private mark-making, a resistance poetry to the coded, at times subliminal, oppressions of history. To detox the soul then, to be free and creative as citizens, we deserve to read each mark with schooled attention. And trust in our own mark making, our right to speak it the way we see it. This is a fabulous primer, ludic and ferocious, in the grand tradition of liberation handbooks.”



Doyali Islam has been nominated for heft. Here's what the jury says:

“Laid out against the horizontal landscape of the page, from the very beginning these poems demand from the reader a reorientation, and set out a goal to teach us how to read differently – not only the poems but also the world. What is beautiful and successful here is the way Doyali Islam takes small moments and gives to them an incredible, sometimes aching, heft: the ephemera left in a pocket become a map leading us back to love; an ant observed on the floor finds its way onto a white page – a black mark effectively writing its own poem, 'struggling to interpret its situation.' In each of these poems, Islam makes that struggle for interpretation both wonderful and worthwhile.”



Kaie Kellough has been nominated for Magnetic Equator. The jury says:

“Speaking to Caribbean and hemispheric migrations, the poems in Magnetic Equator recall trouble, hybridity, steep falls, continuance, and elaboration. Taking on influence, place, and racialized diasporic experience as it draws language into geographic drifts and historic collisions, these are voicings that cascade and collect 'an accent adrift in its second language / over a b-side version of empire.' Singing of exile and scattering, the text negotiates survival and revolt as it moves with the surety and complexity of improvisation and collaboration. Sonic, visual, and intertextual, Kaie Kellough traces source and accumulation: ‘our crossings of past, we depart / opposite, along the sentence that encircles the world.'"


What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize?

Chantal Gibson: I was fast asleep when my phone started dinging at 7:25 am on April 7th. In the absence of reading glasses, I sent a squinting message saying Wha? She replied with a link to the Griffin Poetry Prize site and another message that said “You did it!!!”  The first thing I did was put on my glasses, then I called her and said Thank You. I told her it would have been my mom’s 70th birthday that day. Her first-grade photo is on the cover of How She Read. Canisia sat with me and we took that in.

Doyali Islam: I said, “Oh my God,” and sat up in bed. My partner Daniel and I would have hugged and eventually attempted what he calls a "jumping high five" – that’s where you high-five in mid-air, as you’re jumping – but we’re in different places due to COVID-19 circumstances.

Kaie Kellough: I told my partner, then I kissed my map of Guyana. One kiss for Georgetown and one for Kaieteur Falls. I think I gave a 3rd kiss to the Essequibo River. I should have given more. Then I turned off all my electronic devices and went outside.

Each of your works in some way explores questions of power, identity, and belonging. How can poetry speak back to power differently than other forms of art?

KK: That depends on who the poetry is addressing; on who it is turned toward. Sometimes it isn’t speaking to those who are in power (does power listen?), rather it is speaking to and from those who aren’t. At other times it isn’t addressing anyone in particular. It isn’t necessarily speaking “back,” because that would put the power first. It is speaking, in the first place, for itself.

DI: I worry that any response I make to this question about poetry and power will leave me with the frustration of feeling inarticulate, something I’ve often felt in casual conversation and that probably partially explains why poetry-making has always felt like survival to me – a multifaceted, fully bodied, and empathetic witnessing. A work must be accessed directly. Poetry’s power – its language of half music, half silence – is forged not only through what it articulates or how it was made, but also through the relationship between poem and reader/listener. Reading/listening to a poem is a relational experience – intimate and unreplicatable. That is its mode of power.


CG: I find persona poems are particularly useful for imagining the voices of historical figures. After spending time with now famous photographs of Harriet Tubman and Viola Desmond, and the painted portraits of Black women found in Canadian art institutions, I imagined them speaking from the frame, staring back and challenging the gaze of the viewer. I also heard them speaking about the frame—critiquing the institutional structures that have historically bound and gagged them to tropes and stereotypes. Poetry seemed the perfect way expressing accent, nuance, tone, pauses and silences.

We’re living through a time of great social disruption and upheaval. What does poetry offer us in the time of a pandemic?

DI: From my perspective as a writer, poetry offers no greater or lesser value in a pandemic than in any other time, because true poetry – poetry that is working – arises from a place of psycho-spiritual urgency. I feel like my poetry always arises from longing, which occupies a space halfway between death and life.

Poetry offers no greater or lesser value in a pandemic than in any other time, because true poetry – poetry that is working – arises from a place of psycho-spiritual urgency.


Poetry is not rice, or bread. It is not a ventilator where there are too few. It is not water or electricity where water and electricity are withheld. Many communities in Canada and around the world were already systemically disrupted, upheaved. Some of the people I depicted in heft come back to me. Are they safe during this pandemic, I wonder, the two men who gave their birds water during a 2014 ceasefire in Beit Hanoun? The asylum seeker I knew for a brief time in London? Kamal Awajah and his mint?

CG: I am blown away by the creativity of poets, writers and artists right now. So many literary events, book launches, poetry readings have been cancelled or postponed, but I have been enjoying live-stream readings on Instagram, watching poets interacting with their readers. In particular, I have enjoyed watching readers, writers and presses use social media to celebrate poetry month by sharing selected works by their authors.

KK: It offers us what it always has, language and possibility, and we can choose what we want to do with those things.

How do you feel about the current state of poetry in Canada? What Canadian poets are you reading these days?

CG: I am inspired by the diversity of the work being published right now, the myth-busting, the genre bending, they hybridizing, the breadth of voices with clear, unapologetic points of view.  I am focusing my time and attention on the decolonizing work of Canadian BIPOC and LGBTQ2 writers.

magnetic equator

KK: So many brilliant poets, both new and established, are practising in Canada. As much as I love seeing how a poet’s work develops, I get very excited to see what poets produce when they move outside of poetry, when they attempt fiction, essay, and memoir.

I’m currently reading Lorna Goodison’s memoir/family history From Harvey River, and Souvankam Thammavongsa’s recent collection of short stories How to Pronounce Knife.  

I’m also looking at the Spring 2020 quartet from McClelland and Stewart, which includes Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst, Noor Naga’s Washes, Prays, Michael Prior’s Burning Province, and Nancy Lee’s What Hurts Going Down. I also recently ordered Dani Spinosa’s OO:Typewriter Poems.

DI: My reading/listening practices have never understood borders. I’m not reading anything at the moment, but some voices to pay attention to are Faith Arkorful, Mike Chaulk, Laboni Islam, Jessica Johns, Annick MacAskill, Noor Naga, Alycia Pirmohamed, and Yusuf Saadi, all of whom embody great skill – and, equally important to me, genuine kindness and humbleness despite their success. 

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

KK: Foremost, it’s great to be shortlisted with Chantal and Doyali, writers I admire.

As a performing poet, one primarily interested in dub, sound poetry, and in improvisation and collaboration with musicians, I feel I’ve always existed outside the literary prize economy. I rarely thought about prizes until I was 42, when I received my first award nomination (for a novel)… so it’s a difficult question to answer. I’m sure it will provide a grand surprise, a door opening.

DI: Oh my gosh, I’m just grateful for the nomination! Being named a Griffin Poetry Prize finalist for heft has been really impactful and humbling. My goal with heft was to make each poem durable. I wrote the poems slowly, starting the first poem in 2010 and finishing the last poem in 2018. I have never taken a creative-writing course, workshop, or MFA. If I failed, I wanted to fail on my own terms, having chosen my own risks and having made creative breakthroughs with my own mind. I succeeded on these terms, I felt, but now all of the patience and effort has been valued in another crucial way – by the field. I am so grateful to jurors Hoa Nguyen, Kei Miller, and Paula Meehan, and to Scott Griffin and the Griffin Trust.

CG: Oh, goodness. I’m still processing the nomination…


2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist – poem excerpts


from homonyms


                                     We knead our

fingers in a little egg and water to hold it together.

We need our hands to touch and turn this mixing

bowl into a talisman. Jus skin n bones, girl, you wink

an elbow into my ribs, pray there's time to make


a woman of me, but you just scratch the surface of

my adolescence. If I'd stop biting my nails, stand up

straight, we wouldn't have to fight tooth n nail to get

along. You play "Stuck on You" for the umpteenth time,

snap your fingers on the downbeat. I count (5, 6, 7,


and 8) every scratch on the vinyl, mutter something

foolish like, Wish you'd keep your hands off my stuff,

til your backhand reminds me I am your stuff, always

under your skin, eyes rolling, all sass n backtalk, til

you're itchin to skin me alive.


From How She Read by Chantal Gibson

Copyright © Chantal Gibson 2019



visit to a thrift shop



i can't remember which london corner

but i remember the brown corduroy

making something of my legs as she searched.

not purses, but knits. ...outside, winter streets

holding shuffling figures close for passing warmth.

in a mirror a face not quite hers sees

her, searching too. when will you return? she

turns, once again leaving, left. knows she is

already forgetting the charge of her

mother's eyes, their colour like karkade

steeped in evenings. what this language would call

hibiscus. she sleeps between fits and wakes

to the tv on the wall's other side.

she knows it muffles grief, and points to it.


From heft by Doyali Islam

Copyright © 2019 by Doyali Islam


turning back


turning back, is this a beginning?     is it preferable to be erased, to have a

voice that does not know the chorus because it sounds outside the tradition,

because it is stolen by the chinook, or to have a dream of sweating in the

malarial mud swarmed by morpho peleides, sapphire butterflies, each one the

spirit of an ancestor     is it better to own a new bungalow in a

new development, or to live where your name was born, where your memory

has tongue     is this the reckoning: being between, turning between a

newness of mr. clean and president's choice, and choke-and-rob in the bloody

dusk, between a full tank of gas and love in a time of bauxite strikes     i have

to reckon with this far reach, this far flung, this beyond beyond the

perimeter, wandering latitudes of longing and ache, where there exists no

critical authentic, no mas, nothing but blown fragments, and a polaroid

     frozen at the departure gate, timehri in 1973.     i look up from my

aunt's afro.     out the sedan's window: mile markers, flashing fenceposts and

barb wire slung between clouds, unconscious in their blind dreaming


From Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough

Copyright © 2019 by Kaie Kellough


About the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize nominees


Doyali Islam is a 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize finalist for her poetry book heft (M&S, 2019). Doyali has participated in CBC Books’ Why I Write video series, and has discussed the value of silence on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition; language, form, beauty, and empathy with Anne Michaels in CV2; and the relationship between poetry and the body on CBC Radio's The Next Chapter. Doyali has also been in conversation with Forrest Gander, and you can find their discussion of grief, art-making, and poetry ethics in The Adroit

Chantal Gibson is an artist-educator living in Vancouver with ancestral roots in Nova Scotia. Her visual art collection Historical In(ter)ventions, a series of altered history book sculptures, dismantles text to highlight language as a colonial mechanism of oppression. How She Read is another altered book, a genre-blurring extension of her artistic practice. Sculpting black text against a white page, her poems forge new spaces that challenge historic representations of Black womanhood and Otherness in the Canadian cultural imagination. How She Read is Gibson’s debut book of poetry. An award-winning teacher, she teaches writing and visual communication in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology at Simon Fraser University.

Kaie Kellough is a novelist, poet, and sound performer. He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, raised in Calgary, Alberta, and in 1998 moved to Montreal, Quebec where he now lives. He is the author of the novels Dominoes at the Crossroads, and Accordéon, which was a finalist for the First Novel Award, two books of poetry, Lettricity and Maple Leaf Rag, and two albums, Vox:Versus and Creole Continuum. He has performed and published internationally.



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