We had a chance to chat this year with the three Canadians who make an appearance on this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize longlist. Visit our friends at the Griffin Prize to learn more about the longlist, and stay tuned for the announcement of this year’s shortlist on April 19!
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Enter for a chance to win the 3 Canadian poetry titles longlisted for the 2023 Griffin Poetry Prize! Contest closes midnight, June 7, 2023
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted for the 2023 Griffin Prize?
Manolis Aligizakis: I firstly run upstairs to our bedroom and informed my wife; then I run downstairs and sent messages to my two sons with the link to the announcement and of course to many other friends and literary associates. Mrs. Ruth Smith called as well and I indicated to her how happy, humbled and overwhelmed I felt for this news.
Susan Musgrave: I said to myself, "Susan, don’t quit your day job." Which includes picking up beer and pop cans from the ditches to help subsidize my poetry royalties.
Iman Mersal: I was thrilled to see Robyn Creswell’s translation of The Threshold on the longlist. And it’s an honour to be counted among this group of amazing poets, from such a wide range of backgrounds, representing so many different schools of writing. I’m happy there is such an award—celebrating poetry, poets, and translators.
We’re living a period of great social and political upheaval. A time of fear and a time of opportunity. How does poetry speak to the current moment in ways other art forms cannot?
Iman Mersal: I don’t think that ours is the most turbulent, frightening, or hopeful moment in history, nor would I claim that poetry is better than other art forms at addressing the present (it isn’t a competition, of course). Poetry has addressed itself to the present ever since humans have been able to put questions and feelings into language. But it doesn’t address only the current moment. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, was etched in stones in Mesopotamia more than 4000 years ago, and there is still something in the poem that speaks to us: the drama of heroism, the hope of resurrection. Poetry helps us to understand ourselves and to make sense of the world. It belongs to a particular historical moment, yes, but it is also timeless. Poetry can connect us to eras and epochs we didn’t live in, experiences we don't know, languages we don't speak.
Manolis Aligizakis: Poetry is always the most important catalyst which can relieve most people from the daily anxieties and fears, as it soothes the mind and relaxes in general and yes truly we live in dangerous days when the stupid politicians do stupid things. And here in this country we have plenty of them.
Susan Musgrave: I’ve always liked A.E. Housman’s description of poetry as words that affect us physically, that find their way to something deep inside that is obscure and latent, something older than the present organization of ourselves. Words, more than any other art form, can have the physical effect of pathos.
Was there a pivotal moment in your own journey toward poetry? Did you choose poetry, or did poetry choose you?
Susan Musgrave: When I was 15 my parents had me committed to a mental hospital and it was there that Robin Skelton, a poet who had started the Creative Writing Department at the University of Victoria, came to visit me. I had babysat his children; he heard of my plight, and that I was writing poetry and came to visit me and asked to read some of my work. He told me, “You’re not mad, you’re a poet.” In that pivotal moment, poetry and I signed on for life.
He told me, “You’re not mad, you’re a poet.”
Iman Mersal: I remember that the first poem I recited aloud was one I wrote in fifth grade, for my school’s Mother’s Day celebration. I don’t know many good poems written to celebrate Mother’s Day, and mine wasn’t good either. It was one of the many elegies I wrote for my mother, who died when I was seven. My poem was very sincere, very emotional, and even though it was pretty bad, it brought tears to my teacher's eyes (and she was no pushover). As a result, I became a star in my school. My admirers were mostly other kids, which helped me to recognize the dangers of judging a poem by its reception. Later on, my Arabic teacher corrected my mistakes in the use of female plural, although this stripped the poem of what I thought of as its “musicality.” So, I rewrote the whole thing, avoiding the female plural altogether. As far as I remember, this was the first lesson I learned about the poet’s voice, and the poet’s choices.
Manolis Aligizakis: I discovered poetry some 4,000 years ago in the Minoan era from which I originate; I strongly believe that there is an undisturbed, never severed poetic line that connects me to that Minoan civilization and although this might sound quite absurd to many, I see it as my heritage, I mean that 4,000-year-old poetic history which unlike any other provides me with innumerable images and concepts which I try to present through my poetry.
What Canadian poetry collections have moved or inspired you recently?
Manolis Aligizakis: I have read many Canadian poetry books, and I find it hard to name many of them as quality books, but in all my experiences with Canadian poetry I discovered a few glints of class and depth in Patrick Lane’s Selected Poems book, which I enjoyed reading.
Iman Mersal: Many, too many to list, but the poetry of Anne Carson in particular has meant a great deal to me. Canadian poetry is more diverse than one might think—it is written not only in English and French, but many other languages too, then translated, read and discussed here.
What would winning this year’s Griffin Prize mean for you?
Iman Mersal: If I know myself, I would go numb, then I would get happy, and then I would get worried. I can't explain why, but happiness always makes me worried.
Manolis Aligizakis: It will mean the world to me. Think of it. Who else of the Hellene immigrants who have English as a second language has ever come to this recognition? I’ll write history as the first one ever of the Hellenic diaspora (7,5000,000 million of us) who has reached this level of recognition and all that in my adopted motherland. I’d like you to know that I’ve translated more than 5,000 pages of Hellenic Poetry in English, no one else has come even close to that in the history of Hellenic Letters.
Susan Musgrave: I daren’t let myself, even for a minute, entertain the idea of winning this mighty prize. I am only happy that, by being longlisted, the lives of my husband, Stephen Reid, and my daughter, Sophie Reid, whose book this is—will be shared with a wider audience.
From The Threshold by Iman Mersal (translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell)
A GRAVE I’M ABOUT TO DIG
As I return home with a dead bird in my hand, a little grave I’m about to dig waits for us in the backyard.
No blood on the washed feathers, two outspread wings,
and a dewdrop (some concentrate of spirit?) on its beak, as if it had flown for many days while actually dead.
Its fall was fated in the Lord’s eyes, heavy and diagonal in front of mine.
I’m the one who left my country back there to go for a walk in this forest, holding a dead bird whose absence the flock never noticed,
returning home for a funeral that might have been a solemn one were it not for the sneakers on my feet.
From Poems, Volume II by Tasos Livaditis, translated from the Greek by Manolis Aligizakis [from the Introduction]
Herbert Read, the English literary critic, poet, and anarchist (1893–1968), said the modernist poet “has no essential alliance with regular schemes of any sort. He/she reserves the right to adapt rhythm to mood, to modulate meter as the poem progresses.” Andy Warhol, some might say, reduced that equation to its lowest common denominator: art is whatever you can get away with.
The poetry of Livaditis fits Read’s open description. His poems can be lyrical, significant, and opaque; most are spare and refreshingly free of obscure literary references. He can be impressionistic, surreal, confessional, maudlin, challenging, and very funny. Some of his poems ramble, freeform, spilling on to several pages; others, pithy, consist of a single sentence or two, what these days is sometimes referred to as napkin poetry or tombstone verses. “Don’t fall asleep, it’s dangerous,” says one. “Don’t wake up, you’ll regret it.” The poems read as hallucinations, dreams, drunken epiphanies. “I met Christopher Columbus one night when I was walking, drunk, the roads of old Europe.” Or as delusions, ravings, Ginsbergian howls.
~~ Don McLellan
Hymn to Liberty
Life is a dangerous game, especially when you play it with others and
the prostitute is so ugly it makes a Picasso of every stupid man;
I was so incapable that I protected myself in old stories, now, an old man, I’ll find refuge in a crazy gesture:
suicide, hoping to regain my youth and
this alibi I’ve been preparing for years will be useless to me at that critical hour
because future hasn’t ever exonerated anyone and dusk carries the sadness of eons;
many events we never understood, many thoughts we never spoke and
each night when I undress I go down to the plaza and place my cloths in the gallows;
oh, immenseness, we shall never get to know you
although it’s you that bestows this secret magic to our lost uprisings.
From Exculpatory Lilies, by Susan Musgrave
Good Friday, the day they delivered
that sad bouquet, was the day our cat
ran out on the road and failed to look
both ways. I’d stashed the candy eggs
under the sink, in their pink raffia nests,
safe amongst the household poisons
where the kids had been warned not to go:
on Easter Sunday before first light
I stole outside to hide the loot: the family
of bunnies in gold foil, the high quality
chocolate you insisted on buying — nothing’s too good for my girls! The lilies,
smacking of humility, devotion, had been
for me — your way of saying sorry, I can stop, I will lose the needle and spoon today
but I was finished, I was through, said sorry
had been your default setting since the day we vowed I do. I think, now, I was cruel.
The cat darted out, hit the car, staggered back
as far as our front gate; for a second I thought
she might have been stunned, nothing more,
though the dribble of blood at the corners of her
mouth was a small grief with a life of its own.
I buried her at the bottom of the garden where I had tossed your exculpatory lilies.
And where I picture them still. Each new day above ground is a hard miracle, you wrote;
I hung on every miraculous breath you took
as I stood outside your door at night, dying to hear you breathe. In the end it wasn’t me
you turned to, but God: wasn’t love meant to be
more pure than faith, more sacred and enduring?
These days I lean heavy into the wind and the wind’s blowing hard.
Emmanuel Aligizakis (Manolis) is a Cretan poet and author. He has published more than 20 books of poetry, three novels, and eleven major translation works. His translation George Seferis–Collected Poems was shortlisted for the Greek National Literary Awards. His articles, poems, and short stories in both Greek and English have appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers in Canada, USA, Sweden, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Australia, and Greece. His poetry has been translated into Spanish, Romanian, Swedish, Portuguese, German, Hungarian, Urdu, and Punjabi. A member of the League of Canadian Poets and the Federation of BC Writers, Aligizakis is a Literary Advisor to Surrey Muse, and he has served as the Vice-President of Royal City Literary and Arts Society in New Westminster. He was recently appointed an honorary instructor and fellow of the International Arts Academy, and awarded a Master’s of Arts in Literature.
Iman Mersal is the author of five books of poems and a collection of essays, How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts. In English translation, her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and other publications. Her most recent prose work, Traces of Enayat, received the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature in 2021. She is a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta, Canada.
Susan Musgrave lives off Canada’s West Coast, on Haida Gwaii, where she owns and manages Copper Beech House. She teaches in University of British Columbia’s Optional Residency School of Creative Writing. She has published more than thirty books and been nominated or received awards in six categories—poetry, novels, non-fiction, food writing, editing, and books for children. The high point of her literary career was finding her name in the index of Montreal’s Irish Mafia.
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