We’re so pleased to be partnering once again with our friends at the Griffin Poetry Prize to profile this year’s three Canadian finalists in a special roundtable edition of The Chat. Don’t forget to enter our Griffin Prize contest giveaway for a chance to win a prize pack of all three of this year’s titles!
This 2021 shortlisted Canadian titles are:
The East Side of It All, by Joseph Dandurand (Nightwood Editions)
Joseph Dandurand is a storyteller, poet, playwright and member of Kwantlen First Nation located on the Fraser River about twenty minutes east of Vancouver. He resides there with his three children. Dandurand is the director of the Kwantlen Cultural Centre, artistic director of the Vancouver Poetry House, and author of three other books of poetry, I Want (2015), Hear and Foretell (2015), and SH:LAM (The Doctor) (2015). Dandurand was Vancouver Public Library’s 2019 Indigenous storyteller in residence.
The Dyzgraphxst, by Canisia Lubrin (McClelland & Stewart)
Canisia Lubrin is a writer, editor, and teacher published and anthologised internationally, including translations of her work into Italian and Spanish. Lubrin’s debut poetry collection, Voodoo Hypothesis, was named a CBC Best Poetry Book, longlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and shortlisted for the Raymond Souster Award. Her work has been nominated for, among others, the Toronto Book Award, Journey Prize, and bpNichol Chapbook Award. 2019 Writer in Residence at Queen’s University, Lubrin holds an MFA from the University of Guelph.
Pluviophile, by Yusuf Saadi (Nightwood Editions)
Yusuf Saadi won the Malahat Review’s 2016 Far Horizons Poetry Award and the 2016 Vallum Chapbook Award. At other times, his writing has appeared (or is forthcoming) in magazines including Brick, the Malahat Review, Vallum, Grain, CV2, Prairie Fire, PRISM international, Hamilton Arts & Letters, This, and untethered. He is also an executive editor at Sewer Lid magazine. He holds an MA in English from the University of Victoria and currently resides in Montreal.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for the 2021 Griffin Prize?
Yusuf Saadi: I was two minutes away from starting an oral French test when I found out. I still got 16/20 if I remember correctly.
Canisia Lubrin: I was still in bed when my editor called to let me know. And I thought, while she was speaking: what is a shortlist? One can never be prepared for that kind of thing so early in the morning especially after having gone to bed only a few hours earlier. I imagine that my experience of waking up is very ordinary, full of the kinds of banal things that fill you with caution at the start of the day. I was in fact, exhausted, disoriented, too. I think this is because the world I have woken up to for the past year and a half needs getting used to again, every day. The mix of those things lead me to the only reasonable reaction: I promptly fell back into sleep after I hung up the phone. When I woke up properly and it all made clearer sense, and I decided that I had, in fact, not dreamed it all, I thought, well, this little strange book has landed in some lovely ways. I made coffee. I made a salutation to my people, to the sun.
Joseph Dandurand: I Googled what the Griffin Award was ... then when I realized how big it was of a deal, I was a little scared!
Each of your collections explore questions of power and intimacy, the human struggle for dignity and liberation. How does poetry confront power and history in ways other art forms cannot?
JD: I have always used poetry as a tool to confront our history and to confront those who have oppressed us then and still do today. I can hide things under lines and metaphors but in the end my poetry reflects our struggle and sometimes I use subtle moments such as animals or myth or even the dirtiness of the downtown east side. The human struggle for all who are homeless is an everyday and every moment struggle. To give life to those who are missing and murdered. To give a voice to my mother who was sent to residential school when she was five and where she was changed and abused. I will always use my poetry as a vehicle for her to never be forgotten.
YS: Because poetic language can be so lush, because both the sounds and the meanings of the words matter, I think this can remind of the sensuality of language and of our bodies that we often forget about during day to day life where space and time can feel so abstract. Maybe it creates intimacy in that poetry’s language can speak to our bodies as a whole and not just to reason?
CL: I don’t think of what other art forms cannot do when I think of what poetry can do. Which is to say that all of the modes of human creativity can do something, similar and dissimilar. That is a very generative thing to take into the work. I am in poetry because I have been taken by it and I am given over to it, as well, because of who I am, how I am, and the things that have caused me to arrive. Language occurs to me as a kind of material whose power has a unique relationship to the imagination because it is at the surface and at the depths of our thinking at once. In that way, it is a practice in the ways we make our lives—the interior and exterior of that life. Poetry operates on all levels of the imagination. It is omnidirectional. It makes explicit and implicit moves in the same breath, so to speak. In its uniqueness, way poetry works on the reader through the challenge and delight of re-imagining language, which is a thing that is available to everyone, but from which the world that we live in causes our detachment. Poetry is demanding, too. It is a door through which we enter the needed work of making language toward new meanings. When I think of history and power, I think of things that illuminate the necessity for fuller, more caring imaginations about the world, and, more broadly, what it means to make a life while we are here as a creative, cunning, flexible species. That sounds like poetry—like the way poetry works.
When I think of history and power, I think of things that illuminate the necessity for fuller, more caring imaginations about the world, and, more broadly, what it means to make a life while we are here as a creative, cunning, flexible species."
Was there a pivotal moment in your own journey toward poetry? Did you choose poetry, or did poetry choose you?
YS: I think more of the latter for me. I had always wanted to write prose before I somehow landed on poetry.
CL: You might say both. I will say both because that is what satisfies my own disposition: to look at the multiple. I have loved poetry for a very long time. My whole “conscious” life. To say my whole life, is not to be falsely enlightened about how one becomes a writer, or poet, even though my saying this makes that very suspicion come alive. I knew I avoided writing poetry for a very long time. It struck me as a power that I had better be ready for when it arrives to fully take me into itself. So, I read and loved it for a long time before I (seriously) pushed the pen in poetry’s direction myself. This was about 2008, in an introduction to creative writing course. At that point, I still found what it asked of me was still very frightening. How it asks for humility. How it asks for vulnerability. How it asks for courage. How it asks to remake its contours (and yours) each time you come to it. I felt ready only after I read Dionne Brand. Her voice, music, courage, wisdom, humility, compassion: the finer points of the compass I needed, the compass that was already taking shape with my grandmother’s impact, things flowing from the folkloric reservoirs of my day, other writers and poets like Walcott and Brathwaite.
JD: I was drawn to it after writing short stories for a creative writing class in college. It was just after the Oka Crisis and I was hanging out with radical Indigenous folks at a coffee house that was once a church, and it was run by Wiccans and we used to get up and read poetry and sing blues and drink coffee and eat fresh apple pie made by the witches of the home. From there I kept at it and am still here today 30 years later writing poems but my days of being a radical are truly far gone.
What Canadian poetry collections have moved or inspired you recently?
CL: The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand, sulphurtongue by Rebecca Salazar, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos by Liz Howard.
YS: I liked heft (Doyali Islam), Mortal Arguments (Sue Sinclair), The Sparrow (A.F. Moritz), Waiting for the Small Ship of Desire (Allen Cooper), Knowing Animals (Emily Skov-Nielsen), The Danger Model (Madelaine Caritas Longman). I’ve recently typed and framed a few poems from these collections in my apartment, in fact.
JD: Nothing lately but I am waiting for the first book of poetry by Isabella Wang who is an amazing young poet.
What would winning this year’s Griffin Prize mean for you?
CL: Is it bizarre that I can’t imagine this? I can’t. Not right now anyway. Though there’s the encouragement. To be encouraged to continue the work is the most immediate thing I can catch from here.
JD: I have had some time to think about that and I have already spent the money even though I do not think I will win. In my mind I have bought a small apartment on a beach in Mexico, and I have bought a small fishing boat where I will drop the line and light a small cigar and stare at the ocean and dream of days like this one. For me just being shortlisted has been a tremendous high and to be among the other two poets is a humbling time for an old poet who began writing poems in a church, a coffee house, with my radical friends and the witches who were so kind to me.
YS: I think the recognition would give me more of a sense of responsibility to others in various aspects of my life. It would, and even being shortlisted has to a certain extent, reminded me of the kind of person I wanted to be when I was younger. I had all of these lofty ideas about what it means to be good, but it had seemed like I wouldn’t really be able to get to those; even being shortlisted was a nice nudge that maybe those things you wanted to do, that person you wanted to be, it’s realizable if you extend yourself. I wanted and want to be a good person.
We were busy worshipping
words. Shipping worlds
through string. We held eardrums
to heartbeats to confirm
we were still alive. Someone unchained
the sun from its orbit. We watched it drift
like a curious child beyond the Oort cloud. Dimming
until it was another star in the night’s freckles
and even the day lost its name. We looked
at our hands with unfamiliarity. Trying to understand
the opaqueness of texture. Our moulting bones
discarded. Our new elbows reptilian.
The latest language stripped of meter,
rhyme, beauty. We were warned: there are no straight lines in nature.
Women sang new myths. Men planted
numbers in the soil to see if the fruits
could solve our problems. We invented
new gods and crooned when we remembered
how to brush each other’s hair. Music played
in a distant never. Insects danced
in a different hemisphere of our brain
or of the earth. We often tried to look up,
but we could only see our feet,
alien and hairless.
From The Dyzgraphxst
Here—beginning the unbeginning
owning nothing but that wounding
sense of waking to speak as I would
after the floods, then, after women unlike
Eve giving kind to the so-and-so, trying
to tell them it is time to be unnavigable,
after calling them back to what
the tongue cuts speaking the thing
of them rolled into stone
speaking I after all,
after all theories of abandonment priced and displayed,
the word was a moonlit knife
with those arrivants
lifting their hems to dance, toeless
with the footless child they invent
If we talked about the past
we would say how strong our people
were and how they had survived
the constant rains and the great floods
and how they lived in the ground
and how they, like us, took the fish
throughout the year and how it fed
their families. And if we talk about
how they would war against other
river and island tribes who would
come upriver to try to take our people
back with them, we would say
we had great warriors who would wait
for the canoes to come to shore
where we would club them to death.
But today we do not use violence
to survive and we have become quiet
and accepting of our neighbors though
in the beginning we were almost wiped out
as sickness came with the people on ships
who wanted to trade and cheat us of our fish.
That sickness nearly wiped out all river people
but today we are still here, and we survive.
Our children have grown up with loss
and alcohol and drugs and they too fight
for their lives in a world that does not
seem to care about them but we try
to teach them the lessons from a long time
before there was anything written down.
In our ceremonies we repeat those words
and our children will also repeat those words
and so we the river people are still here.
We are all the silent warriors and we say
enough is enough and our young they pick up
the drum and they sing new songs
and they stand and shout to the world
that we are still here and will never leave
this simple island on the great river where
we still take the fish and yes, we still live
where we have been for thousands of years
and we are the ancestors of our future as
a child picks up a drum and begins to sing
a new song given to him from long ago.