Ont. wordsmith Canisia Lubrin adds $65K Griffin Poetry Prize to string of accolades

TORONTO — Canisia Lubrin says winning the Griffin Poetry Prize filled her with an "expanding feeling" — one she's growing used to as she accumulates accolades cementing her status as a powerful voice in Canadian poetry.

The Whitby, Ont.-based wordsmith was named the Canadian winner of the $65,000 honour during a virtual ceremony Wednesday for "The Dyzgraphxst," from McClelland & Stewart.

Lubrin said she learned of the win while taking a break from preparations to teach a creative writing course later in the day. She said she didn't plan on sharing the news with her students.

But award watchers already know what a banner year it's been for the writer, critic, editor and teacher.

In an interview, Lubrin said the deluge of plaudits from her literary peers is "a special thing," but ironically, found herself struggling for the words to describe its significance.

"The thing about working in a profession like poetry or literature is it's actually an act of profound sociality," Lubrin said by phone Wednesday.

"There's a wider conversation that opens up about where literature is heading, about where it has been, and certainly the possibilities for how art is brought into a kind of communion."

The Griffin awarded the international prize, also worth $65,000, to Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort for "Music for the Dead and Resurrected," from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In their citation, jurors hailed Lubrin's sophomore collection as "a spectacular feat of architecture called a poem."

Structured in seven acts, "The Dyzgraphxst" uses different iterations of "I" to deconstruct selfhood as it exists in relation to the modern conceptions of colonialism, individualism and meritocracy.

Lubrin's skepticism of those forces may seem to put her at odds with the awards establishment that has so embraced her.

Earlier this year, Lubrin was selected as one of eight laureates of the Windham-Campbell Prize, which is administered through Yale University, and provides US$165,000 for each recipient to focus on work "independent of financial concerns."

Lubrin is also among the winners of the Canada Council for the Arts' Joseph S. Stauffer Prize for emerging and mid-career artists.

"The Dyzgraphxst" earned spots on the short lists for the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry and the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. The title also won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, an annual award for literary books by Caribbean writers.

Lubrin, who became McClelland & Stewart's poetry editor in April, said in an ideal world, artists wouldn't have to rely on a prize-giving system steeped in "competition and impossible decisions" in order to pay the bills.

But awards can bring both financial freedom and new readers, said Lubrin, and she's excited to see how a wider audience will receive "The Dyzgraphxst."

"Reading is a creative act as well," she said. "The book really does not complete its journey unless it's read, unless someone out there is willing to step into this sort of imaginative space that reading requires."

Lubrin emerged as a wordsmith-to-watch with her 2017 debut book of poetry, "Voodoo Hypothesis," a subversion of the imperial construct of "Blackness" expressed through an intricate blend of Caribbean Creole, English patois and baroque language.

Born and raised in Saint Lucia, Lubrin holds degrees from York University and University of Guelph.

She teaches creative writing at OCAD University and poetry at the University of Toronto, and has held writing residencies at Queen's University and Poetry in Voice, an organization that aims to bring poetry into the high school classroom.

The other Canadian contenders on this year's Griffin short list were Joseph Dandurand for "The East Side of It All'' and Yusuf Saadi for "Pluviophile,'' both published by Nightwood Editions.

The international runners-up were: Los Angeles-based poet Victoria Chang for "Obit," from Copper Canyon Press; Indian-American writer Srikanth Reddy for "Underworld Lit," from Wave Books; and Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi for their translation of poet Yi Lei's Chinese work "My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree," from Graywolf Press.

Each finalist received $10,000.

Organizers say judges Ilya Kaminsky of Ukraine, Ales Steger of Slovenia and Toronto-based Souvankham Thammavongsa each read 682 books of poetry from 14 countries to select the 2021 short list.

The Griffin is billed as the world's largest prize for a first-edition single collection of poetry written in or translated into English.

The Griffin Trust was founded in 2000 by Scott Griffin, along with trustees Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson and David Young.

Last year's Canadian winner was Kaie Kellough for "Magnetic Equator."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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