Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

You Can’t Spell “Griffin Poetry Prize” Without “International”

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It seems to me that the focus of literary prizes tends to be on the money lavished on writers — look how rich we’re making authors! — or on speaking of compromise candidates in absolute sentences – this is the best book (the jurors could all agree they didn’t dislike).

There is also the claim, most often deployed by the Gillers, of how popular books become after they are shortlisted (a sort of literary Buffett effect).* But in the rush to crown King/Queen Book For The Year or to sell skidloads of titles, what seems so oddly minimized at times is that literary shortlists are simply presenting books that juries think we should read.

*This is why it matters whether the Munros and Atwoods and Ondaatjes remove their books from consideration for prizes — because no audience in Canada realistically needs to be encouraged to read them.

One of the chief reasons to recommend the Griffin Poetry Prize is that it does something that no other prize in Canada does — it reaches beyond our borders and collates must-read texts of contemporary poetry from throughout the English-speaking world. All that bitching folks do about how small CanLit is, how narrow the mailslot is through which it peeks at the world? I can think of no better way of broadening the scope of our national literary practices than letting ourselves be haunted by ghosts from abroad.

The more well-read among you may shake your learned heads at the assertion that we need an awards shortlist in order to spur us to read these international texts, but Jason Guriel’s field notes form the 2008 Griffin readings certainly demonstrate that there are at least some (okay, one) in the audience who are unfamiliar with the books shortlisted for the international prize. And in a personal anecdote, I hadn’t read Yosuf Komunyakaa until last year’s shortlist encouraged me to correct my lamentable oversight.

In this sense, it is the shortlist that matters more than who actually wins the prize, as it applies the Jaws of Life to our reading list, cracking it open and letting a little more light in.

Which isn’t to say that all is sunshine and big sloppy kisses in Griffinland. I think, for example, that Chrisian Bök’s criticism of the Governor General's Literary Awards regarding homogenizing tastes could potentially also be leveled at the Griffin Prize, and an eyebrow deserves to be raised at how the prize recycles one year’s shortlisted poet as next year’s juror (though it should also be noted that the Griffin jury has an international flavour that at least mitigates domestic influences).

Still, the prize’s international shortlists are worth paying attention to. So cancel your plans for the evening and either scalp a ticket to the event or watch the readings online.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Andrew Faulkner

Andrew Faulkner co-curates The Emergency Response Unit, a chapbook press. His first book, Need Machine, was published by Coach House Books in April 2013. He lives in Toronto.

Go to Andrew Faulkner’s Author Page