The winners of this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize, the world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English, were announced in Toronto last night. Fady Joudah’s Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, a translation from Arabic of Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s poetry won the international category. David McFadden’s book What’s the Score? won the Canadian category. The prize for each was C$65,000.
The winners were selected from 509 submissions from 40 publishers around the world. Scott Griffin, the philanthropist and poetry aficionado who funds the prize, praised the judges who read and evaluated all of the submissions in less than two and a half months as the “unsung heroes of this whole enterprise.” This year’s jury members were Canadian poet Suzanne Buffam, American poet Mark Doty, and Wang Ping, who was born in Shanghai and immigrated to the U.S. in 1986.
Joudah, who lives in Houston, is a physician of internal medicine as well as a poet and translator. In the judges citation, Ping praised Joudah’s work. “[A]s a translator of poetry myself, I know the danger, frustration and the joy in the process of catching the fire from the original and delivering it through/into another language, another culture, another sentiment. Mr. Joudah delivered with such grace and power.” Joudah thanked, among others, his publisher Yale University Press as well as renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish for introducing him to Zaqtan’s poetry in a magazine Darwish edited. “When I read Ghassan’s poetry, I realized that I was reading poetry that I had never read the like of before,” Joudah said.
There was some additional drama behind the scenes this year when it seemed that Zaqtan would not be able to come to Toronto for the Griffin readings, which attract thousands, and the awards ceremony. The Canadian government denied him a visa. Joudah started a social media campaign to support Zaqtan’s application, and mainstream media also picked up the story. A few days later the decision was reversed, and the poet was able to attend and was on stage with Joudah.
The Griffin jury citation, written by Ping says Zaqtan’s “singing reminds us why we live and how, in the midst of war, despair, global changes. His words turn dark into light, hatred into love, death into life. His magic leads us to the clearing where hope becomes possible, where healing begins across individuals, countries, races … and we are one with air, water, soil, birds, fish, trees.”
Toronto poet David McFadden took home the Canadian prize. He began publishing poetry in 1958 and has now written 35 books. Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden was shortlisted for the 2008 Griffin prize, and Be Calm, Honey was shortlisted for the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry (his third such nomination). He thanked his publisher Mansfield Press and editor Stuart Ross, as well as his daughter Jennifer, who he said inspired some of the poetry in What’s the Score?
Writing the jury citation, Suzanne Buffam said: “‘If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise,’ advised William Blake in his Proverbs of Hell. As if whispering through the ages into the ear of Canada’s deadpan court jester, Blake’s radical spirit slyly presides over David McFadden’s exuberant thirty-fifth publication, What’s The Score? With their arch yet affable tone, these ninety-nine irreverent and mock-earnest poems lay siege to the feelings of boredom, anxiety, and alienation that afflict a culture obsessed with wealth and prestige, leading us, again and again, down the road of excess to the palace of wisdom.”
The night also featured a recitation of Canadian Don MacKay’s poem “Sometimes a Voice” by Kyla Kane, a Vancouver Grade 12 student who is the first national champion (English Stream) of Poetry In Voice/Les voix de la poésie, a recitation competition sponsored by the Griffin Trust. The bilingual competition initiated a few years ago to promote a love and understanding of poetry among Canadian students is growing. Last year, students from 36 schools in Ontario and Quebec participated in the bilingual competition. This year 177 schools across the country took part, with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 student participants.