Gjertrud Schnackenberg won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize in the international poetry category, and Dionne Brand was awarded the prize in the Canadian category at a ceremony last night in Toronto. Each received a check for C$65,000. The prize is the largest in the world for a single book of poetry in English. Each of the seven finalists receives C$10,000 and participates in readings for a crowd of about 1,000 people the night before the award is presented.
Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is a deeply personal work written over the last seven years following the death of her husband in 2002. In their citation, the judges said describing Schnackenberg’s poems as blank verse did not begin to convey the power of their formal realization. “Reading this book is like reading the ocean…Heavenly Questions demands that we come face to face with matters of mortal importance, and it does so in a wildly original music that is passionate, transporting, and heart-rending.”
The winner of the Canadian portion of the prize, Dionne Brand, is well-known in Canada both for her novels and her poetry. Her collection thirsty was previously shortlisted for the Griffin prize and she was named Toronto’s poet laureate in 2009. Brand said in this book Ossuaries (McClelland & Stewart), she wrote in tercets but also pushed against the boundaries of that discipline, comparing the effort to the melody and rhythm in a jazz piece played by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali. The judges noted that “Working with a novel-length narrative about the life of an activist named Yasmine, who lives an underground existence on various continents, [Brand] has constructed a long poem, which is not a traditional seamless epic, nor a Poundian extended collage, but something else that seems quite new.”
Judges Tim Lilburn (Canada), Colm Toibin (Ireland) and Chase Twichell (U.S.) chose the shortlisted books from 450 submissions, (including 20 translations) from 37 countries. The other international finalists were: Seamus Heaney for Human Chain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Khaled Mattawa for his translation from Arabic of Syrian poet Adonis’ collection Adonis: Selected Poems (Yale University Press); and Philip Mosley for his translation of Francois Jacqmin’s The Book of Snow (Arc Publications). The other shortlisted Canadian poets were Suzanne Buffman for The Irrationalist (House of Anansi Press) and John Steffler for Lookout (McClelland & Stewart).
French poet and essayist Yves Bonnefoy was honored with the Griffin Trust’s 2011 lifetime achievement award.
Both Schnackenberg and Brand thanked the prize’s founder Scott Griffin for his generosity and commitment to promoting poetry. The evening also included a recitation of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” by Toronto high school student Jonathan Welstead, the winner of the new Poetry in Voice recitation contest, also founded by the Griffin Trust to promote poetry in new generations of Canadians.