The $20,000 Trillium Book Award, given annually to the best book in any genre by an Ontario author, is one of my favourite Canadian awards, because it is always so defiantly individual. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the 2009 jury that awarded the prize to Pasha Malla’s first story collection, The Withdrawal Method.) Whereas other awards often risk appearing formulaic, the Trillium seems focused entirely on merit and damn the torpedoes: recent winners have included Phil Hall (a poet) and Hannah Moskovitch (a playwright).
This year, Kate Cayley beat out established authors Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, and Thomas King to take the award for her debut, the story collection How You Were Born. The fact the prize went to a work of short fiction makes me happy for reasons that go without saying. (Also for the record: I was a fan of Atwood’s collection Stone Mattress.)
Beyond that, Cayley’s book is published by the small literary house Pedlar Press. (Pedlar is based in St. John’s, but Cayley is a resident of Toronto.) There is a myth that large multinationals are responsible for publishing only tired, mainstream, run-of-the-mill books, whereas small houses produce nothing but brilliant work that withers due to lack of attention and readers. While neither is true in all cases, the last part of that – the lack of attention for books from smaller houses – is an unfortunate reality, so it is nice to see an independent regional publisher receive some consideration.
Whether such consideration is merited in this case is something I (shamefacedly) can’t attest to, not having read Cayley’s book (see above re: lack of attention to work from smaller presses, even on the part of people who should know better). That I now plan to search it out probably also flies in the face of my frequent criticisms of award culture; it would appear that awards really do help to sell books, for better or for worse.
The jury that awarded Cayley the prize was comprised of poet Helen Guri, novelist Cordelia Strube, and novelist James Grainger.
The Trillium also awarded its poetry prize last night, to Brecken Hancock’s well-received debut Broom Broom, a suite of unflinchingly dark poems published by Toronto’s Coach House Books. The $10,000 poetry prize is awarded annually (it alternates between English- and French-language titles) for a first, second, or third book of poetry.
Michel Dallaire won the French-language prize for his novel Violoncelle pour lune d’automne, and Micheline Marchand won the French-language children’s award for her book Mauvaise Mine. Both books were published by Les Éditions L’Interligne.
Sina Queyras is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Expressway. A longtime friend of TSR, she is the founder and editor-in-chief of the poetry website Lemon Hound.
Why should people read poetry?
– Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning”
I have a weakness for Stevie Smith. She and Kenneth Patchen were early influences. Pleasurable. Very much alive and astute in their observations about the world and human interactions with it. “You know I don’t like those people / Who act as if a cherry / Was something they’d personally thought up” Patchen dryly concludes. The snap of thought, the Chagall-like images, the playful turns. These are poems that get inside you and never leave. Punchy and always at the ready, as Smith appears in “A Good Time Was Had By All”: “The English woman is so refined / she has no bosom and no behind.”
Smith and Patchen make up part of my poetry core. They are simple, though not simplistic touchstones. They reached off the page to a young me and said, this is possible – what you think, how you think, is possible. Even if there is nowhere in this classroom, or in this town, or in your life, where your thinking is reflected back to you in a way that you can at all recognize, these lines, this formation of thought, reflects you so beautifully that you can see a future where moments earlier there was stagnation and despair. Poetry is an escape hatch.
My father went to bed every night with a volume of French poetry by his bed. I have it now, tattered and torn, this volume that was for my father very much a door to his past, to his former tongue and land, to peace, and to sleep. I have carried Lisa Robertson around for years, and that was an education, a stimulator, a way to make myself move forward vigilantly toward a kind of thinking that shimmered before me, always out of reach. Before that it was Erin Mouré, Tim Lilburn, Dionne Brand, Christian Bök, Gertrude Stein, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Ondaatje, Mary Oliver, Rumi … and so on. When I read Dennis Lee’s Un, I cry. I can’t help it. My niece loves Robert Service. It gives her a way to march across her landscape, ballad style.
Whatever you want of poetry, it will offer you – soothing, escape hatch, appliance, machine. It is not about the poet: as Stevie Smith said, there is always another poet. It’s poetry that arrives, making its “strong communication” known, or pulling back the skin and letting a person feel the world, or arranging objects in such a way that thought, speech, images illuminate something profound or beautiful. A smart poet bears witness, lets the thunder move through her veins, notes the shade, the tenor, the time of departure, describes in detail the interior life of the bolt, its composition, trajectory, effect on her skin, where her mind went, and how, and with whom, writes this down, and passes this on.
If all is well in the world, poetry is another kind of thunderbolt.