Even If They’re Not What You Would Have Wanted: Ian Williams editor of The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2018

This book is a package containing finely crafted gifts. Take it as such.

Do not read the citations first. They are none of your business yet. Read Ian Williams’ astute introduction, then the poems. Come back when you’re soaked in their sweat and blood. Do not compare notes until after the battle. After the battle, it is, thankfully, too late.

First, the international shortlist, with four poets from south of the border:

Tongo Eisen-Martin’s poems from Heaven Is All Goodbyes strike fast. Read them slowly. Reread them. Slow. There is so much meaning here, but how much empathy you have will depend on circumstance. My white woman’s tears tried to wash away the ink before I processed what had caused them. These poems of society-inflicted pain may break something in you. You needed it broken. From “I have to talk to myself differently now”:

worried about the walls
I forgot the ceiling was closing in on me too.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Susan Howe’s three decades of poetry and art, this sample from Debths will echo for you. If you’re into Howe’s approach (genre-busting, visually rich, fragmented yet layered, floating yet tied to everything before) to extracting meaning, her meanings here are exactly the sort you’ll get into. Whether she won in the 2018 Griffin international category as a career award or for Debths itself, it was a respectable choice.

Natalie Shapero’s poems from Hard Child offer a lesson in lyric’s potential. You could use it to teach (or learn) technique, from end stop to assonance to the power of punctuation. Her content is a stereotypical American professor’s, mulling in high language the weights of first-world problems. Here, the opening of “Ten What”:

The camera adds ten what, I can’t remember.
But the threat’s enough to make me stay
away. I don’t want any more of what I have.

Layli Long Soldier’s poems from Whereas remind us that these same techniques and skill can be reclaimed and set on fire to signal a new poetics of story—one that illuminates the past and kindles a revolution of perspective in the reader. Her poetry may well be the future of history.

The first of three shortlisted Canadian poets, and the 2018 winner, is Billy-Ray Belcourt. Read everything of his. Repeat. Belcourt is young, but he’s way ahead of you. His poetry here from This Wound is a World is immaculate, his thoughts will break the shell that’s built around your heart. If you are prone to jealousy over skill, book time with your therapist now. From “We Were Never Meant to Break Like This”:

4. i am so sad that i burrow into the absence of every boy who has
held me.

Aisha Sasha John’s poems from I have to live. will remind you what a sharp poetic tool tone can be. John delivers visceral brutality along the knife edge of clarity. Ignore the jury’s citation; her usage is far from “casual,” it’s crystallizing.

Much of the work sampled from Donato Mancini’s Same Diff is complex, thought-provoking found poetry, emphasizing variations in translations and human perspectives. It’s an appropriate note to end this earnest compendium of modern poetic styles.

I have to give kudos to typesetter Laura Brady. Her work to maintain the wildly diverse fonts and layout from seven original books in one framework is heroic.

The rich diversity of poetic styles and subjects in this collection is impressive. The resulting shortlist and book may not be what you would have chosen, but it’s a dazzling gift nonetheless.


AJ Dolman is the author of Lost Enough (Morning Rain Publishing, 2017), a collection of short stories. She is a contributing editor for Arc Poetry Magazine, and co-editor of Motherhood in Precarious Times (Demeter Press, 2018), an anthology of non-fiction, essays and poetry. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in journals and anthologies throughout North America. Follow her on Twitter @ajdolman.



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