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Canadians Susan Musgrave, Iman Mersal make revamped Griffin Poetry Prize short list

TORONTO — Canadians Susan Musgrave and Iman Mersal were both nominated Wednesday for the Griffin Poetry Prize, the first short list since the award combined its categories for homegrown and international poets into a single global purse.
Susan Musgrave is shown in a handout photo. Musgrave and Iman Mersal are the two Canadians who made the Griffin Poetry Prize's first short list since its categories for homegrown and international poets were combined into one global purse. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-GHriffin Poetry Prize **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO — Canadians Susan Musgrave and Iman Mersal were both nominated Wednesday for the Griffin Poetry Prize, the first short list since the award combined its categories for homegrown and international poets into a single global purse. 

Musgrave was nominated for "Exculpatory Lilies," her first book of poetry in more than a decade. It's one of five books that made the short list; most were written by Americans.

Musgrave said being recognized for this work, a deeply personal exploration of grief, is particularly gratifying. 

"I'm so happy for the book, because the book was largely about the deaths of my daughter Sophie in 2021 and my husband before that, and also about life on Haida Gwaii, where the natural world is a kind of great antidote to grief,"Musgrave said by phone from the rocky archipelago off British Columbia.

"You're surrounded here by beauty. Sometimes that makes sorrow more intense, and other times it's helpful."

"Exculpatory Lilies" is at times a magnifying glass for grief, and at times a balm. Musgrave's writing brings readers to "the sacred ground of loss and grief, and then lifts us toward our own humility," the Griffin jurors said.

Musgrave said that to her, being shortlisted for the prize is as good as winning.

"I try to not pay attention to awards because you could end up getting quite depressed, you know, when you're not shortlisted. Mostly I've been always the bridesmaid, never the bride," she said.

Egyptian-Canadian Mersal made the list with her collection "The Threshold," translated from the original Arabic into English by Robyn Creswell. 

The Griffin used to award one Canadian and one international winner in two separate competitions worth $65,000 each. But last year, organizers said they would change the format to hand out a single $130,000 prize. 

Translators receive 60 per cent of the prize if the winning book wasn't originally written in English. Because Creswell is American, "The Threshold" would have previously qualified for the international prize, not the Canadian one, though Mersal is based in Alberta. 

"I've lived here for more than 20 years, but I really didn't feel that I'm known in Canada for my poetry," Mersal said by phone from Edmonton. "...On a personal level, I feel so honoured and lucky to get to know more readers." 

"The Threshold" compiles works from Mersal's four books of Arabic poetry into a single volume, serving for many anglophones as an introduction to her work and the way her style has shifted over the decades. 

For years, she said, she wasn't treated like a poet in Canada because her work wasn't accessible to many residents.

"Translating my book, my poems, into English meant a lot to me, not just as an indication of accomplishment, but as a way to communicate much better with colleagues, with students, with my own kids. You can imagine that it was more important than any other translation," she said, noting her work has been translated into many languages.

The jurors said Mersal's work "weaves together personal experiences, cultural references, and philosophical musings to create a vivid and eloquent poetic narrative."

The other nominees this year are all from the United States: Ocean Vuong for "Time Is a Mother," Roger Reeves for "Best Barbarian" and Ada Limon for "The Hurting Kind." 

The shortlisted poets get $10,000 apiece.

This year's award will be handed out at a ceremony in Toronto on June 7.

When benefactor Scott Griffin announced last year that he was doing away with the Canada-specific category, some observers were concerned it could hurt the chances of homegrown poets to gain recognition.

Griffin dismissed those concerns, noting that he also added a $10,000 prize for a Canadian First Book of poetry.

Earlier this month, he added his name to the Writers' Trust of Canada poetry prize, more than doubling its purse. The award, which goes to a mid-career poet, is now worth $60,000.

Griffin said he pictured the reconfigured Griffin Poetry Prize going to a "mature poet who's well-known."

A combination of well-established and up-and-coming poets were previously awarded the Griffin. The Canadian prize helped launch the careers of such rising stars as Billy-Ray Belcourt, Liz Howard and Tolu Oloruntoba, all of whom were recognized for their first collections.

Award organizers said this year's three judges each read 602 books of poetry, including 54 translations from 20 languages, submitted by 229 publishers from 20 different countries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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