TORONTO — Billy-Ray Belcourt sobbed as he accepted the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize on Thursday night, sharing his hopes that his writing can help bring about a world that Indigenous people would want to live in.
The 23-year-old of the Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta was announced as the Canadian winner of the lucrative prize at a swanky Toronto gala for “This Wound is a World,” published by Frontenac House.
Belcourt, who organizers say is the youngest winner in the prize’s history, was rendered momentarily speechless by emotion as he took to the stage to address the crowd.
“This book was written not to be a book,” Belcourt said.
“It was written … to allow me to figure out how to be in a world that I did not want, a world that many of us who are Indigenous did not want.
“It was written also to try to bring about the world that we do want collectively.”
In an interview, Belcourt said he saw the award as an “investment” in not only his voice, but the voices of all people like him who are Indigenous, queer or gender non-conforming.
“Their voices have been silenced, and I think this is an opening,” he said. “This is a siren call from the future.”
Politics were front and centre at the typically decorous literary gathering, which Belcourt said was unavoidable given the current polarized climate.
“I think (poetry) can allow us to deliver a particular set of messages, ways of thinking to those who may not otherwise encounter them,” said Belcourt, wearing a ”Justice for Colten” button pinned to his shirt.
“It does what a lot of writing doesn’t do. It firstly creates an emotional field, so in that field, we’re allowed to work through things that otherwise we would not be allowed to work through.”
The three-member judging panel praised “This Wound is a World” as a “politically necessary” meditation on moving through the world in an Indigenous and queer body.
American poet Susan Howe took home the $65,000 international honour for “Debths” (New Directions).
Founded in 2000 by businessman Scott Griffin and a group of trustees, the Griffin is billed as the world’s largest prize for a first-edition single collection of poetry written in or translated into English.
Notable guests at the dinner reception included former governor general Adrienne Clarkson and former Toronto poet laureate Dionne Brand.
The reception hall was bathed in red light, with an array of candles arranged shaped in the shape of hearts in keeping with the soiree’s fiery theme, which Griffin said was inspired by the overtly political nature of the finalists’ work.
“They tended to break the mould of previous poetry readings, which tended to be a little bit more old-fashioned,” he said. ”They came out with statements that were very powerful, very strong and very heartfelt.”
Throughout the night, speakers framed poetry an act of literary rebellion, with one of the judges going so far as to thank the four American poets who were shortlisted for the international honour for their “distinctly un-American activities.”
Before announcing the Canadian winner, British poet and jury member Sarah Howe told the crowd that Canada’s poetry scene is so robust that U.S. President Donald Trump may impose tariffs on the country’s compositions.
Romanian writer and political figure Ana Blandiana, whom the Griffin honoured with a Lifetime Recognition Award for her writing opposing the oppressive Ceausescu regime, said poetry can be a “weapon” to effect change in politically tumultuous times.
“It can have an extraordinary effect, only insofar that there is a vibration, a harmony, between the suffering that the poet feels, and the suffering that the audience feels,” Blandiana said in an interview through a translator.
The Canadian runners-up were Montreal-born Aisha Sasha John for “I have to live.” (McClelland & Stewart), Donato Mancini of Vancouver for “Same Diff” (Talonbooks).
The international short list also included three other American finalists:Tongo Eisen-Martin for “Heaven Is All Goodbyes” (City Lights), Layli Long Soldier for “Whereas” (Graywolf Press), Natalie Shapero for “Hard Child” (Copper Canyon Press).
Griffin also paid homage to 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize winner David McFadden, who died this week, saying the Hamilton-born wordsmith told him the honour “made a huge difference in his life.”
Judges read 542 books of poetry from 33 countries, including 17 translations.
In addition to the grand prize winners, each finalist also receives $10,000 for participating in Wednesday evening’s readings at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.