Eve Joseph was the Canadian winner of the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Victoria poet Eve Joseph ‘savouring’ moment after winning $65K Griffin prize

TORONTO — Eve Joseph was so shocked to be named the Canadian winner of the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, she had to bite her tongue to keep from swearing.

“Holy something,” Joseph said as she accepted the honour at a Toronto gala Thursday night.

“The only thing I can possibly say is thank you for falling in love with poetry, so we, too, and others can fall in love.”

The Victoria-based writer was recognized for “Quarrels,” published by Anvil Press, a collection of prose poems that explores the logic of the illogical.

In their citation, judges said the poems capture “the intriguing spaces and moments defeating the boundaries of the real.”

As she stepped down from the podium, Joseph said she was overcome by a similar sense of unreality.

“I feel like I’m a little bit out of my body. But also, paradoxically, in my body, completely here and present, and savouring it,” she said in an interview.

“One does not expect to feel and experience this in one’s life.”

The Vancouver-raised, 66-year-old writer said “Quarrels” marked a departure from her previous two collections, and, despite having won one of the richest prizes for poetry, Joseph said she feels she still has work to do to master her craft.

“The form is as much about reach for me as anything. I was reaching all the time to be able to find that blend of the ordinary and the strange — the marvellous,” she said.

“It’s not the literal truth, but it’s the marvellous truth.”

Joseph won the B.C. Book Prize for non-fiction in 2015 for her memoir, “In the Slender Margin,” about how personal loss informed her 20 years working as counsellor in a hospice.

Having retired last year, Joseph said the time she spent immersed in the “extremity” of the human story helped her find the “bigger-than-life stories” in writing ”Quarrels.”

“My mother was a storyteller, but I grew up not knowing what was truth and what was fiction,” she said. ”When I look back, fiction is way more interesting to me.”

The international prize, also worth $65,000, went to Don Mee Choi’s translation of Korean poems written by Kim Hyesoon in “Autobiography of Death,” published by New Directions.

The Seoul-born, Seattle-based translator will receive 60 per cent of the cash prize, and the remaining 40 per cent will go to Hyesoon, who is from South Korea.

Griffin trustee Ian Williams said the theme uniting this year’s finalists was death, which seems to loom large over today’s world, but their take on the subject was not as morbid as one would expect.

“There’s this sort of return to death … but it’s actually not so bleak,” the Vancouver-based poet and author said. ”I think there’s sort of a political engagement that’s happening these days, but there’s still that sort of lining of hope, which I think is sort of refreshing and redemptive.”

Thursday’s poetry bash featured a who’s who of Canada’s literary scene, including award-winning writers Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill and David Chariandy, as well as former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.

Plush birds were perched on branches throughout the hall in Toronto’s Distillery District in keeping with the evening’s avian theme, which the prize’s founder and chairman Scott Griffin said was meant to represent “poetry taking flight.”

Montreal writer Nicole Brossard, recipient of the $20,000 Lifetime Recognition Award, was also honoured at the dinner reception.

This year’s Canadian runners-up were former Toronto poet laureate Dionne Brand for “The Blue Clerk” (McClelland & Stewart) and University of Waterloo professor Sarah Tolmie’s “The Art of Dying” (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

For the international prize, the other contenders were British-Jamaican spoken-word poet Raymond Antrobus’ “The Perseverance” (Penned in the Margins); Chicago-based Daniel Borzutzky’s “Lake Michigan” (University of Pittsburgh Press); and Ani Gjika’s translation of Albanian poems written by Luljeta Lleshanaku in ”Negative Space” (Bloodaxe Books).

In addition to the grand prize winners, each finalist also received $10,000 for participating in Wednesday evening’s readings at Koerner Hall.

According to prize organizers, judges Ulrikka Gernes of Denmark, Srikanth Reddy of the United States and Kim Maltman of Canada culled this year’s short list from 510 books of poetry, from 32 countries, including 37 translations.

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