Describing it as "a big win for anybody that resists appropriation and resists colonialism," Jordan Abel was named winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the most lucrative literary prizes in Canada, it was announced Thursday.
The 32-year-old Nisga'a poet was awarded the prize for his collection Injun, a work that probes issues of race and colonialism through the use of text taken from 91 old pulp Western novels.
"I think it's absolutely an affirmation of voices that are in resistance," he said on stage moments after the ceremony, held in downtown Toronto, concluded. "There's been yet another renewed discussion of appropriation – in this case cultural appropriation. And I think the work that I do writes against appropriation as a mechanism of colonialism and attempts to address how problematic and present a whole bunch of different forms of appropriation continue to be. That's what my writing responds to."
The Vancouver-born, Ontario- and Alberta-raised Abel, who is currently pursuing a PhD at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is the author of two previous collections of poetry: The Place of Scraps, which was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, and Un/inhabited. His interest as a poet, he said, "is to write about the complexity of Indigenous identity and specifically to write about being both an urban Indigenous person and an intergenerational survivor of residential schools. So all of my work is an attempt to address that complicated position."
This marks the first Griffin Prize win for his B.C.-based publisher, Talonbooks, and also the second consecutive year an Indigenous Canadian writer has won the prize; last year's award went to Liz Howard for Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent.
"As a reader of Indigenous poetry, and as an enthusiast of Indigenous poetry, it kind of feels like a moment," said Abel.
The other finalists on the Canadian shortlist were Hoa Nguyen for Violet Energy Ingots and Sandra Ridley for Silvija.
The winner of the International Prize, meanwhile, was British poet Alice Oswald for Falling Awake. A renowned an award-winning poet, Oswald served on the jury of last year's Griffin Poetry Prize. "I was really struck last year by what a generous and warm occasion it was," she said. "It didn't seem like some of the English prizes, which can get a bit competitive."
The other finalists on the International shortlist were Jane Mead for World of Made and Unmade, Denise Riley for Say Something Back, and Donald Nicholson-Smith for his translation of Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laabi's In Praise of Defeat.
"Poetry is not a career, it's a way of living," said Oswald when asked what this prize meant for her career. "I'm just very, very grateful."
Each winner receives $65,000, while all the poets who participated in the shortlists readings, which were held at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Wednesday, each receive $10,000.
This year's jury – Canadian poet Sue Goyette, American Joan Naviyuk Kane and British poet and translator George Szirtes – read 617 books of poetry, from 39 countries, including 23 in translation.
American poet Frank Bidart received this year's Lifetime Recognition Award.