Toronto-born wordsmith Anne Carson said she was surprised to win the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize on Thursday night for her genre-bending Red Doc>, partly because she doesn't "really like the book" and partly because she's already won the honour and "thought it wouldn't be fair" to get it again.
"It's just not perfect," Carson — who splits her time between New York and Ann Arbor, Mich. — said of Red Doc> in an interview after landing the prize, which she also won in 2001, its inaugural year.
Asked what she doesn't like about the work — which mixes poetry, drama and narrative — she said: "If I knew, I'd change that. But I don't know. It's intuitive."
"I don't mean it's a bad book," added the University of Michigan professor. "I mean, I don't know if it's a good book or a bad book. I just have a vision when I start of what a thing is and sometimes it gets there and sometimes it doesn't."
The Griffin judges — Robert Bringhurst of Canada, C.D. Wright of the U.S. and Jo Shapcott of the U.K. — obviously felt differently, noting of Red Doc>: "Words are rescued, morphed and slapped awake. Speech hurtles from vulgar to sublime. Everything accelerates except when a break is introduced disguised as riff, list or song and the mead is served in golden cups."
'Words are rescued, morphed and slapped awake. Speech hurtles from vulgar to sublime' - Griffin judges on Red Doc>
Carson said she wrote the book as a sequel to her 1998 verse novel Autobiography of Red on the suggestion of her husband because she "didn't have an idea for a new thing." She worked on it for 11 years, on and off, and kept rewriting it in different forms.
"I think over those years I threw it out entirely five or six times, so it was just started all over again each time."
And yet, Carson is considering having a third go at the project.
"I thought maybe a trilogy would be a good idea, yeah, now that I have two," she said. "Might as well. It's a hard form, though, trilogy."
For California-based Brenda Hillman — winner of this year's $65,000 international Griffin prize — her winning work Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire was the fourth book in a tetralogy on the Earth's elements.
She said she'd been working on it for 18 years and, like Carson, was also shocked to receive the Griffin honour.
"I'm thrilled. The book is very political ... and sometimes political poetry, environmental poetry might not have the same readership. But I tried to bring everything I knew into each poem and a spiritual intensity along with the politics."
Carson has a slew of other prizes to her name. She was twice a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, received the 1996 Lannan Award and the 1997 Pushcart Prize, both for poetry; and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2000. In 2001 she received the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry — the first woman to do so.
Each year the Griffin honours one Canadian and one international poet.
The other Canadian finalists were Toronto's Anne Michaels for Correspondences and Sue Goyette for Ocean.
The other international finalists were Rachael Boast for Pilgrim's Flower, Carl Phillips for Silverchest and Colonies, written by Tomasz Rozycki and translated by Mira Rosenthal.
Prize 'a beacon of light for poets'
Toronto businessman Scott Griffin created the prize along with trustees including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. The non-winning finalists each get $10,000.
Judges chose this year's finalists from 539 books submitted from 40 countries.
The Griffin bash is a loose, informal affair. Guests including former governor general Adrienne Clarkson and Irish writer Colm Toibin noshed on cured salmon salad and veal tenderloin medallions in a spring-themed room decorated with trees at the ceremony in the city's Distillery District.
Clarkson said the Griffin has become an important international prize.
"It's a beacon of light for poets all over the world," she said. "And the reason it is, is not only because it's poetry but because of the passion with which it's given — because it comes out of one man's passion for poetry. Scott Griffin loves poetry and he support this prize, which is wonderful. So it has a personal, passionate, poetic feel to it. It's great."
Added Toibin: "The Griffin prize is known all over the world now for doing things with flair, imagination and seriousness. So for everyone who cares about poetry, it's really important because it brings more readers to poetry. And to be involved in that in some sort of role which will see if I can help in any way is an honour and is something that's important to me personally."
Brazilian writer and poet Adelia Prado received this year's Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry's Lifetime Recognition Award.
Last year's winners were What's the Score? by Toronto's David W. McFadden and Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems by Ramallah-based Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah of Houston.