Books

Griffin Poetry Prize winner Kaie Kellough shares 5 books that inspired him

Kaie Kellough's third poetry collection Magnetic Equator won the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Kaie Kellough is a Montreal writer, performer and 'general word-sound systemizer.' (Kaie Kellough, McClelland & Stewart)

Kellough plays with geography and self-determination in Magnetic Equator, his third poetry collection and the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize winner. Drifting between South and North America, Kellough digs into the ancestral belonging, exploring the Canadian Prairies, Georgetown, Guyana and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Griffin Poetry Prize is Canada's biggest honour in poetry and comes with a $65,000 purse. The other Canadian nominees were heft by Doyali Islam and How She Read by Chantal Gibson.

In honour of his nomination, Kellough shared five books that have shaped his life and work.

Kellough is also judging the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize, which is accepting submissions until May 31, 2020.

You Better Believe It: Black Verse in English edited by Paul Breman

You Better Believe It is an anthology of verse edited by Paul Breman. (Penguin Classics)

"I encountered this anthology at an age when I was reading desperately, to understand who I was and what I was doing in 1980s Western Canada. How did I get there? What did it mean to be a young mixed-race black Canadian of Caribbean ancestry? You Better Believe It was a yellowed Penguin paperback found in a used bookstore. It was my light and my salvation for several years. I carried it everywhere, in my back pocket, until the cover detached, the glue in the spine grew brittle, and the pages started falling out. I held it together with a rubber band. It featured a broad offering of black poets from Africa, the Caribbean and the States. In it, I first encountered the poet who has been most important to my sensibility, Kamau Brathwaite, in the poem The Making of the Drum, which begins: 

First the goat
Must be killed
And the skin
Stretched.

And in which the poet goes on to bless the goat and thank it for its sacrifice."

The Arrivants trilogy by Kamau Brathwaite

The Arrivants is a trilogy by Caribbean poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite, also known as Edward Brathwaite. (Oxford University Press, New Directions Publishing)

"After first encountering Kamau in the anthology, I immediately immersed myself in his work. I found it in the University of Calgary library, the three books that make up the Arrivants trilogy: Masks, Rights of Passage and Islands. Kamau embedded historical experience in poetic form, experience in Africa, crossing to the Caribbean, and again departing and returning to/from other points in the diaspora. The rhythmic charge of the poems, the narrow columns of letters that shook and rattled down the side of the page, the use of space on the page, the poem as almost a score for how it ought to be sounded, the approach to language as a — as a percussive device, almost — awakened in me a feeling for the importance of cadence, rhythm, and the vast musical possibilities available in language. What was my riddim? How would I find it?"

Bread out of Stone by Dionne Brand

Bread out of Stone by Dionne Brand is an essay collection. (Vintage Canada, Jason Chow)

"I had read some of Dionne's poems in literary journals, but when I came across Bread out of Stone, the form of the book surprised me. The essays had a strange fluidity to them, a vast sense of movement between the historical and the immediate, between the Caribbean and Canada, that was oceanic. It was the first time I encountered the lyric essay, the first time I read work that existed easily, comfortably, at the intersection of the lyric poem, the essay, and the memoir. In addition, the book was concerned with the black experience in Canada, so it spoke directly to me. It told me about myself, where I had come from and how I might exist in this place. The book also told me that my experience could produce unique ways of seeing, thinking and writing."

49th Parallel Psalm by Wayde Compton

49th Parallel Psalm is Wayde Compton's first poetry book. (Arsenal Pulp Press, Erin Flegg)

"49th Parallel Psalm was like a condensed Canadian version of Kamau's Arrivants, looking at the migration of African Americans from San Francisco to British Columbia in 1858. It was a revelation. It accomplished what the other books on this list did: it gave permission, it generated possibility. It told me that I could use Kamau's influence and make it relevant to a black Caribbean Canadian context. I understood, reading 49th, something about the migration of artistic forms and their adaptation to new cultural contexts, and how that process is like a conversation across geography and time, and that I could be a part of that conversation. Wayde had written us into that conversation. Here was a work that a black artist in western Canada produced that spoke back to the diaspora and that identified our place in it."

The Hanging of Angélique by Dr. Afua Cooper

Afua Cooper is a professor and author. (Afua Cooper, HarperCollins)

"In this book I first learned of Marie-Joseph Angélique, the enslaved woman who, in 1734, nearly burned down the entire port of Montréal and was tortured and executed for her actions. The story of Angélique is extraordinary, but the broader context of understanding slavery in New France expanded the story to show how a system of global exploitation also functioned at the immediate local level. I had been living in Montréal for some time, and this connected me more deeply, helped to transform my relationship to the idea of Québec. It also enraged. It enflamed a desire, as did the other books on this list, to write history into the present, and cultivated the idea that all moments can exist at once in a text, whether they are drawn from 1734, 1492, 1979, or 2120. Dr. Cooper's telling of Angélique's story emphasized the importance of historical narratives, how they shape the present, while showing how those narratives are often constructs that can be re-envisioned."

Read more in the My Life in Books series here.

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