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American poet Roger Reeves wins Griffin Poetry Prize for 'Best Barbarian'

TORONTO — When Roger Reeves was named the winner of this year's Griffin Poetry Prize on Wednesday night, his head fell to his hands and his mind went blank.
Scott Griffin, left, poses for a photo with poet Roger Reeves in Toronto in this Wednesday, June 7, 2023 handout photo. American poet Roger Reeves won the $130,000 Griffin Poetry Prize with his book "Best Barbarian." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, George Pimental *MANDATORY CREDIT*

TORONTO — When Roger Reeves was named the winner of this year's Griffin Poetry Prize on Wednesday night, his head fell to his hands and his mind went blank. 

The Austin, Texas-based writer was awarded the $130,000 honour at a ceremony in Toronto for his collection "Best Barbarian," which jurors praised for charting "ruptures and violences enacted across time and space — particularly against Black humanity."

It took a beat for thoughts to return to Reeves after he heard his book's name called out, he said. But when they did, he thought of his people.

"This is for my people. For my people, and for my people over the centuries, people that have fought, that have bled, that have worked, and people that have danced, that have enjoyed," he said in a brief interview after the ceremony. 

"I think the first thing that I would say is this is always for our people: for our people that had helped us get here."

Reeves is also the recipient of a Whiting Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

But to write, he said, he puts awards and accolades out of his head and thinks only of the work.

In his acceptance speech Wednesday, Reeves thanked his grandmother, who moved from South Carolina to New Jersey to clean homes, including for some of the first Black women in the United States to get PhDs.

When she was cleaning those houses, he said, she’d tell her grandson to look up at the shelves.

“She would say, 'Look at those shelves. Just look at them,'” Reeves said in the speech.

“There’s no way that I could ever have imagined that looking at those bookshelves would bring me here, to this."

The other shortlisted works, which each receive $10,000, are "The Hurting Kind" by Ada Limón, "The Threshold" by Egyptian-Canadian Iman Mersal and translated by Robyn Creswell, "Exculpatory Lilies" by British Columbia-based writer Susan Musgrave and "Time Is a Mother" by Ocean Vuong.

Wednesday marked the Griffin's return to in-person festivities, which went virtual following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first year back, benefactor Scott Griffin did away with the former arrangement of holding separate events on consecutive nights for the poetry reading and announcement gala. 

Instead, members of the poetry-loving public — and publishing industry — packed into Toronto's Koerner Hall for a celebration that included both.

At the event, Buffalo, N.Y.-born author Fanny Howewas named the recipient of this year's Lifetime Recognition Award. She was shortlisted for the Griffin in 2001 for "Selected Poems" and again in 2005 for "On the Ground."

This was also the first year the Griffin Poetry Prize combined its categories for homegrown and international poets into a single global purse.

The Griffin used to award one Canadian and one international winner in two separate competitions worth $65,000 each. But last year, organizers said they would change the format to hand out a single prize.

When Griffin made the announcement last year, some observers were concerned it could hurt homegrownpoets' chances to gain recognition.

Griffin dismissed those concerns, noting that he also added a $10,000 prize for a Canadian First Book of poetry.

The inaugural award went to Emily Riddle, author of "The Big Melt." In addition to the cash prize, she'll receive a six-week residency in Italy.

Griffin also added his nameto the Writers' Trust of Canada poetry prize this year, more than doubling its purse. The Latner Griffin Writers' Trust Poetry Prize, which goes to a mid-career poet, is now worth $60,000.

"We're trying to cover all the bases," Griffin said Wednesday night. 

He said Reeves' book was an incredibly sophisticated work of poetry, and his win shouldn't come as a surprise to observers. 

"Canadians aren't going to win every year, but they're going to be on the same stage as the best in the world," Griffin said. "That's something worth trying for and achieving."

Griffin previously said he pictured the reconfigured Griffin Poetry Prize going to a "mature poet who's well-known."

A combination of well-established and up-and-coming poets were previously awarded the Griffin. The Canadian prize helped launch the careers of such rising stars as Billy-Ray Belcourt, Liz Howard and Tolu Oloruntoba, all of whom were recognized for their first collections.

Award organizers said this year's three judges each read 602 books of poetry, including 54 translations from 20 languages, submitted by 229 publishers from 20 different countries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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