Griffin Poetry Prize finalist says award's reach is far

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Vancouver-raised poet Suzanne Buffam, pictured in an undated handout photo, is a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, which will be awarded tonight in Toronto. She's nominated for “The Irrationalist,” her second collection of poetry. — Photo by The Canadian Press

Toronto —

Vancouver-raised poet Suzanne Buffam has been earning kudos for her work for over a decade, winning accolades such as the CBC Literary Award for Poetry and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for Poetry.

Still, even the most revered poets sometimes have trouble reaching audiences outside their niche market. Buffam says her Griffin Poetry Prize nomination is helping her do just that.

“It seems to be a prize that people who I don’t think normally read that much poetry pay attention to,” Buffam, who teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago, said in a recent phone interview.

“I only know because my parents’ friends have been calling them and congratulating them and all these people who I don’t think about as people who follow poetry — maybe they do, I don’t know — but it definitely seems to be in the public eye and well covered by the press. People in America have heard of it.”

Monetary awards

Now into its 11th year, the Griffin awards $65,000 each to the best Canadian and international book of poetry published in English the preceding year.

Each finalist also receives $10,000 for participating in a short list reading, which was to take place Tuesday evening. The awards gala takes place Wednesday night.

Organizers call it the world’s richest award for a single work of poetry.

Buffam, 38, is up for the Canadian prize for “The Irrationalist” (House of Anansi Press), her second collection.

Corner Brook poet competing

Her competition includes Toronto-based Dionne Brand for “Ossuaries” (McClelland & Stewart) and John Steffler of Corner Brook, for “Lookout” (McClelland & Stewart).

International finalists include Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney of Ireland for “Human Chain” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Syrian poet Adonis for “Adonis, Selected Poems,” translated by Khaled Mattawa (Yale University Press).

The others on the international list are Francois Jacqmin of Belgium for “The Book of the Snow,” translated from French by Philip Mosley (Arc Publications) and American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg for “Heavenly Questions” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Travelled extensively

Born in Montreal, Buffam travelled extensively with her family as a child, living in Africa for a year and then Florida for a year before settling in Vancouver.

Her physician father used to recite snippets of poetry around the house and she began writing her own poems in “the typical ways that adolescents start writing poetry, you know, heartbreak and stuff,” she said.

“And I had a really good high school English teacher called Mr. Heath, who I’ve often wanted to look up. I have no idea what his first name was,” added Buffam, who has a two-year-old daughter.

“He was very stern and would catch me smoking in my school uniform. ... He was an old British guy who would walk the halls with a clipboard and give detentions but loved poetry, which I didn’t discover until my graduating year.”

Summer of poetry

After completing her M.A. in Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Buffam used the money from her CBC Literary Award to spend a year penning poems in an old summer house in Nova Scotia. She then moved to Montreal to teach ESL (English as a second language), first at the Labatt brewery and then in a law firm.

In 2003, after finishing an M.A. in English literature at Concordia University, Buffam moved to Chicago with her poet husband, Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy, so he could start a residence position at U of C.

“We are very necessary readers for each other’s work, so basically we married each other and now we can never part because poetry will keep us together,” she said with a laugh.

Buffam published her first collection of poetry, “Past Imperfect,” in 2005 and won the Gerald Lampert prize for it.

She wrote “The Irrationalist” in 2007 while she and Reddy were on academic leave and went to Oaxaca, Mexico.

“That was a fantastic year, probably the best year of my life because all I did was write and read and walk in the sun among Aztec ruins and Mayan ruins,” she said.

Organizations: University of Chicago, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Anansi Press Yale University Press Labatt Concordia University

Geographic location: Toronto, Vancouver, Corner Brook America Montreal Ireland Belgium Africa Florida Iowa Nova Scotia Chicago Oaxaca Mexico

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