Priscila Uppal shortlisted for 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize

Priscila Uppal, creative writing professor at York, is one of three Canadian poets shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, the richest poetry prize in the world.

Uppal’s book Ontological Necessities is up against Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht and Don McKay’s Strike/Slip for the $50,000 prize going to a Canadian poet.

Uppal heard that she made the Canadian shortlist on Tuesday, when Scott Griffin, Canadian founder of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry, and David Young, trustee, announced the three Canadian and four international finalists. The $100,000 prize is divided annually between writers of the two best books of poetry published in English (including translations) in the previous year.

"I feel fantastic," said Uppal over the phone on Wednesday. "I am extremely happy. I am extremely proud. I am absolutely thrilled," said the author of four previous collections of poetry and a novel.

"I was caught by surprise," said Uppal. The coordinator of the Faculty of Arts’ Creative Writing Program was in her Vanier College office when her publisher from Exile Editions called with the stunning news. Before she could tell anyone, she had to rush across the green to teach her poetry writing class, where she blurted her good fortune. She couldn’t have had a better audience – 15 aspiring Wordsworths who dream of winning this very prize in years to come. They clapped and cheered. "They all hope to end up in my shoes," laughed Uppal.

The judges – distinguished poets John Burnside from Scotland, Charles Simic from the United States and Karen Solie from Canada – read 483 books of poetry submitted by publishers from 15 countries for the seventh annual competition.

                                                                 Right: Priscila Uppal

In Ontological Necessities, states her publisher, Uppal investigates the emotional and philosophical struggle fundamental to notions of being in the 21st century. From poems that explore questions of identity to those that attempt to examine human relationships amid the onslaught of horrors depicted daily in the news, the collection uses surrealist and absurdist language in subversive and startling ways to grapple with the increasingly absurd world we all occupy.                                     

The Griffin Poetry Prize judges were impressed. Here’s their citation:

"Who are you? one of Priscila Uppal’s poems keeps asking itself. Are you the oyster shell of the new millennium, the sundial waitress in her two-bit automobile with a licence to fish, the wristwatch of the nation, the woman’s shelter of the soul? The poems in Ontological Necessities are all that and much more. Audacious, irreverent, funny and, at the same time, deeply serious, they explore our notions of identity and various other conventions we live by striving to see through the lies. The ever-present horrors of our age; the injustice, the violence, the abuse and slaughter of the innocent, are almost always present. Uppal is a political poet who sounds like no other political poet, someone bound to get in trouble in every political system in the world. Her subject matter tends to be dark, but her telling of it is exhilarating. Every poem in her book comes as a surprise, and that includes the free translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wanderer" with which the book concludes, and which in her version deals with the Iraq war and the fate of people displaced by such calamities. Uppal has done the rare and difficult thing: she has brought a brand new voice to poetry."

Uppal earned two degrees from York – a BA in English and creative writing in 1997 and a PhD in English in 2004. She has written four other collections of poetry: How to Draw Blood From a Stone (1998), Confessions of A Fertility Expert (1999), Pretending to Die (2001) and Live Coverage (2003) (see the Sept. 23, 2003 issue of YFile). Her novel, The Divine Economy of Salvation, was published in 2002 in Canada and the US, and translated into Dutch and Greek. Her poetry has been translated into Korean, Croatian, Latvian and Italian.

Uppal and the six other Griffin Poetry Prize finalists will be invited to read in Toronto at the MacMillan Theatre on June 5. The two winners, who each receive $50,000, will be announced on June 6.

For more information, a list of international finalists, and to order tickets to the readings, visit the Griffin Poetry Prize Web site.