Alumnus wins Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry

As if it wasn’t enough for two York alumni to take the top prizes in literary fiction this year – Joseph Boyden the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Nino Ricci the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction – a third York alumnus, Jacob Scheier (BA Hons. ’08), has taken home the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.

The 28-year-old, who just graduated in June, won the award for his debut book of poetry, More To Keep Us Warm (ECW Press, 2008), which explores the minefield of emotions following the death of a loved one, in this case a young man’s mother. It traces the process of falling in and out of love as well as the meaning of relationships, religion, beliefs and identity.

“It is a wonderful, but strange feeling,” says Scheier about the win. “Strange, because I didn’t write this book for an award, I didn’t even want to write the book at all…. It was a necessary act and so I never had, and imagine never will, have an opinion on how good it is. It satisfies me to know that some of the most accomplished writers in Canada felt that the book deserved this kind of honour. Knowing that what came out of me from necessity could have such a profound effect on people is a pretty incredible feeling.”

That necessity Scheier is referring to is the compulsion he felt to write following his mother’s death from breast cancer eight years ago. Scheier comes by his talent honestly. His mother, Libby Scheier, a well-known Toronto poet, was the author of four poetry collections and a book of short stories. She taught creative writing at York and was the Toronto Star’s poetry editor. “I imagine poetry would have remained a hobby for me and I would have done something quite different with my life had my mother not died,” he says. "The poems came out of thinking, feeling, being in my grief – or some of the poems anyway.” As he wrote, the questions became increasingly difficult to answer.

“Some poetry collections are written with a particular concept prior to writing. For me I just wrote poem after poem – and they were of course thematically connected, but the cohesiveness of the book occurred at a very late stage in the manuscript,” says Scheier. “In a way, the fragments wrote themselves into a whole. At the same time, I feel the book has some edges where some might want it to be smooth – that there are fragments still, but within the whole, if that makes sense.”

Scheier was the surprise winner of the GG Award for Poetry, beating more seasoned poets for the prize – Weyman Chan for Noise from the Laundry (Talonbooks), A.F. Moritz for The Sentinel (House of Anansi Press), Sachiko Murakami for The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks) and Ruth Roach Pierson for Aide-Mémoire (BuschekBooks).

The Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry jurors – Di Brandt, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco and Connie Fife – say Scheier’s poems invite “the reader into a world of hope, pain, laughter and forgiveness – elements that reconcile the human drama through the power of love and sheer poetic invention. With deep affection for his work, Jacob Scheier manages his debut collection with precision, grace and stunning metaphor.”

Left: Jacob Scheier

Scheier’s talent was evident early. In 2003, he won the Art Bar Discovery Night at the age of 23 and was a finalist for CBC Radio’s second annual Poetry Face-Off, an annual event hosted by Canada’s longest-running poetry reading series. He is a former editor-in-chief of York University’s arts and literary journal Existere and has had his poetry published in several literary journals, including Descant and the White Wall Review.  He is also the author of three chapbooks.

Currently, Scheier is working on a series of poems about what he calls his American-Jewish politically radical heritage. “My grandfather was a member of the Communist Party and my parents were Trotskyites; all of which occurred in New York City for the most part.” Scheier now lives in New York which makes writing about his family’s heritage, and the city as whole, a little easier. He wants to know if the city has altered, along with the political and spiritual climate, from his parents and grandparents time. “I think the utopian vision of those political struggles had a spiritual element to them,” he says. “Of course grief, as well as healing, is part of this poetic narrative.”

Scheier says he sets aside two hours every morning to write. “Sometimes this is spent staring in frustration at the computer screen.” Within the process, he tries to practise a certain detachment from his poems. “That is, I aim to write a poem a day, not get attached to that morning’s poem, but just move onto a new poem the next morning.” A week later, he’ll revisit his work and decide “which ones can be improved by editing and which ones are pretty hopeless…at least for the time being.”

It’s a process that seems to be working; Scheier was the youngest person to win a GG Award this year and that comes with a $25,000 cash prize as well as a heaping dollop of prestige. For a young writer starting out, nothing could be sweeter.

The Governor General’s Literary Awards will be presented to the winners on Dec. 10 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa by the Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean. The Awards, funded and administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, are Canada’s oldest for English- and French-language Canadian literature, having been around for 72 years.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer