Meet the Vancouver poet up for this year’s Griffin Prize

Each year, the Griffin Poetry Prize awards cash prizes to authors of what it selects as the best poetry books of the year.

This year, the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry has selected seven books for its shortlist. All finalists attending the Shortlist Readings in Toronto on June 6 will receive $10,000. The two winners, to be announced the following day, receive $65k.

Among the finalists is Donato Mancini. Originally from Hamilton, Mancini moved to Vancouver in 2000. He’s currently in Baltimore, where he’s on scholarship as a post-doctoral fellow at John Hopkins University.

We talked to Mancini about his shortlisted book, Same Diff (published by local imprint Talonbooks) about the prize.

Q: First, how does Same Diff follow your previous books of poetry and cultural criticism?

A: It’s pretty consistent with my other work. There’s a way in which my work has consistently used certain kinds of forms and formal techniques to approach a set of problems related to language and what you might call different kinds of violence that people face all the time. Actual personal violence but also systemic violence and also subjective and symbolic violence, violence inflicted through language. I think that opens up a lot of possible territory. It’s a big aspect of what it’s like to live in the world.

Q: What led you to this theme?

A: Just observing the world, experiencing being alive but also observing what others experience. It seems to me hard to look at the world and without seeing its ugly side. As much beauty as there is in the world, at a certain point in my writing I started looking more at the things that are hard about being alive rather than the opposite, I guess.

Q: A few of the poems in Same Diff make use of appropriated language, or pieces of writing from other sources.

A: I wouldn’t say they’re appropriated, I would say that they’re displayed, like if you imagine curating a museum show. Someone who curates a show of objects they’ve found and gathered is not considered having appropriated those objects. I think the way language is treated in Same Diff is very much like a museum exhibition. I’m never claiming that it’s my language. What I’ve done is gone out and found all kinds of examples of a certain kind of thing and I’m showing them as a kind of evidence. I intervene as an author where it’s necessary to edit things and make things flow well so that the voice is consistent or inconsistent, as the moment seems to require. But “appropriation” is stealing, claiming that it’s yours. What I’m doing is more like collage and exhibition, like if you think of evidence at a trial. What I’m putting on trial is capitalism and colonialism, and putting so many things about our society on trial. And this is the evidence I’ve gathered in this particular book.

Vancouver poet Donato Mancini.

Q: What does being nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize mean to you?

A: It was really unexpected. I didn’t think I was on anyone’s radar, and maybe I wasn’t, maybe the jurists hadn’t heard of me and just liked my book a lot and were surprised also. One thing that’s really good about the Griffin is that just being nominated helps everyone. Some of the other prizes, the only people who really benefit are the winners. The Griffin is set up so the nominees are like co-winners.

My life’s been beautiful and blessed and in other ways a a struggle. It (the prize) could make certain things a lot easier for me. It could open doors I never thought would open and make it a lot easier for me to do the writing I want to do in a place of stability rather than precarity, which is where I’ve been doing most of my writing from.

Q: What do you see the role of the poet in society today?

A: I think one of the best things about poetry is that it’s a lot of things. Poetry is really just recontextualizing and recombining language in a way that makes us look at it more carefully and maybe look at it more slowly. Given that there are a lot of different kinds of poets, there are a lot of different roles a poet can take. The poet can help us understand or articulate our feelings better. But my kind of work and (Vancouverite) Jordan Abel’s work and Robert Fitterman‘s work, we’re more like knowledge-makers, we’re more like researchers. But the form we’re using is obviously different than an essay. It presents the materials and then asks the reader to do the work of putting it back together and drawing conclusions. Poetry’s a lot of things. There are many roles that one can take up through poetry.

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