Billy-Ray Belcourt of the Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta is the Canadian winner of the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Belcourt, a 2016 Rhodes Scholar, was recognized at a Toronto gala on Thursday night for This Wound is a World, published by Frontenac House.
Belcourt sobbed as he took to the stage to accept his award.
“This book was written not to be a book,” the 23-year-old said in his acceptance speech.
“It was written ... to allow me to figure out how to be in a world that I did not want, a world that many of us who are Indigenous did not want.
“It was written also to try to bring about the world that we do want collectively.”
The three-member judging panel praised This Wound is a World in their citation as a “politically necessary” meditation on queerness, Indigeneity, rebellion and survival.
American poet Susan Howe took home the $65,000 international honour for Debths (New Directions).
Founded in 2000 by businessman Scott Griffin and a group of trustees, the Griffin is billed as the world’s largest prize for a first-edition single collection of poetry written in or translated into English.
Notable guests at the dinner reception included former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and former Toronto poet laureate Dionne Brand.
The reception hall was bathed in red light, with an array of candles arranged shaped in the shape of hearts in keeping with the soiree’s fiery theme, which Griffin said was inspired by the overtly political nature of the finalists’ work.
“They tended to break the mould of previous poetry readings, which tended to be a little bit more old-fashioned,” he said. “They came out with statements that were very powerful, very strong and very heartfelt.”
Romanian writer and political figure Ana Blandiana, whom the Griffin honoured with a Lifetime Recognition Award for her poetry opposing the oppressive Ceausescu regime, said poetry can be a “weapon” to effect change in politically tumultuous times.
“It can have an extraordinary effect, only insofar that there is a vibration, a harmony, between the suffering that the poet feels, and the suffering that the audience feels,” Blandiana said through a translator.
The Canadian runners-up were Montreal-born Aisha Sasha John for I have to live. (McClelland & Stewart), Donato Mancini of Vancouver for Same Diff (Talonbooks).
The international short list also included three other American finalists: Tongo Eisen-Martin for Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights), Layli Long Soldier for Whereas (Graywolf Press), Natalie Shapero for Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press).
Griffin also paid homage to 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize winner David McFadden, who died this week, saying the Hamilton-born wordsmith told him the honour “made a huge difference in his life.”
Judges read 542 books of poetry from 33 countries, including 17 translations.
In addition to the grand prize winners, each finalist also receives $10,000 for participating in Wednesday evening’s readings at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.