By Jill Girgulis, November 10 2017 —
It’s taken a few decades, but Calgary poet Richard Harrison finally feels like his writing is “getting better.”
Harrison is the 2017 recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language poetry for his collection of poems, On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood. The 1995 University of Calgary Writer-in-Residence is currently an English professor at Mount Royal University and has been publishing literature for 30 years.
“This particular prize has the history of being part of the making of Canadian identity,” Harrison says. “It’s arguably ‘the’ prize.”
The Governor General’s Literary Awards were created in 1937 to “foster Canadian literature,” as Harrison puts it.
“In many ways, the strength and variety of Canadian literature is a large part due to the fact that the Canadian government [recognized the need for Canadian culture],” he says.
Prior to its release in October of 2016, Harrison spent 11 years working on content for his award-winning book. He cites three main influences on the final product.
“I started writing poems about poems. That was the first idea thread of the book,” Harrison says. “[The second thing was that] my dad was sick with dementia at the time — it was a slower, longer decline [than other forms of the disease].”
Harrison says that spending time with his father strengthened their relationship and he was able to learn much from the experience.
“He and I got a lot done over that time. In some ways it was us making peace with each other for our lives and in some ways this was sort of the last of his lessons,” Harrison says. “The third thing was the flood in 2013. It was this incredibly unique experience — things happened that I had never experienced before and poetry has to answer that.”
The interaction of these three factors eventually resulted in On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood. As Harrison summarizes, “It’s all those things pulled together as I’m working through what they mean in my life.”
Creating the book was an enduring process, but one particular formatting suggestion from his editor stands out to Harrison as being especially pivotal.
“The poems are not in the standard verse form. They’re much more spread out across the page,” he says. “Words in the place of notes on a musical score.”
The unconventional choice introduced a welcome challenge for Harrison.
“When the words are spread out and they take up more space on the page, they really do have to be right,” he admits. “I had to make sure every word was worth as much space as it was taking up.”
Harrison says he does not have a favourite passage in his book. Rather, he describes how reactions from readers influence his opinions of the poems.
“As people are responding to the book and stories are gathering around certain verses and certain lines, I’m more happy with [the poetry],” he laughs. “Until a story comes along in response to a line, I don’t really ‘know’ that line — so I’m just getting happier all the time!”
More information on this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards winners can be found here.