Ian Williams talks about his Griffin Nomination

Our very own Ian Williams took some time out to tell us about his writing process, his awards, and his general awesomeness (my words, not his). Ian was recently nominated for the Griffin, Canada’s most prestigious poetry award. The nomination comes with an automatic $10,000 and the prize itself is a hefty $65,000.

Photo by John Jones

Photo by John Jones

S: I would like you to bring me through the process of finding about the Griffin nomination and how things have gone since then.

I: I don’t usually pay attention to when prizes are being announced. So I was just online that morning and I heard about the Griffin from someone else over Skype. A friend in Morocco said, “Congratulations” and I said, “For what?” He said, “You know for what, don’t play coy” and I insisted that I didn’t know. We went on like that for 10 minutes, until I finally said, “Don’t be a jerk, stop it.” He sent me a link, and when it opened I didn’t see my name. So I was reading but thinking, cruel, cruel, cruel. And I kept reading, until I saw my name–last name on the page. That’s when I finally found out. And then I started getting other emails, and then the Griffin folks called me about an hour after the announcement.

S: So do you like that method? Do you like being ambushed by awesome news instead of getting the information beforehand?

I: I thought it was great! Because normally the award committee sends you a letter ahead of time and tell you to keep it quiet.

S: Oh I hate that. By the time you can tell people you’re not excited anymore.

I: Right, for the Danuta Gleed Award, they sent the nomination letter, but they don’t say who won. So I showed up thinking it’s going to be another one of those smile-and-be-happy-for-the-winner sort of things, because I was bridesmaiding a lot and I figured that the winner was always notified in advance.

S: So you were really surprised, and you’re going to get that at the Griffin ceremony, because you don’t know the winner, right?

I: That’s right.

S: How did your students react?

I: On the first day of class, I told my students that I was a writer, so I care about language and I understand how difficult it is to write well. After I found out about the Griffin, I went into class and told them, “I’ve got great news. I’ve been shortlisted for this really big poetry prize.” So they Googled Griffin and then they exclaimed excitedly, “You’re on Wikipedia!” That was the high point for them. But they were so happy for me. It was a genuine and simple joy; they were just glad that something this nice had happened for me.

S: Now you have had huge experience with awards, and a lot of it has been recent. So why don’t you run down your awards history for me?

I: That’s a great question (pause). Because I honestly forget sometimes until I go back and read my CV. In a sense, your day-to-day life remains the same. Unless you paint it on the wall in front of your bed, right? Wake up to all your accomplishments. (laughs)

So, there’s the Griffin nomination (Personals), the Robert Kroetsch  Poetry Book Award (Personals) , the Danuta Gleed (Not Anyone’s Anything), Relit shortlist (You Know Who You Are), finalist for CBC, third place in the Malahat poetry contest, third place for Arc — this is since 2010 or so.  Last week, I got the Brampton’s citizen award.

S: Oh my!

I: This is it. It came late in the list because I’m still sort of shocked, you know?

S: What is the Citizen’s award for?

I: It’s an Arts Acclaim Award. The city of Brampton chooses some writers, artists, musicians — there were about seven of us. I got it last week at the Rose Theater. The mayor was there. It was really neat.

S: Wow. You need to invest in a tux.

I: I have one now! I know more about tuxes than I should. Lapels and cummerbunds and rules governing suspenders…Navy blue tuxes are a no-no. I got a good deal at tux warehouse once-a-year blow out sale.

S: I know that when I started writing, I needed some kind of external validation. Do you feel like you’re done now?

I: That’s really interesting. That’s like saying the moment you get married you don’t need anyone else to declare love to you. And in a sense you don’t; you’ve got your one person for life. But in a another sense, you still want the love of your children and new people  that come into your life.

S: Sure, it’s always nice to have people like you.

I: Yeah, but on some deep level you’re satisfied. I think it’s honest to say that affirmation matters. Especially because writing is so difficult, because you get broken down and rejected so much, it’s hard to maintain one’s objectivity because rejection far, far outweighs affirmation.

S: It so does.

I: And when there’s like one prize in Canada and all of these other great writers, it’s not always going to be you or me, right?

S: Absolutely.

I: You see these people with amazing careers who end up declining prizes and they’ve had their moment. But I don’t know, I think it’s a nice sweet spot that I’m entering. The work is still the most important thing. I’m glad that people like it because I like it. (Laughs) It’s like when you want your friends to like that movie you liked or that shirt that you bought for yourself, or whatever.

S: So, rejection: I know that students will want to know about this, and I think I know what you’re going to say, but do you still get rejected?

I: Interestingly, I get approached a lot more now, obviously, so I can turn things down and I have recently. I notice a shift in my career: before I used to send out submissions all the time to literary journals and I’d get rejections frequently, but after the first prize, or the first book or so, I kind of cut down my submission rate. You always love seeing your stuff come out, but the thrill is dampened somewhat. And so I can’t tell you the last time I sent something out to a literary journal. It becomes about the book rather than the poem. So there’s been less opportunity for rejection.

S: And you have connections with publishers too, so it’s not like being on the slush pile.

I: People ask you for what they want, and so you can decide whether or not to the desire is mutual.

S: Absolutely. It’s a gift. Of course, now that you’re working full time at Sheridan do you still have time to send out? How has working at Sheridan affected your writing career?

I: It’s hard. There’s a lot of teaching, a lot of grading, and other invisible but consuming responsibilities. Done correctly, writing is really full time work, and it requires a kind of mental space that is insulated against noise. That said, the rewards of teaching are great and the slice of world that you see here is pretty interesting.

For a taste of Ian’s media coverage, explore the links below.