Robyn Sarah of Montreal, a published poet since the early 1970s, has won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language poetry, for her collection My Shoes Are Killing Me.
Published by the small house Biblioasis of Windsor, Ont., the collection is a reflection on the passage of time, with references to Jewish identity, that avoids the sentimental and offers unexpected humour, according to critics.
In October, Sarah won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for the same collection.
The award jury praised My Shoes as “a lyrical power” and “a richly inventive, precise, meditative collection… This is a transformative work that continuously surprises the reader.”
“My first reaction to finding out that I had won was shock, and I think it still hasn’t entirely sunk in,” Sarah told The CJN.
“Of course I’m happy – it’s wonderfully affirming to be given this moment of validation and visibility, especially as a poet. At the same time, it’s a little overwhelming to be suddenly in the spotlight, after 30-odd years in the shadows and margins of the literary world. One feels tongue-tied, right when everybody wants a quote!”
Born in New York in 1949 to Canadian parents, Sarah grew up in Montreal and was educated at McGill University and the Conservatoire de musique du Québec.
Her first work was published while she was completing her graduate studies.
She is known for finding inspiration in everyday experience or, in her words, “making much of something small.”
Asked what influence her Jewish heritage has had on her writing, Sarah responded: “Well, we have been called the People of the Book. Our community is one in which literacy is valued, and our tradition is one in which words are weighed, considered, and unpacked for all their possible interpretations,” she said.
“This is fertile ground for a writer, and especially for a poet, since poetry is the most compressed of literary forms – one in which as much as possible has to be packed into every word chosen. My poems only occasionally touch on overtly Jewish themes.
“Being Jewish is part of who I am, so the poems will sometimes reflect that part. I’m also a woman, I’m a musician, I’m a baby boomer entering seniorhood, among other things; those aspects of who I am are reflected in my poetry, too.”
Her first full-length poetry collection The Space Between Sleep and Waking was published in 1981. Several more collections have been published since, as well as two volumes of short stories.
In 1976, she and Fred Louder founded the small press Villeneuve Publications, which operated until 1987. She taught English literature at Champlain Regional College until 1996.
In recent years, Sarah has been the poetry editor for Cormorant Books, and edited the 2011 collection Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry.
Also receiving a Governor General’s award was the translation into French of Mordecai Richler’s novel Solomon Gursky Was Here, which won for English into French translation for Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné.
Solomon Gursky is the first of five translations of Richler novels planned by the Montreal publisher Les Editions du Boréal. These are the first new translations of Richler books in Quebec in four decades.
The awards jury said the two translators “render brilliantly the energy, humour, irony and colour of a social fresco that spans five generations, taking us from the Old World to the New.”
The awards, which earn winners $25,000 each, will be presented by Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall on Dec. 2.