Griffin Award Math, with Professor Vox

I spent part of my afternoon today looking through the Griffin Trust’s awesome website of matters poetical and nostalgic and, as is my occasional want, I started crunching some numbers. I was interested in how the Griffin’s oft-assumed biases (towards masculinity, Ontarioness, America, and major presses) flesh out in reality.

The first thing I did was look at the publishers. There’s really too many international houses in the mix to get much of a feel, but in Canada the general trend over Griffin’s first ten years has been away from the major international houses (who themselves are often only occasional publishers of verse) towards the sixties upstarts like Coach House and Anansi. M&S leads the way with three of the nine Canadian awards (for Simpson’s Loop, McKay’s Strike/Slip, and Borson’s Short Journey…) though Coach House could tie them this year if Kate Hall pulls off an upset with The Certainty Dream. Weird to think that, for all their successes this decade, Anansi won just their first Griffin last year with A.F. Moritz’s The Sentinel.

Canada Griffin Award Wins by Publisher:
McClelland & Stewart (3)
Coach House (2)
Vintage Canada (1)
Brick Books (1)
University of California Press (1)
House of Anansi (1)

If you look at trips to the shortlist, the accolades start to spread out and the big presses like Vintage and D & M are shown to be apparitions. Also, it’s here where you really see how well Coach House and Anansi have done, as they’re in a three-way tie with M&S, with six each. It’s strange to see Brick with only half that, considering the impact they continue to have on the country’s poetry scene. The Porcupine’s Quill owes its tally completely to P.K. Page. And beyond that, there’s lots of shout-outs to smaller presses like Frontenac (Leslie Greentree, 2004), Exile (Priscilla Uppal, 2007) and Insomniac (Dave McFadden, 2008). Regionalists like myself may want to note that of the 30 nominated Canadian titles since 2001, all but seven were published out of Toronto, and the same could be said for 7 of the 9 winners.

Canada Griffin Award Shortlistings by Publisher:
McClelland & Stewart (6)
Coach House (6)
House of Anansi (6)
Brick Books (3)
The Porcupine’s Quill (2)
Vintage Canada (1)
Douglas & McIntyre (1)
Frontenac House (1)
Polestar Books (1)
Exile Editions (1)
Insomniac Press (1)

Alright, that was fun. But likely not controversial enough. Let’s kick it up a notch, shall we? Let’s talk about gender. Almost every literary prize in the world is woefully male-centric, so I was surprised to see how effective the Griffin has been in recognizing Canadian women. Over the last ten years, women have won more Griffins (5 to 4) and made more shortlists (having recently leapfrogged the men with all three this year, to break a tie and make it 16 to 13). The shortlist has been a gender monoculture four times now (all ladies in 2003, 2004, and 2010; all gentlemen in 2009). One male/female translating pair has made the list, Robert Majzels and Erin Moure in 2008. Up until this year, the men were catching up, with all of the last 6 shortlisted titles having at least one male author or translator.

Canadian Griffin Awards by Gender
Men: 4 wins off 13 shortlistings
Women: 5 wins off 16 shortlistings
Mixed: 0 wins off 1 shortlisting

The International Prize is a different matter entirely. Men dominate the list with a 2:1 advantage in trips to the shortlist and a 3:1 advantage in wins. This has been done somewhat quietly, with only one instance of a one-gender shortlist (2007). Hard to say why this is. I feel like I could argue that female poets have it slightly better in Canada than in most of the rest of the English-speaking world, but that’s a hard thing to quantify, isn’t it? Ideas, anyone?

International Griffin Awards by Gender
Men: 6 wins off 26 shortlistings
Women: 2 wins off 13 shortlistings
Mixed: 1 win off 1 shortlisting

Looking at geographic dispersal among Canadian poets is tough, as so many of them are born in one place and live out their lives in one or more of our major cities. Therefore, I’ve elected to look at places of birth, as this is something that tends to remain in the poet’s voice no matter where they take their teaching position. Doing this, we find some weird data. I don’t think anyone can be surprised by the dominance of our most populous province, Ontario. It might surprise you to know that if we were to search out the next most successful subnational division, the answer wouldn’t be B.C. or Quebec but California (which supplied an expatriate winner in Roo Borson and a shortlistee in Robert Bringhurst) and Manitoba (with a winner in Sylvia Legris and a shortlistee in Di Brant). Alberta is rich in nominations (Greentree’s in 2004, and Erin Moure’s in 2002, 2006 and 2008), but none of their natives have brought one home yet. Can anyone see Moure not winning if she were ever shortlisted again?

Perhaps most shocking is the continued snubbing of Quebec-born poets. Even when you factor in the prize’s anglophone designation, it’s incredible to think that the province of Cohen and Layton has gone without a Griffin this decade. Montreal has a solid claim to make for the title of English Canadian Poetry Capitol, and nobody from the recent generations has taken one home.

If the ignoring of Quebec-born authors isn’t the worst sin against the Griffins, it’s the fact that George Bowering’s lone shortlisted title represents the entire haul for BC-bred authors. Compared to the regular catches Pacific Coasters take at the Governor General’s Awards, this lapse is bizarre, at least.

Canadian Griffin Awards by Region of Birth:
Ontario: 4 wins, from 11 shortlistings
United States: 3 wins, from 4 shortlistings
Manitoba: 1 win, from 2 shortlistings
Atlantic Canada: 1 win, from 2 shortlistings
Alberta: 0 wins, from 4 shortlistings
Quebec: 0 wins, from 2 shortlistings
Saskatchewan: 0 wins, from 2 shortlistings
UK: 0 wins, from 2 shortlistings
Trinidad: 0 wins, from 1 shortlisting
BC: 0 wins, from 1 shortlisting

Moving on to the International Awards, it’s tempting to want to rename them the American-and-occasionally-British Awards. The international Griffins appear to share the same schtick as professional wrestling, where the foreigners are invited onstage only to get beaten by the glory of the Stars and Stripes. Seven of the nine previous Griffins went to US-based authors, and the default shortlist tends to read 3 yanks, 1 brit, with the American author usually winning. The UK poets are batting 1 for 10, which is the kind of average likely to get you booted to the minors. Paul Muldoon (Northern Ireland) and Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados) are the only non-North American Griffin winners.

International Griffin Awards by Nationality:
USA: 7 wins, from 25 shortlistings
UK: 1 wins, from 10 shortlistings
Barbados: 1 win, from 1 shortlisting
Australia: 0 wins, from 2 shortlistings
Ireland: 0 wins, from 2 shortlistings

As a final aside, is Brathwaite also the only non-Caucasian Griffin winner? This sort of research is tough and kind of tasteless, as it requires making an assumption regarding people’s self-identification based solely on a photograph. However, I’m only seeing a scattering of non-white faces among the shortlisted authors (Victor Cruz in 2002, Dionne Brand in 2003, Suji Kwock Kim in 2004) and none among the winners. Could it be? Is it possible that seventeen of the eighteen Griffin winning authors and translators, and something like 66 of the 70 shortlisted ones, are European in descent? Say it ain’t so, Scott. Say it ain’t so!

PS: If anyone finds any errors in the above, I’d love to hear them. Either through the Comments section, the Facebook, the Twitter, or the My Email. Cheers.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Awards, Canadian Literature, Events, Poems in the Wider World

14 Comments on “Griffin Award Math, with Professor Vox”


  1. What about the judges?

  2. voxpopulism Says:

    That could be fun to look at. What kind of data were you thinking? I wonder if there are repeat judges in the prize’s history…

  3. Jeff L Says:

    Professor Vox

    I wont be able to handin my asignment because I am sick and therspn I know got arrested so I had to bale them out I got into an accident on the way JEFF


  4. […] Poet Jacob Mooney analyzes the demographic breakdowns of Griffins past […]


  5. The biggest error would be thinking that anything drawn from such a small sample size is statistically significant. It’s like saying that a baseball player who has gone 10 for 30 is having a great season.

    That said, I think it’s abysmal that Vehicule Press’s Signal Editions imprint has received zero shortlistings in 10 years. For a lot of people, their list is more consistently interesting than those of Coach House or Brick (which in my view has a dismal track record in the editing department; way too many books that are way too long). The Signal snub may well be related to the Torontocentricity that has led to so few BC and Quebec poets being nominated.

    But here again, using province of birth is extremely problematic. Moure an Alberta poet? Come on. Bringhurst a US poet? Uh-uh. Moure’s home is Montreal. Bringhurst’s is Quadra Island.

  6. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Zach.

    It’s not a sample size, it’s the entirety of the population. Using a selection of 30 isn’t illegitimate when the population you’re examining is exactly 30 names long.

    Signal is a big no-show. I’d argue the same for Gaspereau, DC, Nightwood, and Oolichan. I feel we’ve discussed the Brick aesthetic before, and will likely remain on separate sides.

    As for the birthplaces: yes, problematic. However, far less so than trying to subjectively define a “home” for poets who’ve lived in three of four cities over the last 30 years, and who may not appreciate someone trying to guess where their hearts live. The birthplace, at least, is factual and objective.

  7. Andrew Says:

    If Vehicule (or any other press, for that matter) has been snubbed, which titles would you take off the Griffin list and what would you put in their place?


  8. If you mean this year, Andrew, I can’t comment, as I had a book eligible this year, so the less said about that the better.

    But past years:

    2005: I’d have gladly replaced any of Bowering, Borson or McKay with Patrick Warner’s _There, There_, one of the best poetry collections I read in the aughts.

    2006: Again, I’d have happily waved bye-bye to any of the three nominees if it meant that Don Coles’ _How We All Swiftly_ and/or Mary Dalton’s _Red Ledger_ had been nominated.

    Those are the ones that leap to mind. I’d have to make a far more systematic study of both the shortlists and Vehicule’s catalogue–which I don’t feel compelled to do–to say anything further.

  9. bob Says:

    who were the 2 coach house griffin wins?

  10. voxpopulism Says:

    Bob:
    Eunoia and (one of the more commonly forgotten winners) Sylvia Legris’s Nerve Squall.

    Andrew, Zach: A tough gig, that, and one that would require a little more “what the world would look like if I was the emperor of everything” than I’m comfortable with. I guess any of the books on my Top Ten list from the 00s (listed on this blog as “knotting off the aughts”) would qualify. That list of ten includes exactly 1 Griffin-shortlisted title.

    Looking it over, my favourite shortlist is likely 2002. Solie’s first book, Eunoia, and my favourite Erin Moure collection, and both Alice Notley and Les Murray (two of my very favourites) on the international. That year would have made the Emperor very happy.


  11. […] Mooney, over at Vox Populism, has recently been looking into Griffin Award math. He’s analysed some statistics pointing towards which publishers seem to perform well (Anansi […]

  12. Jean Baird Says:

    What you have missed is a significant change in the rules. Under the new rules collected works do not qualify. That means that the Robin Blaser and Ashbery books would not qualify under the new rules.

    If you want to have fun, line up the Griffin Canadian short-list with the GG

  13. robert priest Says:

    well gathered stats. yes to jean’s suggestion. my teeth need re-gnashing. and i don’t even have a book out.


  14. […] Coming Soon: The return of that noted mad statistical scientist, Dr. Vox, and his annual update of “Griffin Awards Math“. […]


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