Sonnet L’Abbé won the 2017 bpNichol Chapbook Award for her collection of poetry, Anima Canadensis. She donated part of the award to the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Society. (Photo courtesy Paul Marck)

Poet and VIU professor Sonnet L’Abbé wins $4,000 poetry prize

L’Abbé’s poetry collection ‘Anima Canadensis’ picks up 2017 bpNichol Chapbook Award

Poet and Vancouver Island University professor Sonnet L’Abbé has been recognized for a recent collection of poems exploring the Canadian spirit.

On Nov. 18 L’Abbé was in Toronto to receive the $4,000 bpNichol Chapbook Award at the 2017 Indie Literary Market for Anima Canadensis, published in 2016 by small press Junction Books. A chapbook is a book not exceeding 48 pages that is favoured by small publishers. The award was presented by Meet the Presses, a volunteer group that promotes independent publishers. The organization calls the bpNichol prize, named after the Governor General’s Award-winning poet, “the richest annual literary award for a poetry chapbook.”

L’Abbé said it was meaningful to be recognized by Meet the Presses. She said small publishing houses are where a lot a Canadian poets develop their craft.

“Canada’s literary journals are one place for poets to start their career, start their artistic journey, and small presses are usually the next step after journals,” she said.

“A lot of the novelists even whose names we recognize now got their start with small presses, so it’s very meaningful to be recognized for some work that I chose to do with Junction Books, with a small press.”

She said there were thousands of chapbooks at the Indy Literary Market where the award was presented. She said there is a “robust” national small press scene.

“It’s great work that’s happening in chapbooks in Canada,” L’Abbé said.

“We participate in the small press community, in the small press scene, to keep the poetry community vibrant and going because you want a scene where young writers can get their new work published and making sure that small presses get recognition and funding makes that possible.”

She said she might not have written Anima Canadensis if she had not been approached by her publisher. The material for the chapbook was originally meant for a larger collection of poetry, but L’Abbé became sidetracked with another project. When Junction Books suggested she write a chapbook, L’Abbé found the perfect opportunity to dig into her past work and “whittle it down” to size.

The first half of the book contains the longer poem Permanent Residents’ Test, which was shortlisted for the 2010 CBC poetry award, and the remaining portion is made of up a selection of individual pieces. The book’s title is derived from the Latin for “Canadian mind” or “soul.” In writing the work, L’Abbé was thinking of “the spirit of what we call ‘Canadian’ … in relation to land and in relation to Indigenous peoples and the very old knowledge that the land holds.”

“When you think about the way that Canada is established on stolen land, that Canada as an entity hasn’t honoured treaties and in certain territories there’s no treaty at all, that an individual that starts thinking about these things might have a bit of a problem enthusiastically embracing ‘Canadian’ as their identity because I’m not particularly proud of that foundational history,” she said.

“However, I am born here, I love people on these territories, I love the land itself where I am, so the chapbook tries to think through some of that. How do I reconcile my love for the place that I’m in and my love for the people around me with the colonial history of this place?”



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