2021 Raymond Souster Award Winner: Ian Williams – Word Problems (Coach House)

Congratulations to the Winner of the 2021 Raymond Souster Award: Ian Williams – Word Problems (Coach House)!

Thank you to the 2021 Raymond Souster Award jurors, Cheryl Antao-Xavier, David Martin and Jacob Arthur McMooney

About Word Problems

Frustrated by how tough the issues of our time are to solve – racial inequality, our pernicious depression, the troubled relationships we have with other people – Ian Williams revisits the seemingly simple questions of grade school for inspiration: if Billy has five nickels and Jane has three dimes, how many Black men will be murdered by police? He finds no satisfaction, realizing that maybe there are no easy answers to ineffable questions.

Williams uses his characteristic inventiveness to find not just new answers but new questions, reconsidering what poetry can be, using math and grammar lessons to shape poems that invite us to participate. Two long poems cut through the text like vibrating bass notes, curiosities circle endlessly, and microaggressions spin into lyric. And all done with a light touch and a joyful sense of humour.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. He is the author of Word Problems, a poetry collection that considers the ethical and political issues of our time as math and grammar problems. His previous collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. His novel, Reproduction, won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and his short story collection, Not Anyone’s Anything, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada. He is currently an English professor at the University of Toronto after several years at UBC. A book of essays on race, Disorientation, is forthcoming in fall 2021. www.ianwilliams.ca

From the jurors

In Word Problems, Ian Williams experiments with poetic form, syntax, and lineation to movingly consider experiences of race and racism in Canada. He engages with a number of interesting procedures, such as bisecting found texts, whirling lines in infinite loops, and setting impossible questions. These inventive methods are linked with suppositional narratives that wind through the collection. Williams’s imaginative use of craft, which is always centered on critical social issues, displays how language can both dissemble and unmask the complexities of relationships, mental health, and identity.

 

Interview with Ian Williams

We asked Ian a few questions about writing, inspiration and -of course – poetry. Learn more about how Word Problems came to be and more about Ian Williams below! 

Who do you write your poems for?

Ultimately, I write poems for pressed people who need little squares of chocolate in their lives. Initially, I write poems for my wall, which has proven itself a good friend and a valuable critic.

 

Is there a sentence (from your own work or another’s) you would consider living in?

From Dara Wier’s poem, “The Terrible Poem”:
Things never will never stop getting stop more stop long stop, ago.

Or from Linda Gregg’s “Alma to her sister”:
alone no loneliness done. no loneliness

 

Do you write your first drafts of poetry by hand or on the computer? Why?

I usually write poems by hand before typing them up. Parts of poems strike so quickly that I can’t boot up a computer to type, and thumb typing into my phone would take too long, so it’s best to write by hand on whatever surface I find.

 

What poets/writers changed the way you think about poetry?

Cummings, Sexton, Atwood, MacEwen, Lucille Clifton, Dara Wier, Claudia Rankine, Karen Solie, Jim Johnstone.

 

If your poetry was a room in a home, which one would it be and why?

My poems would be vines crawling up the side of a house, imperceptibly at first, but ultimately you wouldn’t be able to separate the vines from the structure of the house itself.

 

What do you think poetry does for the world?

Poetry tunes the noise of the world into music.

 

Who is an up-and-coming poet that everyone should check out?

Read Aisha Sasha John and Molly Cross-Blanchard.

 

What is the backstory behind your award-winning collection?

I was troubled. Word Problems emerges from my disturbance over the ethical and political issues of our time. It casts them (impossibly) as math and grammar problems. The problem is there are no tidy solutions.

Formally, I wanted to write a collection where no two poems behaved exactly the same way.


Ian Williams writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. He is the author of Word Problems, a poetry collection that considers the ethical and political issues of our time as math and grammar problems. His previous collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. His novel, Reproduction, won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and his short story collection, Not Anyone’s Anything, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada. He is currently an English professor at the University of Toronto after several years at UBC. A book of essays on race, Disorientation, is forthcoming in fall 2021. www.ianwilliams.ca