25th Trillium Award

Profile of the Diana Brebner Award, with a few questions

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By rob mclennan

The Diana Brebner Award, administered and awarded by Arc Poetry Magazine, ?is awarded each year for the best poem written by a National Capital Region poet not yet been published in book form. The prize is named in honour of the late Diana Brebner, an award-winning, Ottawa-based poet who was devoted to fostering literary talent among new local writers.? Some of the previous winners and runners-up have already gone on to publish trade books, most notably by winners Michael Blouin (who later won the ReLit Award), Rhonda Douglas, Betty Warrington-Kearsley and Sylvia Adams, and honourable mentions Matthew Holmes (2002) and Sandra Ridley (2006), all of whom have gone on to be known well beyond their immediate communities. Providing an essential boost to emerging writers in and around Ottawa, the award provides an interesting counterpoint to the annual Archibald Lampman Award, a long-established prize for the best book of English-language poetry published over the previous calendar year by an Ottawa writer. Diana Brebner (1956-2001) was an award-winning Ottawa poet who published three trade poetry collections with Netherlandic Press — Radiant Life Forms (1990), The Golden Lotus (1993) and Flora & Fauna (1996) — before succumbing to cancer. A fourth title, The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems (McGill-Queen?s, 2004), was published posthumously, edited by Stephanie Bolster. As Bolster herself responds in an email:

This is a timely question, as I?ve been thinking about Diana a great deal lately. Having known her, I?m fortunate enough to be able to remember a person — a person who is still with me in many ways, listening, offering her thoughts. Many of us, particularly in Ottawa, share that experience.

However, those who didn?t know Diana, or knew her only briefly, must rely on her poems. Those poems remain in print but, like any of our poems, they are read by few people (although deeply, one hopes). It was very strange to launch The Ishtar Gate in her absence; although the launch was a celebration of her work, the simple fact that she was not there to read from it mean that there would be no reading tour. Without a living human being to promote it, the book would likely not reach far-flung audiences.

By making Diana?s name and, thus, her work, visible to a national reading public, the Diana Brebner award keeps her memory alive. One would hope that someone who comes across a reference to the award would look her up. I just did. There she is on Google, looking thoughtfully at me, knowing so much more than I ever will about so many things. There she is on Wikipedia in a few lines. That?s a start. The poems are a journey. If the award puts readers on that journey: hooray.

For the more immediate Ottawa area community, where Diana?s reputation was primarily based, and where most of those who knew her live, the award is not so much outreach but reminder. That she was here, that she wrote those startling poems that continue to speak their words. And the award is an affirmation of the future of that community.

Diana and I met in 1996 because she reached out to me: editors at The New Quarterly had alerted her to my poems, and now that I had moved to Ottawa, she wanted to make that literary connection a personal one. Mentorship was a vocation for her, one that the award prolongs. I know that this is a legacy she would have valued immensely, that she would have taken pride in and felt humbled by it.

I haven?t had the opportunity to participate in the annual award presentations, but I imagine them as events at which Diana?s guiding presence bestows both honour and obligation upon the recipient. ?There,? I imagine her saying, ?You done good. Now keep on doing it, and do even better.?

A generous writer, Brebner befriended, encouraged and mentored a number of writers in and around Ottawa, both informally and formally, including through workshops she ran through Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar, and a short list of writers fortunate enough to benefit from her knowledge, wisdom and spirit might include Stephanie Bolster, Anita Lahey, Una McDonnell, Stephen Brockwell, Steven Heighton and Leslie Buxton, among so many others. I would include myself in the list as well, as I was fortunate enough to meet with Diana irregularly throughout the early and mid-1990, and she was a strong, early supporter of my own scribblings for years. We met at a café in the Glebe to talk about writing, our poems and our daughters, and she ended up offering advice on a short poem of mine that eventually ended up in The Antigonish Review. Now in its 12th year, the award was founded during Rita Donovan and John Barton?s tenure as co-editors of Arc, and previous winners, runners-up and honourable mentions have included Mary Trafford, Rhonda Douglas, Matthew Holmes, Robyn Jeffrey, Jenny Haysom, Frances Boyle, Sandra Ridley, Gillian Wallace and Guy Simser. As Barton responds in an email:

The motivation for the award was to recognize a local emerging poet who had yet to publish a first book. Diana had mentored many such poets, who remembered her as a supportive, exacting, and original teacher. I felt that it would be an appropriate way to honour her memory. Also, like Lampman, another significant Ottawa poet, she died before her time.

The first Diana Brebner prize was awarded a year or so before I left Ottawa. The runner-up for that year, Matthew Holmes, went on to publish his first book with Nightwood and more recently won a National Magazine Award. Likewise, so did another winner, Rhonda Douglas. It?s difficult for me to know well the award has been received since I am no longer in Ottawa.

However, I hope that it?s accomplished one of the goals I had for it, which was to forge a connection with the local writing community. The judge is always an established Ottawa poet — at least that is the key criterion for a judge when I set up the award — in order to set up a create a link between a more experienced poet and a beginning one.

2006 Diana Brebner Award winner Rhonda Douglas, author of the poetry collection Some Days I Think I Know Things: The Cassandra Poems (Signature Editions, 2008), wrote:

I think it?s the most important award in Ottawa ? no doubt I?m biased as a winner. But because it came at a time in my development as a writer when I had experienced so many years of rejection, it was just an incredible boost of confidence to keep me writing. Through that award I also read more Diana Brebner and I enjoy her work very much; have shared it with others, which is about the highest compliment I can give. The other important thing about that award is that it got me published in Arc after a few tries and rejections so it felt like a vindication of sorts, that I wasn't wasting my time and should keep at it. When you are just starting out (though that award came almost a decade into serious writing for me, so ?emerging? is definitely by someone else?s definition) these things mean so much.

2008 Diana Brebner Award winner Frances Boyle, also responds:

What did it mean to win the Diana Brebner prize? After giddy disbelief, it meant validation as a poet. I?d received honourable mentions and third place in other magazines? contests but this felt like real recognition and I valued it tremendously. It also marked a progression, since the first poem I ever published had been an entry in the Brebner contest — it didn?t win but was on the longlist and was included in Arc?s Ottawa poets issue. Most importantly, it strengthened my feelings of connectedness to the city?s strong writing community, from Diana herself, to Nadine McInnis (that year?s judge) who was generous enough to suggest a small but important edit that brought the poem up a notch, to other friends and mentors who have been links in the chain of the prize?s brief history, be it as winners or judges. It gave me impetus to keep writing, and to try and make a place for myself in that lineage.

The 2012 winner of the Diana Brebner Award is Lauren Turner, for the poem ?Engaging the core,? as judged by Sandra Ridley and published in Arc 68 (Summer 2012). Judge Sandra Ridley wrote: ?I picked ?Engaging the core? because it?s an incantation of the music of the body. It?s imbued with want and questioning ? and it ascends the bittersweet pitch of vulnerability and fearlessness. It?s sensual with its language and nimble in its portraiture, and it poem achieves an irrepressible resonance that stays.? Turner, who has published work in a number of journals, including Geist, Ultraviolet, The Undergraduate Review and HeadsUp, as well as the anthology Lake Effect 5 (ed. Carolyn Smart), recently participated in an event organized by Arc at Ottawa?s Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar along with the three shortlisted authors of this year?s Archibald Lampman Award. She writes:

I'm absolutely thrilled to have won the Brebner, especially since I entered on a whim with no expectation whatsoever of actually winning. Submitting my poem to the contest was more-or-less an exercise in forcing myself to be brave enough to let someone else judge my work, beyond the bubble of university writing seminars. Being 21 years old at the time, I had initially assumed that someone else with a more polished, more seasoned voice would walk away with the prize.

I had actually heard of Diana Brebner and her poetry previous to winning. My former writing teacher, Lesley Buxton had been a good friend of hers, so I had been introduced to Brebner?s poetry when I was being mentored by Lesley several years ago. As well, after entering the contest, I had searched out and read Flora & Fauna and The Ishtar Gate; it seemed prudent to familiarize myself with Brebner?s work, considering that the award is given out in celebration of her life and her writing. She was such a supremely talented individual and it is an honour to have won a prize dedicated to her.

As most would already know, an essential part of any community is a structure of support and, despite Ottawa?s difficulties (lack of media/reviews, some of the worst per-capita city funding in the country, lack of creative writing programs in either university, and sitting in the only province without a provincial writer?s guild), the Diana Brebner Award provides critical support alongside other local entities such as the Archibald Lampman Award, the City of Ottawa Book Prize, the Ottawa International Writers Festival and VerseFest, and various readings series throughout the city.

A list of winners of the Diana Brebner Award:
2012: ?Engaging the core? by Lauren Turner
2011: ?Minnowing? by Jenny Haysom
2010: ?Lee Krasner?s Grey Period? by Robyn Jeffrey
2009: ?Crow, of the Family Corvidae? by Gillian Wallace
2008: ?Momentum? by Frances Boyle
2007: ?Withdrawal? by Guy Simser
2006: ?Hecuba? by Rhonda Douglas
2005: ?Water? by Sylvia Adams
2004: ?Onsen in Izu? by Betty Warrington-Kearsley
2003: ?Bistro? by Michael Blouin
2002: ?A Drawing Lesson? by Mary Trafford

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

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