COVID Culture: The Montreal International Poetry Prize

Worldwide digital poetry competition will award $20,000 for the best English poem of 40 lines or fewer

In an age marked by global quarantines and pandemic, what forms of art and creative expression are possible? How can creative communities survive without the face-to-face contact of public events and audiences? What can literature, and particularly poetry, often imagined as a solitary exercise, offer our world today?

The Montreal International Poetry Prize, which has already received over 3,000 entries from over 100 countries, hopes to answer at least some of these questions.

About the Prize
Drawing on poetry’s inspiring and visionary potential—emphasizing the individual poem’s ability to create cross-cultural conversations and reimagine words and worlds—the Montreal International Poetry Prize is a biennial competition awarding $20,000 CAD to one poem of 40 or fewer lines. Founded in 2010 on donations from Montreal poets Leonard Cohen and Asa Boxer, the Prize has recently been transferred to McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
This year’s judge, distinguished Pulitzer-Prize winning American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, will select a winner from the 50-poem shortlist selected by an international jury of ten acclaimed poets hailing from Canada, Australia, the U.S., the UK, Haiti, Iran, and India.

A digital poetry community in the era of COVID-19
Opening new digital frontiers for poetry and artistic connection in a time of crisis and isolation, the nonprofit Prize engages in and endorses the formation of a new global arts community. “By accepting entries through an online application and publishing a global poetry anthology (online and in print), the Prize is reimagining poetry in a digital space,” says Prof. Michael Nicholson, co-director of the competition.

A crowdfunded, “poet to poet,” poetry prize
Celebrated Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s once said that literary prizes can provide “a sense of solidarity with the poetry guild, as it were, sustenance coming from the assent of your peers.” The Prize’s cash award is crowd funded from entry fees. As Gavin Currie, a McGill PhD student co-directing public relations, put it, the Prize’s funding model is “poet to poet.”

Reimagining the poetry prize: a worldwide, collaborative competition
The Prize’s popular digital application allows entrants to donate an entry fee to an unknown poet who otherwise cannot afford to enter the competition. The opportunity to sponsor an entry reimagines the poetry competition; donated entries support the emergence of new styles of creative expression from around the world. As Zoe Shaw, a McGill graduate student co-coordinating social media, says, “$20,000 for one poem might have otherwise been an impossible dream, but the accessibility of the Montreal Prize offers everyone a chance to win. Even poets experiencing financial barriers to entry can benefit from the over 75 (and counting) donated entry fees—particularly crucial support since the global pandemic has worn away at so many writers’ livelihoods and living situations.”

A global arts community / “attracting brilliance in all its diversity
For many, entering the Prize in itself is not only an experiment in community building and altruism in the arts, but also an endorsement of a digital poetry network collectively working to disregard the limits of status, border, and stratification so often constraining major national prizes in the arts,” says Nicholson. The Prize, say organizers, is an enterprise that advances social justice, student training in arts entrepreneurship, and a global rather than local or national concept of poetry and aesthetics. The Prize’s digital application promotes a civic-minded poetry competition by means of an anonymous submission process. Entries have already come in from 102 countries from all regions of the globe, from Jamaica and Japan to Pakistan and Cameroon, from Iran and Mexico to Poland and Papua New Guinea.

Poetry beyond the classroom
Organizers hope that the Prize will encourage people to think of poetry as an art form beyond what we engage in the classroom. “Poetry starts at the beginning of our lives, as in children’s books,” says Prof. Eli MacLaren, co-director of the Prize. “Poetry is everywhere. It’s a part of weddings, meditating, religious ceremonies.” “Back in the 1970s, Louis Dudek was part of an effort to get poetry on the busses in Montreal, in English and in French,” says Prof. Miranda Hickman, co-director of the Prize. “Poetry enters our daily lives – it offers ways of knowing and commenting on the world in which we live.”

The extended deadline for submissions to the Montreal International Poetry Prize is June 10. Late entries: $25 CAD (donated or additional entries: $17 CAD).

For more information about the Montreal Prize:


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