Griffin Shortlist Evening: straight to the heart of poetry

I had a most extraordinary experience of silence last Wednesday night at the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Reading, here in Toronto. In a packed theatre you expect a certain amount of noise — a cough, shoes shuffling, program pages turning — even where there should be none. But it seemed to me there was indeed actual silence between the words and the lines of Anne Michael’s poetry. She read to us with a seriousness and intensity that both dared and demanded our complete devotion.

The Griffin Poetry Prize, the most generous poetry prize in the world, awards $65,000 each to a Canadian and an International poet. Each of the finalists gets a cheque for $10,000. And everyone gets a night of hearing some of the best poets in print today (for only $17.50!). Brenda Hillman, this year’s winner in the international category was, like the other finalists, emphatic in her thanks to the audience: “Thank you for coming, thank you for reading poetry.” Brazilian poet Adélia Prado received the Lifetime Achievement Award. I’d never heard of her before but this weekend will search for translations of her work.

“The smallest of poems is a servant of hope.”

~Adélia Prado

All of us at Descant send our congratulations to each of the finalists and especially to Canadian winner Anne Carson, whose “Short Talks” we published in 1991 (Descant 74). On Wednesday night, the tall and regal-looking 63 year-old told the audience that a friend of hers said he liked her (first) book by the same title, but he admitted he thought it was called “Small Cocks.” Through the surprised laughter I heard her say, “I thought I’d called it that, too!”

Of the many beautiful, funny and moving words I heard that night (and Sue Goyette’s line, “the ocean is the original mood ring” is all three), it was that sudden and profound silence that I keep thinking about; a silence borne of words, in between words — made of words. It brought me, in Brenda Hillman’s words, “straight to the heart of poetry.”

Griffin Logo_0As it was Descant volunteer Justin Lauzon’s first time at the event, I’ll let him tell you about it in more detail.

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Griffin Poetry Prize 2014

As poetry lovers young and old walked across the second storey bridges in Koerner Hall, we were ushered in by the sound of trumpets playing from one of the balconies of the original brick building. If this sounds pretentious, don’t be fooled. A night at the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Reading is both intimate and humble, even if sprinkled with a few brass instruments. I was taken aback by the elegant modern design of the Koerner building, which merges the old brick façade of the Royal Conservatory with so much light coming in through the three-storey windows.

The evening began with an introduction by Scott Griffin, the big cheese, during which he announced Margaret Atwood’s retirement from the Griffin’s Trustees. Atwood has been on the board since its inception in 2000, but now, after voluntarily stepping down, has been succeeded by poet Karen Solie and prolific Irish novelist (and poet) Cólm Toibín.

Each writer was introduced by one of the judges, all of whom praised the tough competition this year, which amounted to a whopping 539 book entries, from 40 countries, in 25 languages. Scott Griffin thanked the immense, if not herculean effort of the judges. On stage, there was one less chair than there were people, forcing the writers to play a strategic game of switcheroo musical chairs, each speaker taking the seat of the following one, shifting positions throughout the night, constantly gaining a new perspective.

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The international poets kicked off the readings, beginning with English poet Rachael Boast (Pilgrim’s Flower, 2013) who said “it’s lovely to see so many people here this evening. The last poetry reading I gave was to six people. Six of my students. In a disreputable pub.” It was a great introduction into the intimacy of the rest of the event; though 1000 people were in attendance, the whole thing seemed very personal. American poet and social activist Brenda Hillman (Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, 2013) told a moving story of her father in intensive care, who, as a farm boy, chose a pig’s valve instead of a plastic one for his heart surgery. After a few stumbled lines of thank yous, American poet Carl Phillips (Silverchest,2013) stood at the podium and commented, “I don’t say a lot during readings because it usually comes out…stupid.” The audience chuckled as he went on to read the first of four poems that clearly spoke on their own.

Brenda Hillman....

Brenda Hillman, poet and social activist, won in the international category.

But no one sounded stupid, and it was refreshing to hear experienced poets talk about, and read their own work. Hillman spoke of poetry as “an investigation of the mystery of existence.” Canadian poet Sue Goyette (Ocean, 2013) commented on how the environment in the theatre had changed over the course of a couple of hours: “I can feel the air is different now. When we first sat down it was just plain old air, but now it’s fortified with all these poems. I’d be doing a lot of inhaling if I were you.” And when Toronto’s own Anne Michaels finished off the night with an interweaving selection from Correspondences (2013), she closed with a beautiful line that summed up the elusive nature of poetry: “the line break forever [changes] the word above and the word below, altered by breath.”

Anne Michaels was shortlisted for Correspondences.

Descant contributor Anne Michaels was shortlisted for Correspondences. Our evening program was constructed like her beautiful book — accordion architecture that circled back on itself.

As a welcome change, the writers didn’t take themselves too seriously, and some really had fun. After Carl Phillips read one of his solemn final lines, “why do we love at all,” he paused to grab his water, then added wryly, “because it’s actually quite rewarding.” The audience howled. He said that the final line was good at the time, but now seemed a little dramatic. Anne Carson (Red Doc>, 2013) read from Short Talks, and got the audience to participate with a word or line which we recited on cue (“deciduous?” a thousand voices queried enthusiastically).

Anne Carson won the Canadian prize this year and...

Anne Carson won the Canadian prize this year. She also won the inaugural prize in 2001.

A highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Griffin Trustee and former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass presented the award to Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, “a sexy, mystical, Catholic poet.” She came on stage with a translator and read her speech in Portuguese, and at the end gracefully thanked the audience herself with both “thank you,” and “merci,” a simple touch that spoke volumes of her charm.

Brazilian poet Adelio Prado, reading her acceptance speech with the help of her translator.

Brazilian poet Adelio Prado, reading her acceptance speech with the help of her translator.

Maria Rosenthal, who translated Tomasz Rozycki’s Kolonie (2006), did a joint reading with the Polish poet. Four poems were read, in both English and the original Polish, the latter elegantly read by Rozycki, in a near duplicated cadence from the English translation. Rosenthal thanked the Griffin Trust for including translations in the competition because “not everyone understands the art that goes into it.”

To close, Scott Griffin presented each writer with a leather-bound copy of their own book. The final prize was given out the following evening and the poets seemed to enjoy the low pressure of the shortlist reading night. And it’s precisely that atmosphere that will bring me back next year, whoever the nominees may be, for this much needed celebration of poetry.

By Justin Lauzon

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Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. He has reviewed Texas, Kafka’s Hat and, with Jack Hostrawser, co-authored this review of Rove for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, “The Alternate Take,” here and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.

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