||Reporting: Griffin 2005 Field Notes
by Richard Sanger
June 1, MacMillan Theatre
The Griffin Prize in Poetry is intended to introduce contemporary poetry in English to a wider audience. This year, the audience is younger, groovier and bigger (the event has sold out the MacMillan Theatre in the U of T's Music Building just south of the ROM). Like any poet, I secretly hope to discover that they're not here out of any sense of bien-pensant obligation, nor-heaven forbid-to improve themselves, but simply for "the great elementary principle of pleasure," as Wordsworth called it. I settle into my seat in the orchestra, alongside my non-poet shrink friend.
The house lights dim and the stage lights come up. This is the fifth anniversary of the awards, Scott Griffin tells us as he strides up to the lectern in a well-pressed open-necked turquoise shirt. Behind him, on the banners above the stage, embellished by its coloured pop-art style PO-ET-RY logo, are black and white photo images of this year's nominees, most of them looking like the poor white Okie farmers from the 1930s. Don McKay is particularly convincing (hat, hardbitten expression) as is Fanny Howe (the mad grannie, hand trying to block camera). The exceptions are Charles Simic, whose dark glasses and downturned lips lend him the air of some fugitive financier unpleasantly surprised by the press, and Roo Borson, the smiling Berkeley flower child. On the stage, are white sofas with chrome legs ("Danish moderne", the shrink says) onto which the seven poets and three judges plunk themselves as Scott introduces them.
The convention is that the judges introduce the poets (and one assumes that each judge introduces the poets they have a particular predilection for). Also, since there are only ten sitting places on the sofas and eleven people on stage, a delicate slo-mo game of musical chairs ensues with each speaker sitting down in the spot vacated by the person getting up to speak after him or her. Everyone gets shuffled by the end. They're also on full view for the entire evening, from their socks to the sweat beads on their brows, which means appearing alert and engaged for two hours, as well as avoiding the urges to scratch, or yawn, or whisper wry commentaries to one's neighbour. It's a not always easy a task. Don MacKay manages it best, sitting in deep contemplation, like someone listening to serious music, or perhaps editing on the hoof the poems he's hearing. Erin Moure I catch gazing up distractedly at the banners halfway through the second part.
Simon Armitage comes up first to introduce fellow Englishman Michael Symmons Roberts. Armitage, just 42 and the current wunderkind of British poetry (nine books, big sales and a raft of awards), performs his task with grace and humility. Big and gangly and desert-booted, he speaks with broad Yorkshire vowels. Balding and in pinstripe jacket (but no tie), Symmons Roberts looks like a bit more battle-worn, someone you might run into on the Tube, commuting home from some office job. Symmons Roberts reads from Corpus, his fourth collection, a book (as he says) about the body and bodies. This sounds a bit po-mo but the poems (insofar as I can judge from one hearing) strike me as good: lyrical and precise. A very nice love poem and a sequence entitled "Food for Risen Bodies", leaves me reflecting on the current English mania for food writing and Nigella Lawson.
Erin Moure introduces the next reader, Fanny Howe, who, like Don MacKay, is making her second appearance on a Griffin shortlist. The title of Howe's shortlisted book, On the Ground, allows Moure (who has a gawky, befuddled and appealing stage persona) to grind a few puns out. Howe then gets up and reads a long piece which begins by nailing down its political bona fides (catching a bus in Manhattan, the Iraq war underway) and then quickly soars off (or nose-dives) into inconsequentiality and abstraction ("infinity is colonizing my mind") spiced with bits of Zeitgeist (crackheads, an Irish monk).
Matthew Rohrer is better. Introduced by the sober Tomas Salamun as a kind of rare anthropological specimen, someone we might read to discover how young Americans think and feel (as if these were things they had forgotten how to do), he begins on a Whitmanic note: "I went out among my countrymen." I like his casual, caustic jump-cut surrealism (pain lurking behind the violence)-he has a tone and delivers his best lines well: "it is a book about how to have a big piece missing from your head and live."
The international readings end with Charles Simic, the big name here, reading from his Selected Poems 1963-2003 (published by Faber in Britain), introduced by Armitage again. Much as I enjoy the phrasing and humour of Simic's poems, they have often left me dissatisfied: it's as if they don't go far enough, or risk enough. They seem too easily contented with contemplating eternal paradoxes or delivering the inevitable deflating ironies. Simic walks up sans sunglasses, and reads an early poem about discovering Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" in New York City that dares and reveals more, and goes further, than the more finished work he follows it with. In the flesh, he seems not unlike the persona of his poems: the detached observer, with an indefinable mysterious accent and gentlemanly old world manners, at an odd angle to the universe. Warm applause, and a break during which the theatre lobby fills with plebs and nobs hob-nobbing. I trade impressions and find others less taken with my faves. De gustibus non est disputandem.
The Canadian segment of the soiree goes like this: Salamun introduces Roo Borson, Moure introduces George Bowering, and Armitage introduces Don McKay. It's a very blue-chip list, all of them over fifty and known quantities-unlike last year, which made one or two discoveries that might have better remained hidden. Nominated for her G-G winning new collection, Short Journey Upriver to Oishida, Borson reads a meditative section about walking along a riverbed in Australia (an inevitable destination perhaps given her first name). It seems to flow (and drift) in the same way that Howe's did earlier but in its attention to the natural world, its humility and precision, displays much more integrity. It's about what it's about and, unlike Howe, has no palpable design on us (as in what Keats said about poetry we dislike).
George Bowering reads nothing but homages to Canadian writer buddies (the inevitable bpnichol, Pat Lowther, Timothy Findley), which draw appreciative responses from those of his demographic in the audience (including Adrienne Clarkson). Direct and unpretentious, with a certain blue collar charm, he seems more interested in entertaining than challenging us (perhaps having decided we have reached poetry saturation point) and he succeeds.
A bearded Don MacKay rounds out the evening and is, to my mind, the best of all: daring and moving and funny. Unsmiling at first, hand in a pocket, he seems initially uncomfortable and is charmingly self-deprecatory reading from Camber, his shortlisted selected. On the face of it and grossly simplifying, the Canadian section has given us two nature poets and one society poet. It occurs to me that Northrop Frye's "garrison mentality" may still be with us: MacKay and Borson are out walking in the woods, while Bowering chats about the latest goings-on inside the stockade, mocking and praising.
The evening ends with Margaret Atwood (dressing down) presenting each of the poets with a fancy leather-bound edition of their shortlisted book-Borson at first insists on kissing the hand (not the offered cheek) out of mock reverence. This sets off an amusing little game of one-upmanship, in which each poet contrives to kiss our first lady of words in different fashion or on a different body part. The international poets are eventually left at a loss faced with this curious native custom.
June 2, The Stone Distillery
Tonight's the party, which takes place in a large low stone building they call the Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District. To enter, you have walk under a canopy-tent and past desks staffed by young women in black dresses who check your name off their lists. My name-relief!-is there. Having driven to Stratford and back with a van-load of sixteen-year-olds, I've arrived late and thirsty. I enter, walk down the ramp, past jungle foliage and mysterious rising vapour. For a second, I am Sir Galahad come to meet Morgan Le Fay by the misty lake and retrieve the sword. Then I'm in a huge, lavishly-decorated room that resembles the set from a Peter Greenaway film, with a stage at one end and a screen at another, and a sea of round tables (each seating eight) in between. This end of the room, near the bar and the stage, is Power Central: publishers, famous faces, trustees, shortlisted poets. Of course, the bane of such awards dinners and parties is stuffiness and stodginess and the Griffins have expertly avoided any hint of it. This year there has apparently been a special effort to invite younger poets. Thankful to no longer have such feelings, I remember what the older writer Trigorin says in Chekhov's play The Seagull:
"A young writer, especially if he isn't having much luck, feels awkward and not for anything-he's on edge, his nerves are a wreck-he can't stop himself hanging around the literary crowd, unknown and ignored, afraid to look people in the eye, like a compulsive gambler who has nothing to bet with..."
All the same I'm very grateful that Scott Griffin doesn't wear a suit-and that I didn't either. The poets' job is to supply the weirdness and funkiness, I tell myself. Poetic license-it's a sartorial option. In fact, our role feels not so different from that of the fool at court (in the play I've just seen, As You Like It, the melancholy lord Jacques begs his Duke for a fool's motley coat). I grab two beers (one to cure my thirst, one to catch up with everyone else) and head off in search of the table that my writer friends have claimed. I end up sitting beside a woman who maintains an intense relationship with her cell-phone during the meal .
Supper is smoked salmon in pastry, and then lamb chops with Spanish potato tortilla and artfully mixed greens, accompanied by some oaky Californian wines that the waiters bring round. The awards ceremony begins before dessert with Scott Griffin introducing last year's international prize winner August Kleinzahler. Kleinzahler gives an entertaining apology for poetry which ends up by describing his ideal reader of contemporary poetry as being a taxi-driver in Karachi.
Next is Erin Moure, who speaks at length about all seven shortlisted poets, and quotes from their work, as if to offer all some recognition and consolation. Except she's not really speaking about their books, but rather using them as a point of departure for an impromptu poem of her own. She seems obviously to be having fun up there and at some point her voice starts to take on a strange accent that gets stronger and stronger. At the palatial urinals, Michael Redhill tells me she's speaking in drunk. I wonder if she's been sitting with Salamun and Simic all evening and is unconsciously mimicking their accents. Then I realize that what she's really doing is the voice of her Pessoan alter-ego, Alberto Caeiro, from her 2002 Griffin short-listed Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, and am amused that our leading deconstructionist/experimental/femme poet is adopting the accent of a pragmatic baggy-pants Portuguese immigrant man.
Finally she opens the envelope and announces Charles Simic as the winner of the international prize. Simic accepts gracefully and modestly. Armitage comes up next, talks briefly about the long conference calls with his fellow judges, and announces (to rather general surprise) that Roo Borson has won the Canadian prize. The tables are cleared and dancing begins-the music is more techno than before. Perhaps that's for the younger writers.
I go outside and bum one of my semi-annual cigarettes off trustee David Young, who, as usual, is to be found with a young actress. Sarah Polley, the actress in question, expresses shock and dismay that Don McKay didn't win. I suggest that giving the prize to two selecteds might not look good.
Later at home, looking over the shortlists for the five years, I notice that a pattern of absolute gender parity emerges: one man (usually international) and one woman (usually Canadian) win every year. In fact, the one year a Canadian man won (Christian Bok 2002) the jurors chose their most dubious international winner yet: Alice Notley's Disobedience. Of course, one can breezily claim-as Erin Moure does in her intro to the 2005 Griffin Prize anthology-that the prize has winners but no losers (or to say it in the Franco-Erinese: "the ligature of binarism here breaks open"). True, there are no obvious losers who are poets-they all benefit by being shortlisted. But when books like Notley's are celebrated for extraliterary reasons, there are other losers. First, the readers (all too often forgotten in discussions of poetry) who pick up such books and are turned off; and second, the Griffin Prize which loses prestige (devaluing that nice medallion they slap on the winner's books).
On paper, it is hard to imagine a prize better conceived or run. The Griffin aims to make Canadian poetry better known in the world and world poetry better known in Canada. And, since very few of our poets are published in book form outside of Canada, the best thing the prize can do for Canadian poetry is to submit it to this international scrutiny. But if you invite fools to your court (or poets to your party), be prepared to listen to the uncomfortable things they may say. To wit: do the judges read all the books? And, more specifically, do the international judges read the Canadian poets? This year the jurors had to read 433 books in two months (according to Moure) or three (according to Griffin)-that is, an average of between 5 and 8 books per day every day. It's hard not to think, given such a reading load, that the international jurors probably defer to the local expert on the jury in matters Canadian. (Or other sources: this year a rumour even circulated briefly that the jurors were given lists with recommended titles.) The Canadian shortlists have included some wonderful discoveries-Moure's surprising and atypical Sheep's Vigil, Karen Solie's Short Haul Engine, Anne Simpson's Loop-but, on the whole, they have been suspiciously safe. Where, oh, where were Steven Heighton's The Address Book or Goran Simic's Immigrant Blues last year? Nor does it help to discover, for example, that Moure wrote Sheep's Vigil while living in Toronto-at Borson's house. The world of Canadian poetry is a small one indeed, but perhaps it doesn't need to be quite this small.
Richard Sanger's most recent books of poems is Calling Home (Signal Editions, 2003).