Buzz about the Seventh Annual Griffin Poetry Prize began when its 2007 judges were announced last November. Anticipation grew when the shortlist was unveiled two months ago, and on June 5th, the nominated poets performed for an enthusiastic sold-out crowd at The Macmillan Theatre.
And finally! The winners were presented during a vibrant awards gala last Wednesday evening at the Stone Distillery. As you’ve probably heard by now, Charles Wright’s Scar Tissue and Don McKay’s Strike/Slip won the International and Canadian Awards. The C$100,000 purse is shared between the two winners, and is the most generous poetry prize in the world.
At the ceremony, the word, “generous” was often heard. Throughout the evening, Prize Founder Scott Griffin, and his wife, Krystyne, were also described as altruistic, hospitable, greathearted, kindhearted, philanthropic, and thoughtful. In his acceptance speech, Charles Wright (pictured left) lauded the couple’s “generosity of spirit” and “just plain niceness.”
Host Scott Griffin began the proceedings with a speech about the importance of poetry, and presented The Lifetime Recognition Award to legendary poet Tomas Tranströmer. The Swedish poet, who was in attendance with his wife, Monica, has been translated into English more than any poet in the world, and is often called one of our greatest living poets. Tranströmer’s work was read in Swedish by Monica Tranströmer, and in translation by Griffin Trustee Robin Robertson. Trustee Robert Hass paid tribute with a moving speech about the poet’s career; glasses were raised. Later in the evening, Canadian winner Don McKay cited Tomas as “the most important poet” in his life.
American poet Matthew Rohrer, a founding editor of Fence Books and a past Griffin nominee, gave a keynote speech which was thoughtful and humourous. He told a great anecdote about a fellow U.S. poet who was stopped at the Canadian border. Reason: he gave his occupation as “Poet.”
For his job description, the American poet was immediately whisked to a windowless room and asked to spell “Rimbaud.” He responded successfully, and next the guard commented, “it’s too bad Rimbaud died so young.” The poet correctly countered that Rimbaud stopped writing at an early age, but enjoyed a long life. His passport was officially stamped “Poet” and its owner was welcomed to Canada!
Maybe our border guards are more educated about poetry than the general public. Or perhaps it’s a PR problem: Rohrer quipped “If only poetry weren’t written by poets.” The state of poetry’s presence in mainstream culture is inevitably brought up whenever the art is discussed. Rohrer called the international poetry community a “Peoples’ Republic of Poetry,” and admitted to often identifying more closely with its citizens than his neighbours across the street.
Next, audience members scooted closer to the edges of their seats as judge Karen Solie took the stage to announce the International Winner, Montana poet Charles Wright. Solie said that when the boxes of books—she read a record number 483 entries—arrived on her doorstep, it was “like the best birthday ever” and told of her excitement “to crack the spine of a new book, and know that life is about to change.”
Judge Charles Simic said Wright’s books are so wise, “I would expect him to have a long white beard.” On the prior evening at the MacMillan Theatre, Wright read poems that were “written five miles from Canada,” explaining, “it seemed like a good idea.” In a low voice charmed with a Tennessee-born accent, he poignantly called the award, “a great comfort.”
Next, judge John Burnside was called upon to introduce the Canadian winner. The moment Burnside mentioned he enjoys poetry that “celebrates the land,” every guest surmised that thrice-nominated nature poet Don McKay had won the Prize. Judges called Strike/Slip, inspired by the landscape along a fault line on southern Vancouver Island, a work of “patience, courage, and quiet eloquence.” McKay admitted to avoiding thought “about the ramifications of not winning” a third time: we don’t want to imagine the nasty Strike/Slip Strikes Out puns which might have ensued.
Don McKay added memorably to the ongoing conversation about poetry’s relevance, saying “I don’t think poetry is in any danger. It will survive, like cockroaches, beyond us.” Perhaps his comparison brought some closure to the discussion initiated by Scott Griffin, who said in his introduction, “We must not allow poetry to slip from the mainstream of our cultural lives. We must put it back into the schools, into the coffee houses, and into our homes.”
The seventh annual Griffin Poetry Prize does just that. A book stickered with a Griffin nomination or award is displayed prominently in stores, increasing its chance to be explored by book browsers. The award amplifies the voices of poets to a level comfortable to the ears of mainstream media, which broadcasts the sound across the globe.
Then, there was dancing! Michael Ondaatje is a wicked dancer—who knew? Globe Books Editor Martin Levin shook it up, poet and novelist Maggie Helwig got down, and Don McKay seemed to glide effortlessly with his partner. Poets and authors with various styles as diverse as their writing like Priscillia Uppal, Barbara Gowdy, Christian Bök, Alana Wilcox, Christopher Doda, Paul Dutton, Stephen Cain, Damian Rogers, Ken Babstock, Erin Knight, Darren Wershler-Henry, and Adam Dickinson shared the same dance.
But the striking couple who stole the floor near the end of the night was none other than Krystyne and Scott Griffin themselves. Dancers retreated to the sidelines to give them space, and admired their inimitable “generosity of spirit” in elegant, fluid motion. The night ended in resonance with Yeats’s famous lines, “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
Photo of Charles Wright and Strike/Slip cover image are courtesy of The Griffin Poetry Prize. The 2007 Griffin Anthology, which contains a selection of the shortlist (edited by Canadian Judge Karen Solie), is now available.