04 June 2009

Griffin Prize shortlist readings in Toronto June 2009

I arrived in Toronto two days ago and on my first evening was already being treated to a literary event, the shortlist readings of the Griffin poetry prize.
Scott Griffin is a Canadian businessman and philanthropist, and he founded the Griffin poetry prize in 2000 with the purpose of promoting poetry. www.griffinpoetryprize.com.
Every year, the prize awards 50,000 Canadian dollars each to a poet resident in Canada, and a poet from any other country. The shortlisted poets were going to read from their work. The internationally-acclaimed writers Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson, David Young and Carolyn Forché who constitute the board of trustees were also present.
Sofas on the stage bore cushions appliquéd with a letter each, spelling out PO, ET, and RY. Large banners with the names and photos of the shortlisted poets formed a backdrop.
What surprised me most was the crowd. 800 people had come to listen, and the MacMillan Theatre, in one of the buildings of the University of Toronto, was House Full. The atmosphere was one of anticipation and enthusiasm – but you could tell we weren’t at a soccer match, because everyone was all dressed up.
Scott Griffin began the proceedings by saying that this would be an evening with some of the best poetry in the world, from some of the world’s best poets. He said that if you looked back down history, you saw that poetry tended to flourish in troubled times, and that recession appeared to have done it good, and bewailed the fact that poetry had disappeared from schools, cafes, and public events, saying, "It's our loss, of course." Then he added, "I'm preaching to the converted" and joked that he had "told the poets here on stage you are a kind audience."
The readings began, and each one was preceded by another writer introducing the poet. Poets and speakers alike were charismatic and witty, holding the audience rapt and making us laugh. I was surprised that most of the themes were taken from everyday life and the poems were quirky and humorous. There really wasn’t much of that stuff about revolution or even about moonlight – how times have changed!
Canadian poet Kevin Connolly was perspiring copiously and explained, “I always get really nervous when I read, so don’t worry about me”. Being shortlisted for the prize, he said, had “messed with my persecution complex”. His poems and the commentary he preceded them with made us laugh, especially the one about an old aunt of his with a goiter, which he had written after going home and having his mother tell him that in the old days “she was very popular with the boys”. “Why?” asks Kevin, and his mother gives him an odd look. So this poem is dedicated to his aunt who Put Out.
The poet C.D. Wright (she was announced yesterday as one of the winners of the prize) prefaced her reading by quoting the genius Canadian poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen who once said, "Poetry is the opiate of the poets." She smiled, then added: "Welcome to our den."
I was still a little jetlagged and annoyed to find myself jerking out of a doze a few times, as a result missing the occasional exquisite stanza.
The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger was given a Lifetime Achievement Award – and a standing ovation to go with it. Then he also made everyone laugh by pointing out that a lifetime achievement award is a little awkward because none of us really knows how long our lifetime is going to be!
In his speech he observed that every bright child enjoys playing with words. Some people continue doing it in adulthood. These, he pointed out, are the poets.

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