Griffin Field Notes 2008
Behind the scenes at the Griffin Poetry Prize
MACMILLAN THEATRE, JUNE 3, 2008
“We’re just casing the thing,” answers a very short and very old woman. She’s standing with a slightly taller, slightly younger woman in front of a growing line of ticket-holders. The “thing” she’s referring to is the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize reading. Nine poets are scheduled to read from their nominated books. Tomorrow, two of them— one Canadian and one non-Canadian—will each receive a $50,000 cheque at a gala dinner. I ask the next person in line, a middle-aged woman, who she’s come to hear. “All of them!” she replies.
“I don’t know any of the poets,” confesses a well-dressed woman as we file into the theatre. But she figures this is a good place to discover them. Her confession is a reminder that John Ashbery, the evening’s star reader, may be a household name, but maybe only in households that subscribe to The New Yorker. I grab a seat close to the stage and settle in.
On stage, tasteful lighting picks out a podium as well as a few chairs and a couple of sofas. Six pillows, across the two sofas, spell out “POE” and “TRY” in the same multicoloured font as the Griffin logo. Above the sofas, vertical banners, one for each nominee, hang and gently waft. I ask the young lady sitting next to me who she’s here to see. Before she can reply, the old woman on her left, who gathers that I’m “press,” leans across and informs me that this young lady is not only her granddaughter but a poet in her own right. This causes the young lady some embarrassment, forcing her into a fit of denial.
The grandmother, wearing a black blouse and a single strand of pearls, has a habit of steadying her hand on her granddaughter’s knee and leaning towards me so that she can point out celebrities in the audience, like Michael Ondaatje and Susan Swan. I think the grandmother senses that I’m new at this and need a scoop. I pretend like I’ve already spotted them, and feign boredom. Of course, when the grandmother’s not looking, I hustle over to ask Ondaatje who he likes tonight. He replies, almost before I can finish the question, “All of them!”
I thought you might say that, I say. He pauses to reconsider. “None of them?” He laughs. Then, more seriously: “All of them.”
I try Susan Swan, who, thankfully, has an opinion. She’s backing David McFadden. “He’s been overlooked for years as a poet and a prose writer,” she explains. She adds that she hasn’t actually read any of the nominated books yet, but she plans to in the next few days, which is a bit of a relief since I haven’t read the books either. The nominees now take the stage, all at once, like members of a folk-rock super-group. I head back to my seat.
John Ashbery goes first. He’s wearing olive pants, a navy blazer, a blue shirt, and a red tie. His famous description of himself (just “like everybody else”) is dramatically sharpened by his age (he’s an octogenarian) and visible frailty (he’s slow to the podium). As he reads poems from his nominated book, Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, he audibly inhales after every line or two. But the twinkle in Ashbery’s eyes still resembles the one I’ve seen reproduced on book jackets—somewhere between mischievous and mildly startled. He’s also sharp enough to sense the sort of church this is…
“I grew up listening to the radio, especially the CBC,” he says, drawing murmurs of approval. “So I’ve always felt close to Canada even though I haven’t been here very much.” He then banters with the audience over the correct pronunciation of ‘Newfoundland’ before deciding, with charming stubbornness, “I won’t change my pronunciation tonight,” which gets a big laugh. His poems are okay, but their titles —“Interesting People of Newfoundland”—are the real treat. He should just read those.
The biggest laughs of the night go to American poet Elaine Equi, who reads next from her selected poems, Ripple Effect. She has short, shorn hair and approaches the podium wearing a baggy black t-shirt and black slacks. I’m bracing myself to learn about some politically disadvantaged group, but then she opens her mouth and declares—
“Ohmigosh, this is completely awesome!”
—which oxygenates the room wonderfully. She proceeds to offer up matter-of-fact facts like “When I try to write longer poems sometimes I just paste shorter ones together” and “I don’t often rhyme but in this poem I made up for it because every line rhymes.”
The poems themselves are so short and shorn of effect they’re basically just jokes. “Perversely Patriotic,” for instance, goes like this—
Terrorism has ruined
S&M for me.
Now it just seems
—and absolutely kills. Equi’s the Sarah Silverman of this crowd but, like any comic, she’s only as good as her last joke. Still, I suspect she would make more money doing stand-up in her hometown of NY than playing the “dark horse” next to Ashbery, the favourite tonight.
Scott Griffin introduces a last-minute stand-in for Clayton Eshleman, who’s nominated for his translations of César Vallejo. Eshleman is apparently guiding people to a cave in France. I don’t catch the stand-in’s name, and Griffin offers no blurb. The stand-in reads with passion, but the performance is undercut by his sporty sweater, a red number that zips at the neck. It’s a nice top, but he looks like he was roped in off the street.
David Harsent follows. After reading a poem from his nominated book (yet another career retrospective) and drawing some weak applause, he tells the audience, “If you want to, you can save those little ones for a big one at the end,” which is a nice thing to say and makes us laugh. Harsent, a bespectacled white-haired Brit, reads another one and draws more weak applause. “Okay, so don’t hold back,” he says dryly.
After the intermission, the American poet Robert Haas pays tribute to the Korean poet Ko Un, the recipient of the Lifetime Recognition Award, though given the mean age of the nominees on stage (57.7) and the fact that all but one of the nominated books are career retrospectives, the Griffin itself kind of feels like a lifetime recognition award this year. Ko Un is short and wears a large powder blue blazer, which brings to mind the enduring repercussions of trade embargoes. With Haas serving as translator, Ko Un recites some lines about maple leafs, before proclaiming: “I’ve come to this country and want to become a maple leaf, too.” This brings the house down. Like good touring showmen, the international nominees seem obliged to reassure the locals that they have a nice town.
Canada’s Robin Blaser is up next. He wears khakis, a brown blazer, and a pink dress shirt. Blaser is 83, so it’s another slow trip to the podium. He mumbles that he feels “drunk,” asks, “Is it evening yet?” and says that George Bowering, one of the judges, told him not to “mumble.” It’s the sort of shtick only available to the really old, those who’ve earned the right to make fun of their well-meaning minders. His voice is great, too, a ravaged baritone that, I’m told, comes from years of smoking. It has a lulling effect, though, and the poems from his Collected Poems—full of vague words like “earth” and “water” and “grief”—blur together.
The penultimate readers—Nicole Brossard along with her two translators, Robert Majzels and Erín Moure—appear to have coordinated. All three wear dark colours, though Brossard works a red top and, flanked by the other two, gives the impression of an ex-politician still important enough to merit a security compliment. At any rate, Majzels is the severe one, Moure the charmingly awkward one with great bangs, and Brossard the calm axle. The three poets take turns in front of the mike, talking over one another, overlapping French with English. It’s a neat trick but, as with Blaser’s voice, it’s hard to concentrate on the poetry: the performance both lulls and distracts.
David McFadden, the last poet, seems the most nervous. He’s a short man—the mike’s almost eye-level—-and wears a dark suit, a red dress shirt, and an oversized yellow flower pinned to his lapel. His voice quavers a bit, but his poems sound nice enough, with crowd-pleasing references to donut shops, Toronto’s Bloor Street, and rooftop dancing. A lot of the poetry tonight has been introduced as “avant-garde,” which, given the examples on hand, must mean mildly disjunctive imagery in the form of free verse or prose. Such poetry is surely preferable to what “avant-garde” poetry usually means (funny noises) but is much less entertaining.
Finally, Ondaatje takes the stage to present the nominees with leather-bound versions of their books, and I duck out to beat the rush for Ashbery’s autograph. (I don’t even like Ashbery’s poetry and I have Ashbery fever.) I wind up at the head of a long line of people with bags of books they’ve brought to have signed, some by the Canadian nominees, which is a heartening sight. I have to repeat my request, but Ashbery does personalize my book.
THE STONE DISTILLERY, JUNE 4, 2008
“This is a private party,” says the very tall and very thick bouncer. I’ve just asked him if the door he’s blocking is 55 Mill Street, but his reply is ambiguous. I walk down a door, where an art show appears to be underway. But the smokers outside send me back the way I came. This is the distillery district, a block of converted warehouses by the lakeshore, which, in Toronto, means the middle of nowhere. The bouncer seems annoyed to see me again.
“What are you looking for?”
I say that I’m covering the Griffin Poetry Prize awards for Maisonneuveand is this it? He still looks annoyed, which may just be The Effective Bouncer’s way, but then he disappears inside only to return, a moment later, with a woman in evening wear. This is the Griffin, then. But the woman in the evening wear says that things are running late and dinner hasn’t been served yet and would I mind coming back in 40 minutes when the awards will be announced. Since I was supposed to have been sent (but never received) tickets to the Griffin dinner, and since I was nice enough (I thought!) to arrive after dinner, and since this is the middle of nowhere, a neighbourhood from which even the homeless appear to have fled, the woman’s news is a little distressing. I must look a little distressed, too, because, on second thought, she wonders if there is an extra seat at the media table, which, it turns out, is half-empty, and will pretty much stay that way for the rest of the night.
And once I do make it to that seat, the wait-staff, a very professional lot, bombard me with attention and wine and super-tender veal, which is pleasantly confusing, given the vaguely hostile greeting at the door. But then the room itself is pleasantly confusing. One of the journalists I’m sitting with likens it to a ‘30s cabaret and half-expects a chorus line to snake around some corner. I think it’s closer to the kind of party a film mogul would’ve thrown during the silent era. There are palm fronds in one corner of the room, multicoloured ribbons dangling like seaweed from the walls, a precariously tall flower in a slender vase at the center of each table, and a giant feather on each plate, which, looking closer, is actually a pen. The lights overhead keep changing, working through the rainbow, or the Griffin brand’s colour scheme, and this means my super-tender veal keeps changing colour, too, which is a bit disorienting. On stage, the podium resembles a fibreglass harp without strings.
I ask the nice, short-haired blonde from the Canada Council, sitting next to me, if she’ll give me a quote about the Griffin, and after some soul searching she seems to decide it probably can’t hurt too much. It’s a good quote, by the way—optimistic, on-message, full of praise for the Griffin’s international scope—but would look better posted on the Griffin’s web site. The journalists at my table, from the big newspapers, have already written their articles and are really just waiting for two pieces of information—i.e. the winners—which they’ll plug into their “copy.” Then, they’ll do something to the “copy” called “massaging.” They seem to regard me and my Moleskine as cute (they won’t open their notebooks until right before the awards are announced). One of them asks me when my “filing date” is. I think that means “deadline,” so I tell him two weeks. Another journalist, wearing circular frames and a pinstripe dress shirt, guesses that I must be doing an “atmosphere piece.” I tell him, yes, that’s right (though I’ll have to Google “atmosphere piece” when I get home).
When the awards finally begin, a short film starts up on the room’s multiple projection screens. The film represents the only low-budget concession of whole event. It begins with grainy, B&W images of a forest, like the one in The Blair Witch Project, scored with a creepy melody, picked out on what sounds like a marimba. A harmonium (I think) enters the mix, and then an electronic 2/4-ish beat kicks in. The film’s montage cycles through images of brooks babbling and hands typing and, finally, a lone hand writing out the names of the Griffin trustees (e.g. “Atwood,” “Ondaatje,” etc.) with a brush. It’s nice, but does look like it was edited on some undergrad laptop.
Before the awards are given out, though, the team of Ko Un and Haas takes the stage. The very prolific Ko Un wants to read some poems he has spontaneously composed at his table, and Haas is going to translate. One of the poems goes: “As soon as I got here I got drunk. This place used to be a distillery.” Then he reads an excerpt from an older poem: “Going down / I saw the flower / that I hadn’t seen going up.” He finishes with a longer piece, in Korean, called “Time with Dead Poets.” The poem goes on some, so if you don’t know Korean, you kind of have to politely wait it out. David Harsent has taken to playing with his giant feather pen.
Next, Liverpool’s Paul Farley, one of last year’s nominees, gives a witty speech on the struggles of the poet. Given the way poets are so lavishly treated at the Griffin, Farley wonders if Canada’s screenwriters are, as in a certain Martin Amis story, the ones who have to send their work to little magazines. He wears a dark suit with an open-necked white dress shirt and no tie. A bit of stubble roughens up an otherwise cherubic face. He seems kind of cool, actually.
George Bowering takes the stage to announce the international winner. Wearing a dark blazer over a yellow shirt and brown pants, he consults a slip of paper and reads, “Make sure you feed the dog before you…” but then a makes a bumbling show of having the wrong slip, which gets a weak laugh and does seem a little vaudevillian after Farley’s genuinely funny speech.
John Ashbery wins, as expected, and has to be physically helped onto the stage. The thunderous applause causes my table’s tall flower to fall on me, which I’m hoping Ko Un witnessed and will duly transform into a few lines of folk wisdom. Thankfully, the other journalists pitch in to lift the flower off of me. Ashbery wears an outfit similar to last night’s—navy blazer and olive pants—and once again mentions that he grew up listening to CBC radio.
“I’m really very fond of Lake Ontario,” he adds, among other nice things.
Robin Blaser wins too, and, like Ashbery, has to be helped onto the stage (this isn’t your kids’ Griffin). He consults a piece of paper—“I wrote this out just in case”—and seems to get choked-up. He tells the crowd, “You don’t get to be a winner very many times in your life.” Even if you can’t keep a line of Blaser’s poetry in your head, it’s still a touching moment. I try my luck at mingling.
One prominent U.S. poet in attendance, a regular contributor to Poetrymagazine, wonders if the applause for Ashbery sounded louder than the applause for Blaser. But then the poet’s wife reminds him that he’s talking to a journalist, and I lose the quote. Still, I’m secretly thrilled someone thinks I’m a journalist. I snoop around some more.
“I was very happy that Ashbery won,” says the poet A.F. Moritz, sitting at a table. “The choices seemed to represent a certain freedom of creativity and association, and could be seen as a riposte to formalist notions.” Of course, James Lasdun, on behalf of his fellow judges, had previously assured the crowd that “none of us was looking to promote any particular style or aesthetic.” The judges—Lasdun, Bowering, and the Mexican poet Pura López Colomé—were just looking for “good poetry.” But I don’t have to snoop too much further to overhear some very reasonable questions like: how could three judges realistically read, in any depth, the 509 books that were submitted to the Griffin?
I ask Barry Callaghan, the publisher of Exile, if he has an opinion about the night. His partner, the artist Claire Weissman Wilks, seems to think my asking the question isn’t a good idea. Callaghan bows his head, nearly to the table, in apparent distress. Then, he lifts his head and says, crisply, “I best keep my opinions to myself.”
Can I quote you on that?
The dance floor’s open, but no one’s on it. Dinner ran late, and it iseleven on a work night. Last year, rumour has it, some of the nominees danced to music by bands like Rage Against the Machine. I’m hoping (but also kind of betting) that that’s not going to happen this year, and so I go find my cab.
Jason Guriel is the recipient of the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine. His next collection of poems will be published by Véhicule Press in 2009.