Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Discussion with All Seven Griffin Poetry Prize Finalists

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The Griffin Poetry Prize is far and away both the biggest poetry prize in the country and the landmark event on the poetry lover's calendar.

Celebrating both Canadian and international poets, the Griffin Prize has effectively launched Canadian poetry and poets abroad in an unprecedented way, while simultaneously promoting the finest foreign poets publishing in English (via translation or in the original text) to Canadian readers.

Each finalist for both the international and Canadian prizes receives $10,000 in recognition of the literary excellence of their work, with the two winners receiving an additional $65,000. The 2015 winners will be announced at an event in Toronto on June 4, 2015.

Today we're speaking to all seven finalists: Shane Book, Jane Munro and Russell Thornton, nominated for the Canadian prize, and Wioletta Greg (translator: Marek Kazmierski), Michael Longley, Spencer Reece and Wang Xiaoni (translator: Eleanor Goodman), nominated for the International prize.

We hear about Shane Book writing till he fell, asleep, from his chair; about which author secretly appears on their book's cover; about Spencer Reece's work as a priest in Madrid; and much, much more. This is an opportunity for poetry lovers to pull back the curtain and hear from acclaimed writers about their process, their own favourite Canadian poets and the questions they are exploring in their poems.

For full information on the 2015 nominees, please see our shortlist announcement post here.

You can hear from the finalists in person tonight, June 3, 2015, at the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings at Koerner Hall in The Royal Conservatory of Music (273 Bloor Street West, Toronto). To purchase tickets, please click here.

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Open Book:

Tell us about your nominated collection and how the project originated for you.

Shane Book:

Congotronic was written over a span of about a decade; I wrote it while working on several other manuscripts and films, and at times while I was enrolled in film school and in graduate programs for literature and creative writing. Some of the poems were written after spending time living on the island of Itaparica, off the northeastern coast of Brazil, in the state of Bahia. There I contracted Dengue fever. When I emerged from the haze and pain of that, I started writing poems that were quite different from anything else I’d ever done. Some of those poems made it into the book and set the tone for the book.

Congotronic has a lot of different kinds or styles of poems: some are straight lyric pieces, some are in conversation with key texts of Western philosophy, some incorporate language that sounds like it could be from hip hop; there’s language taken from a slave plantation owner’s diary; there’s language taken from interviews with people who were enslaved in the United States. Other poems are in conversation with John Berryman’s Dream Songs, both the racist aspects of his project and the funny parts.

At times I wanted to try to describe emotional states for which we have no name, gnarly states of mind that exist but at the same time can’t be directly pointed at because they are a mix of many emotional fields.

In terms of composition I was influenced by editing films, listening to shards of voices over and over and splicing together images. In some poems tried to use the same techniques in language. I hoped to create each poem as a community in language made up of disparate linguistic registers. In Congotronic there’s humour and darkness and thinking and singing.

Wioletta Greg:

The book Finite Formulae and Theories of Chance — translated into English by Marek Kazmierski, is a selection of poems and notes written on the Isle of Wight; arranged in a way which portrays the story of my family across the events of the twentieth century. Homer wrote: “Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.” Percentage wise, our bodies consist mostly of salty water, could that mean that some crazed Odysseus would sail within us? Those words from my poem Readers start the arrangement of my collection; beginning on the day the Great War broke out — when my grandfather, Władek, is coming back from a local market as a young boy and commencing on a discussion about sea and migration with my seven year old daughter. Odysseus hides in the background of each story. This collection attempts to combine different worlds, Brittany Krier wrote: “between the worlds of poetry and prose, Poland and England, and the past and the present, making the unfamiliar seem familiar and the familiar seem foreign” in the review of my book. What’s interesting is that the photo used by the painter Marcelina Amelia, on the front cover of the book, comes from my family photo album — and the baby hiding behind the blanket is no one but me.

Michael Longley:

I don’t think of my poems as a ‘project’. A large part of The Stairwell does consist of a sequence of poems: twenty-three elegies for my twin brother Peter. But I never planned a sequence. One poem led to another. One book leads to another. My collections accumulate in what I hope is an organic way. In the first part of The Stairwell I welcome my new grandchild Amelia. I have now written cradle-songs for all seven grandchildren. These celebrations are balanced by a suite of Great War poems and by my extended lamentation for my twin brother: arrivals and departures.

Jane Munro:

Blue Sonoma bears witness to an irrevocable journey into dementia. A beat-up GMC pickup — the blue Sonoma of the title — becomes a metaphor for a journey through this time on earth when the symptoms of dementia describe the withdrawal of states from the influence of reason and meaningful discussion. Earth itself is losing ways of knowing and being with all the extinctions of species. Poetry has always been a seedbed for language embodying the intelligence of the heart. Blue Sonoma takes respite in what is neither personal nor political: “A mountain, a river — fully this, fully that.”

In my grief as I watched dementia erasing the life closest to me frame by frame, and felt my own life eroding, the process of making art — which engaged my whole self — gave me a an essential fullness of spirit: laughter, gratitude, dreams, joy, and intimate relationships with the world around me.

Spencer Reece:

This is my second book of poems. It has come eleven years after the first. The first book was selected by Louise Gluck for a prize in the States after I’d submitted it for over fifteen years to first book competitions about two hundred and fifty times. With that book I was unmasked and publicity followed, I went from behind a counter at Brooks Brothers, a men’s clothier, to behind a podium at the Library of Congress. So the second book was written with the knowledge I would be able to be published, which is different than writing a book where you think no one will ever read what you write. You have to write what you are being called to write, of course, without concern for public opinion. It takes a while to make a new sound. While writing the second book I became an Episcopal priest, so the book tracks that experience. The book is about reconciliation and forgiveness, themes that were a part of my life experience as I went from my forties to my fifties. Technically, I wanted to explore the relationships between metered poems and prose poetry, so the book runs the gamut from prose poems to a Shakespeare sonnet. I wanted to ask the question: how far can you push a poem?

Russell Thornton:

In this book I wanted to try to utter in whatever ways I could a particular set of emotional experiences. In the first section of the book, “With a Greek Pen”, I brought together poems I wrote while living in Greece for an extended period; the section ends with an elegy for someone I was close to in Greece who suffered a very early death from cancer. In the following section, “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene”, I looked at love, loss, and longing using the characters and plot of the Lazarus story as an imaginative base. In the third section of the book, “from Book of the Dark Dove”, I compiled elaborations I wrote on lines from the Song of Songs; this section is the result of my efforts at translation and interpretation. In the final section of the book, “Double-Flute”, I included poems I wrote about someone I was close to in my early twenties, became estranged from, and then learned had died. The collection is meant to be of a piece and is an attempt to say something about romantic love and death.

Wang Xiaoni:

The poems in Something Crosses My Mind were chosen from poetry collections written from the 1980s to the early 2000s, so more than twenty years of writing. The content spans from shorter poems from a decade ago to a more recent long poem called “Fear”.

My newest work has not yet been published in book form, and so is largely unknown to readers and even to my translator Eleanor Goodman. For example, the few “Moonlight” poems in the translated book are very early poems. I have over a hundred “Moonlight” poems now, and they will be published this year in a collection called “Seventy-Nine Moonlight Poems.”

OB:

What images and themes do you notice recurring in your work most often? Is there a question or questions you are asking of yourself or your reader in your poetry?

SB:

It is difficult for me to stand back and survey my two books and all the other poems I’ve written and identify recurring images. One of my editors told me there was a lot of ocean imagery in some of the poems in Congotronic, but I’d never noticed before.

I seem to be becoming more interested in this notion of “voice” in literature. Like, what is it? Does it exist? As I am trying to write poetry that thinks and sings at the same time, there are philosophical questions embedded in the work. I guess at times the poems seem to interrogate this idea of “the self” — like what is it, does it exist and where does it fit into ideas of community and so on. There’s a tension in the poems around conceptions of race and identity, an active skepticism.

I am reluctant to go much farther into analyzing my own work because I don’t want readers to feel there’s a magic key or something to decipher — I’d prefer if readers interact with the work without my voice in their heads. That way they can create their own meanings, sense impressions, have their own emotional encounters with the work. If a reader feels like they’ve had an experience in language while reading one of my poems, that’s good enough for me.

WG:

Most common motives are auto-biographical. I write about people close to me who have now passed away: father, grandma, granddad — about their adventures, loves, lives, rituals and traditions contained in a small village on the Polish Jurassic Highland. I also try to capture personal experiences as an emigrant and mother. My main motives include: identity, language, nature and the historical influence on the lives of a singular unit. An important issue to consider throughout my written work is man himself. What sort of world would he create as a Guguła (in my dialect, an unripe fruit), never growing up. If he still looked upon it as a child, abolishing anthropocentric ideas and maybe realising that the biggest value is not strength but imagination?

ML:

As I grow older I think of my work as four long poems that are braided together — nature poems, love poems, war poems and poems about art. My nature poetry is fuelled by my love of Ireland’s western seaboard, the intricacies of the landscape and the weather there. My poetry is full of wild birds and wild flowers, stoats and badgers and otters and hares. I am also obsessed with the Great War. My father served as a boy soldier in the trenches. Sometimes I find in Homer oblique ways of approaching his ghost and his role in the vast tragedy. Homer and other classical authors have also enabled me to write lamentations about the northern Irish troubles. You can’t ask of a reader anything more than attentiveness and patience.

JM:

Speaking of my first poetry collection, Daughters, a reviewer said, “… with formal brilliance and panache … her poems are based on an aesthetic of abundance rather than austerity : they renounce the convention of alienation in favour of the high risks of making connections.” (Jean Mallinson, Brick)

I see that “aesthetic of abundance” recurring throughout my work, present in Blue Sonoma, countering dualistic thinking with its ethos of alienation and scarcity. It’s embodied in relationships — with the specifics of the world around me, which includes the domestic sphere and the women and men from whom I come — and also in my relationships with travel, language, art: “Props / in a little, local, theatre of light.”

SR:

I don’t understand what I’ve done until it is finished, and then sometimes dimly. But I did notice this second book is wholly concerned with forgiveness and reconciliation. The image of the strangers on the road to Emmaus haunted me for years. Also, thoughts about photography concerned me with this book, just as one ponders the difference between photography and formal oil painting, I was wanting to see the differences between prose poetry and meter, something flat versus something baroque, and everything in between. I was often pondering Dianne Arbus’ photography entitled Untitled #7, which I had a copy of in notebooks with me and I looked at all the years I worked on this book. The image is a black and white photograph of inmates from a mentally handicapped home in New Jersey dressing up for Halloween, and it seemed so much to me like an Emmaus moment.

RT:

Rain occurs in my poems more than a little. What can I tell you? I live in Vancouver — well, in North Vancouver, where it actually rains almost twice as much as it does in downtown Vancouver. When I was a child, my mother used to drag my three younger brothers and me out onto a small porch in the middle of the night to listen to the rain. The die was cast for me at that point, I think. People have mentioned to me that the word light and images of light also figure a lot in my poems. They’re not wrong. So — my recurring images are rain and light. I’d state that my themes, too, are rain and light.

WX:

My poetry tends to have something of a “mournful gray” tone to it, similar to the sky here. Most of the time I simply describe my complex emotions, trying to make words come the closest to my experiences at any given moment.

As for my readers, everyone’s experiences and understanding are different, so what they find in the poems is up to them.

OB:

If you were to recommend one Canadian poem (or poetry collection) to readers, what would it be?

SB:

The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser.

WG:

Coincidentally; or maybe because the island beaches have influenced me over the past ten years spent wondering across them, I would recommend a poem from the first book of a Toronto born poet, Anne Michaels: "Woman On A Beach".

ML:

I have greatly enjoyed meeting Anne Carson and hearing her lecture and read. She is a brilliant poet and fine classical scholar. It has been exciting to return to the classical world in her company. She has made me think again about Homer and Sappho and Catullus, and has also obliged me to reconsider certain formal matters. This has been a considerable refreshment, even if I don’t follow in her footsteps.

JM:

To whom am I making this recommendation? I can’t generalize. Canadian poets have written so many amazingly wonderful, deeply moving, poems and collections of poetry.

SR:

I am very fond of the work of Anne Carson. I also read a fair amount of fiction, and love the work of Alice Munro.

RT:

That’s a hard question. There are a couple of dozen Canadian poems I keep close — pieces by A.M. Klein, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Alden Nowlan, Don Coles, Don Domanski, Irving Layton. I love anthologies. I’d recommend Open Wide a Wilderness, edited by Nancy Holmes. I think it’s a landmark gathering of Canadian poetry. As for a collection by one poet, I’d have to cite Irving Layton’s The Selected Poems: A Wild Peculiar Joy. For me, Layton’s dozen or so masterpieces radiate a unique and lasting power.

WX:

In the early 1980s, I read a large number of foreign books that had been translated into Chinese, including poetry, novels, movie scripts, and books about art. But that period quickly ended, and after a few years, I read foreign literature much less.

I think that translation is itself a creative process, and since I don’t know any foreign languages, I have no way of judging which translation is the best. Young people today can read books in the original language, but in college I studied Russian, and all I learned was things like: “Drop your weapons and we won’t shoot” and “the Party is great, honorable, and always right!“

I’ve been in Hong Kong over the last few months, and while there, I read Margaret Atwood’s poetry, and discovered that I like her later work better than her early work. For example, Morning in the Burned House is more direct and less ornamented. When I read her work, I thought to myself that she must really love to write, because otherwise she couldn’t be able to just keep on writing and writing.

OB:

Tell us what a typical writing day looks like for you.

SB:

It’s been so long since I’ve had one that I can barely remember! I tend to write at night, after doing all the day-to-day stuff people call “living.” It’s like when it gets dark out and people stop calling or texting or social media-ing, my mind quiets down and I feel strangely energized to work on creative projects. I can hyper focus on the task. I will write for as long as I can stay awake. At one point I used to sit in the chair until I fell out of it and slept on the floor beside the desk. Actually I don’t recall doing this. My girlfriend at the time told me she’d hear a thump upstairs and run up to check and find me lying beside the chair asleep. It scared her so I put a padded matt beside the chair. As I don’t have such vast stretches of time in the evenings anymore, I haven’t written like that in a while, though I still do obsessively sit in the chair. There’s something important about not letting yourself turn away from what you’re working on until you feel liker you’ve gotten somewhere with it. First I read poetry books and then put on music and listen to it and then I’m writing, and writing and writing. Then after however many hours I take a break/go to sleep and do it all over again and again until I can’t really do much more to the poem. For me, the process is at once excruciating and blissful.

WG:

I wake up late, drink coffee that does me no good, peak over the Solent through my bedroom window and record various notes in my diary. But most importantly I think, because “There’s nothing more debauched than thinking” — as remarked by the Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska.

ML:

For ten years I don’t write a poem, and then I write four in one day. That’s exactly what happened to me in my forties. Being a poet is not the same as being a ‘writer’. You cannot write your way out of a poetic block. I am old-fashioned and believe in the notion of inspiration. I have to wait for poems to come to me. I once said that if I knew where poems come from I would go there. A poem cannot be the result of an act of will. It has to be a miracle.

JM:

My writing day depends on where I am, what’s happening in my life, and what I’m writing. This varies. Most days, I write. While I was working on Blue Sonoma, I’d record dreams in the morning and sit with my notebook before other responsibilities took over. In other situations, it’s been evening before I could clear space for writing. Getting away completely helps: going on retreat or to a library. Then I can disappear into the work. At home, I set timers to warn me when I need to surface.

SR:

I work as a priest in an office and in a cathedral in Madrid, Spain, now, before that I worked in an orphanage in Honduras: I have written when I can. Little ideas or thoughts come to me over time and then often repeat, like a tune in my head, then I write them down, sometimes a hundred times, and sometimes that becomes a poem. There is not a typical writing day.

RT:

I get around an hour per day, Monday to Friday, at the local public library, to myself and a notebook. I admit, often a fair bit of that hour I spend looking out the window. But if I’m lucky even that portion of the time might be a kind of being present — present to whatever it is that a person tries to be present to when they want to write poems. Anyhow, I suit up, so to speak, for that hour. Usually I blacken a page, maybe two. I like to think that this is enough. I’d be glad of more time, that’s for sure, but it’s impossible in my current daily life. I take comfort in what Octavio Paz mentioned of timeframes in “Toward the Poem”, an early piece of his: “Words, the profits of a quarter-hour wrenched from the charred tree of language…” Fifteen-minute scribbling acts — that’s how I get most of my poems, the rough drafts anyway.

WX:

I’m not a poet who plans out her writing day. I write when it pleases me, and when it doesn’t, I do things around the house, which I also enjoy.

I don’t think of myself as a “professional poet”. I just sometimes find myself eager to write. Still, I’m used to having many thoughts hidden inside of me, always fermenting, and many of them will likely never have a chance to be turned into words and shared with other people.


For more information about The Griffin Poetry Prize, please visit their website

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