Canada Question
Griffin finalists on the role of poetry in making sense of the world

Griffin finalists on the role of poetry in making sense of the world

Griffin finalists on the role of poetry in making sense of the world

Amid a barrage of bad news, from the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic to violence at home and abroad, art can be a tool to make sense of the world.

The three Canadian contenders for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, which will be awarded virtually June 15, use poetry to explore attitudes around social issues.

The Canadian Press asked the finalists to discuss how they address the happenings du jour in their work.

Liz Howard, nominated for “Letters in a Bruised Cosmos”

CP: What is one piece in this collection that you think speaks to our current moment, and why?

Howard: My poem “True Value” relates the experience of being a victim-witness in a sexual assault trial wherein the roles of victim and offender are reversed. A victim-witness is made to stand trial during cross-examination in which the defense aims to disparage their character and demonstrate that they are an unreliable witness. Individuals who have undergone this process often report that the trial was as traumatizing as the assault itself. This poem speaks to our current moment of sensationalized trials and issues around victim blaming.

CP: What is your approach to engaging with current affairs in your poetry?

Howard: “Letters in a Bruised Cosmos” is anchored in my personal experience and written in direct address — in this way the poems are “speaking truth” and enter into a conversation with current affairs. It is deeply vulnerable to lay bare some of the most difficult facts of one’s life. I write to make others feel seen, to generate shifts in consciousness, and to open a window onto the transformational possibilities of language as art.

David Bradford, nominated for “Dream of No One but Myself”

CP: What is one piece in this collection that you think speaks to our current moment, and why?

Bradford: I feel like there’s something about “New Here” that speaks to breaking points, to a prayerful optimism about what we each build on as we build toward, for, with our people. Because there’s something about the current moment that makes that turn in the poem feel appropriate — that idea of ​​build it, name it, and the them that’s yours will come. Because right now there are really clearly some good teams and some bad teams, and all of us have already picked, whether we think we have or not. But I think a bunch of us wonder, ‘what after teams?’ I wonder if I’m part of building that. Because it is being built, always, even as stark gets stark. Even centuries deep, for some of us, into the apocalypse. And I feel like the poem speaks to all that in the moment.

CP: What is your approach to engaging with current affairs in your poetry?

Bradford: Other than the occasional explicit engagement of what’s going on in the most straightforward terms, I don’t know that current affairs are things I engage directly in my poetry. On the page I’m much more concerned with the thinking that brought about what’s going on — the thinking that goes into the structures around us that bring those affairs into being — than I am with what’s going on period.

So, I guess I tend to work to shed light: really, really describe, get closer to a question or two we should be asking. Which I think can offer serious comfort: the way, amidst these complicated, inherently related, super complex crises unfolding around us, sometimes just having a tricky part of the ongoing illuminated in detail for us is a huge relief. Sometimes I just want to be the one to articulate that one thing, because so many poets have done that and continue to do that for me.

Tolu Oloruntoba, nominated for “The Junta of Happenstance”

CP: What is one piece in this collection that you think speaks to our current moment, and why?

Oloruntoba: If I had to define our current moment, I’d say we are in a time characterized by increasing entropy of the social, economic, and political orders that we live in. Yet, or in spite of that, we remain compelled to continue production, consumption, and the maintenance of equity as if the literal world, and the world as we know it, were not ending around us. In this light I’d say “AD79,” which draws a line between the current day and the destruction of Pompeii and other cities by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the AD 79, speaks to our moment.

CP: What is your approach to engaging with current affairs in your poetry?

Oloruntoba: Whenever I write poems immediately after recent events (especially if they are distressing, as they often are), my output is usually declamatory. And don’t get me wrong, responding to our current dystopia does not require decorum. What I feel, however, is that I need to metabolize and clarify my thoughts about an event to get to the story behind the story, to point out non-apparent associations, and express them in poems that can hopefully hold their own in the world and connect with the reader. That requires time and often (for me) the processing, by my subconscious, of all the material that has been given to me. The poems I write then inadvertently bring me comfort. My hope is that if I have done my job well, they resonate with and bring others comfort, as well.

Some responses have been edited or condensed for clarity.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.

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