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Ukraine poet Natalka Bilotserkivets on: ‘Simple poems about love and death… and the unbearable beauty of this short life’

Ukraine poet Natalka Bilotserkivets on: ‘Simple poems about love and death… and the unbearable beauty of this short life’

Ukraine poet Natalka Bilotserkivets on: ‘Simple poems about love and death… and the unbearable beauty of this short life’

The power of poets to capture the emotions of our times, to hold a mirror up to the world, interpret it for us, help us to see it more clearly, is particularly important during difficult times. Poets also amplify the small moments of life so we notice them, their beauty and the way the unify us.

The Griffin Poetry Prize each year fetes the importance of poetry with its annual award. Seven poets, four international and three Canadian, are on the 2022 shortlist: one winner from each group will be announced on Wednesday, with the winners each receiving $65,000 and the other finalists receiving $10,000 each.

We asked this year’s nominees two questions: What is the role of the poet during times of strife? And why do you turn to poetry: to save/comfort/anger/unify/act as a call to action? Here’s what they said.

International Poets

Natalka Bilotserkivets

Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow (Ukraine)

Do we mean the abstract “poet”? Poet as a symbol? It is almost like asking the role of God… Yes, a poet can become a moral authority, a leader, a hero, to write the words of a military march or national anthem and, during times of strife, to show personal courage and inspire thousands of people — we know such examples from history, both ancient and modern. But he or she, as a real person, citizen, human being, also can and will go unnoticed outside of (their) own poetry — simple poems about love and death, fear and despair and the unbearable beauty of this short life; they will comfort the insecure and weak telling them how they all, all of us, suffer and hope. Perhaps this is the role of the poet at all times: to be one of us, and to speak about and on behalf of each of us.

(I turn to poetry) to save, comfort, unify — not for “anger” or “a call to action” — even though I know good poets who follow this way and manage it well. I would also recall the joy and enlightenment of the creative process and the creative form that poetry delivers to both poets and their readers.

Gemma Gorga

Late to the House of Words (Catalonia)

Is there any time in human history that has not been considered a tough time by their contemporaries? Maybe some of us have been living under the illusion that all was going well, but I’m afraid that was only a misperception from our privileged watchtower. Cracks have always been there. So the role of the poet is the same today as ever. What is that role? I would suggest to leave the answer unsaid, unrevealed, untouched. I like to keep the mystery inherent in poetry: I love its elusiveness, its ability to avoid big definitions or big statements. And I turn to poetry because it is part of life. Neither for this normal for that (how difficult to keep things free from utilitarianism!). I turn to poetry in the same way that I turn to air, food, prayer, beauty or solidarity, just because they are part of life. So simple and so complex!

Doug Kearney

Sho (United States)

The poet Nikky Finney talks about serving truth and beauty. Poet Robin Coste Lewis once described beauty as a “dark, heinous, sublime, awe-inspiring thing.” I braid these together as a way of working through what I think my role is. I’m reluctant to imagine a single role for all artists; such an assertion would be limited by my imagination. But I think that truth — even through the tools of fabulation, lyric, and narrative — seems a solid starting place. Beauty is more slippery for me — it’s at least cultural in tension with the personal — but Lewis’s definition suits me. In many of the Black traditions that overlap with mine, strife is rarely far off — even love songs often seek transcendence. Telling the truth about living in and through strife offers, for me, not a wistful view of peace, but a practice for navigating strife. Such art is beautiful to me.

It’s funny, but I turn to poetry to be unsettled. I find it waaaaaaay too easy to fall into holding patterns of complacency. The poetry I love most meaningfully disturbs my habits, my thinking, my assumptions. I say “meaningfully” because shock may unsettle me, but in my experience, my habits will return soon after, with reinforcements. This is NOT a universal definition of “shocking,” but it helps me calibrate my work, especially as a poet and performer. When I am unsettled, however, it makes me question myself more than the source of destabilization. There are poems that have troubled and taught me for nearly thirty-five years. They hang out in the back of my mind, challenging me, not just when I’m writing, but when I’m dealing with the world around me. These poems are not easy, but they stay changing my life.

Ed Roberson

Asked What Has Changed (United States)

Not to imply any Gnosticism, but my belief is that tough is the nature of time; there only are tough times. The excitement, joy, and the attendant trouble in self-questioning of being listed for the Griffin Award is not easy. It is especially not easy when trying to balance simultaneously happening tough times in the current Buffalo and Uvalde communities and Ukraine in one’s world. So, the role of the poet and poetry is constant and insistent upon recording, supplying, healing, and unifying the forces for human — and life in the great sense — survival and wealth. This language we live within has a tremendous power of creativity for correction into balance.

Canadian Poets

David Bradford

Dream of No One But Myself

Each bit of poetry in the midst of these big problems is an attempt to figure them out. I think the only difference between the poet and everyone else looking for the tender bits of nuance that maybe shift one problem or the other is that the poet spends a lot of time arranging a record of their looking. Maybe that’s the big use in what we do: overt arrangements of the problems. Articulations other folks may bounce off, echo locate from, in their own search for a shift.

I turn to poetry to get a different look: at love, at anger, at who I am, at who they are, at where we’ve been, where we’re headed, what we think we know. Both in my own poetry and in that of others.

Liz Howard

Letters in a Bruised Cosmos

I am resistant to the idea that a poet has or should have any sort of defined role. There is also the question of how we conceive of strife, whose strife is under consideration, and who is perpetuating and/or benefiting from that strife. Across poetry one will encounter many approaches to hardship, often within the same collection, that offer consolation, solace, recognition, solidarity and transformative possibilities. All of these approaches are valid and have a necessary place in our conversation about the uses of language.

I turn to poetry to be challenged and for the rush of engaging with what I see as the electrified field of another person’s consciousness. I believe in the power of poetry as an authentic and heightened form of expression that has the ability to reveal deep and unfamiliar truths and alternate frames. A poem can present us with the unexpected, an opportunity to commit to the jump or answer the call, not knowing where we might end up or how it may change us.

Tolu Oloruntoba

The Junta of Happenstance

The poet’s role at all times, but especially in times of strife, is witness; inviting others to see beyond the simple facts; pulling others into the emotional core of what is being spoken about; providing accelerators that help others make their own meanings; and helping us all make non-obvious connections. Strife at this moment looks like civil and imperialist wars; a resurgence of fascism; multiple refugee crises with people feeling not just war and poverty, but also the effects of catastrophic climate change. It also includes the global mental health crisis which is on some level a response to living in a world that feels like it is imploding. Poets try to make sense of all this and present their findings to us.

I turn to poetry because I have come to understand and depend on its pleasures. From the unusual, jewel-like word or turn of phrase to immersive worlds that take our emotions from wherever they are to another place, leaving us a to-go box of empathy.


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