Who said daredevils can’t be poets?
No one becomes a poet for the money. It’s the act of writing, not the fleeting possibility of reward, that drives them on. Not that rewards are necessarily a bad thing, as the nominees for the Griffin Poetry Prize would surely attest. With $100,000 at stake, it is among the world’s most lucrative poetry prizes. The prize rewards the two best books of poetry published in English during the previous year, including translations. The winners, chosen from a Canadian and International shortlist, each receive $50,000. This year the three judges – George Bowering, James Lasdun and Pura López Colomé – read 509 books from 31 counties around the world before choosing the finalists.
In the days leading up to tonight’s announcement, we asked the nominated poets and translators about what inspired them to follow their chosen path, and what advice they’d give to those who one day hope to follow in their footsteps.
“It’s a matter of being taken with language. As soon as you mixed up with that, it takes you into all the various ranges of languages, poetry being one of the major aspects of that. As a consequence, I’ve been devoted to it since high school. It’s just gone on and on and on.” Robin Blaser, nominated for The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser (Canadian)
“In Grade 5, we had a teacher who used to sit on his desk and recite stories that he had written about squirrels in his backyard. They were just too childish for us. He kind of picked up on that, and the next day he brought in Robert Frost’s great long poem The Death of the Hired Man, and read it all the way through. I remember really glomming onto it. I remember hating certain things about it and really loving other things about it. I never read that [poem] again until just recently, and I found that I disliked exactly the same things after all these years and like exactly the same things about it.” David McFadden, nominated for Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (Canadian)
“When I was in college I came across the The Selected Poems of Garcia Lorca. For some reason English poetry did not do it for me when I was in high school. I felt like I needed some kind of a foreign muse.” Elaine Equi, nominated for Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems (International)
“When I was about 11 or 12 years old I was sliding down some banisters in the apartment I lived in and pitched down the stairwell 30 feet onto a concrete floor. I was incapacitated for a wee bit. During the time I was lying in bed after I came out of the hospital, my grandmother went to the library to get me some books to read and she came back with a bumper book for boys. Interleaved with these stories were poems. I was completely taken up with these. And I said to my grandmother, ‘Could you go back to the library and see if you can get some of this? Just the poems. I don’t want the stories.’ She came back with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of Ballads. From from that moment on, I never looked back.” David Harsent, nominated for Selected Poems 1969-2005 (International)
“[Stéphane] Mallarmé. Then [Arthur] Rimbaud came a little later. And then, of course, much later came someone like Gertrude Stein. You have influences when you are a young writer, a young poet, and then later on with maturité, you have companions. People who will accompany you in your writing, the joy of writing.” Nicole Brossard, nominated for Notebook of Roses and Civilizations (Canadian)
ADVICE TO A YOUNG POET/TRANSLATOR
“It’s the same as it is with any career: perseverance. The only thing that can keep a person persevering in any domain is joy. You need to read a lot, clearly, and to try a lot and fail a lot. Finding joy is what keeps you going.” Erín Moure, nominated (along with Robert Majzels) for translating Notebook of Roses and Civilizations (Canadian)
“Read everything. You have to be a voracious reader. You can no more write poetry without reading poetry – immersing yourself in poetry – than you could be a painter and not look at pictures or a musician and not listen to music.” David Harsent
“I would tell them to read as much current poetry as possible. Get an idea of what’s being said, what is out there, and what poetry means at the moment. Then to follow the poets and poems that speak to you.” John Ashbery, nominated for Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (International)
“The most important thing is to find a writer who has probably not been translated or not been translated much, that you feel that you’re going to learn something very important about poetry from translating. And then to make a commitment to this, to go all the way through. Don’t do a few poems or selected poems, but take a major collection and translate every bit of it. All the second-rate poems as well as the first-rate poems, so that you become responsible for a particular book. There’s a lot of material out there to be translated.” Clayton Eshleman, nominated for translating The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo (International)
“Cultivate a very thick skin and a lot of self-confidence.” Elaine Equi
“Start immediately. Don’t waste any time. You gotta do it when you’re young. David McFadden
“Be very honest – Don’t get fancy before you’re fancy.” Robin Blaser
“Go along with your desire, your intuition. Have discipline, and at the same time take some risks.” Nicole Brossard