Example poetry

Meet the seven finalists for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize

The power of poets to capture the emotions of our time, to hold up a mirror to the world, to interpret it for us, to help us see it more clearly, is particularly important in difficult times. Poets also magnify the little moments in life for us to notice, their beauty and the way they unite us.

The Griffin Poetry Prize celebrates the importance of poetry each year 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 winners each receiving $65,000 and other runners-up receiving $10,000 each.

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

International poets

Natalka Bilotserkivets

Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow (Ukraine)

Are we talking about the abstract “poet”? Poet as a symbol? It’s almost like asking for the role of God… Yes, a poet can become a moral authority, a leader, a hero, write the words of a military march or a national anthem and, in times of conflict, show of personal courage and to inspire thousands – we know of such examples in history, both ancient and modern. But he or she, as a real person, citizen, human being, can also go unnoticed outside of (his) 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 by telling them how they all, all of us, suffer and hope. This is perhaps the role of the poet at all times: to be one of us, and to speak of each of us and in his name.

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

Gemma Gorga, late to the House of Words

Gemma Gorga

Late at the House of Words (Catalonia)

Late to the House of Words, by Gemma Gorga, Saturnalia Books

Is there a time in human history that was not considered a difficult time by its contemporaries? Some of us may have lived under the illusion that all was well, but I’m afraid that’s just a misperception of our privileged watchtower. The cracks have always been there. Thus, the role of the poet is the same today as ever. What is this role? I would suggest leaving the answer unsaid, unrevealed, untouched. I like to keep the mystery inherent in poetry: I like its elusiveness, its ability to avoid big definitions or big statements. And I turn to poetry because it is part of life. Neither for that neither for that (how hard it is to keep things free of utilitarianism!). I turn to poetry just as I turn to air, food, prayer, beauty or solidarity, precisely because they are part of life. So simple, yet so complex!

Douglas Kearney, Sho

Douglas Kearney

Shō (USA)

Douglas Kearney, Sho

Poet Nikky Finney talks about serving truth and beauty. Poet Robin Coste Lewis once described beauty as “dark, odious, sublime and awe-inspiring.” I braid them together as a way to work through what I think my role is. I hesitate to imagine a single role for all artists; such a claim would be limited by my imagination. But I think the truth – even through the tools of storytelling, lyrics and storytelling – seems like a solid starting point. Beauty is more slippery to me – it’s at least cultural tension with the staff — but Lewis’s definition suits me. In many black traditions that overlap with mine, conflict is rarely far away – even love songs often seek transcendence. Telling the truth about living in and through conflict offers, for me, not a melancholic view of peace, but a practice for navigating conflict. Such art is beautiful to me.

It’s funny, but I turn to poetry to be destabilized. I find it waaaaaaay too easy to fall into patterns of complacency. The poetry that I love the most upsets my habits, my thinking, my assumptions. I say “significantly” because the shock can destabilize me, but in my experience, my habits 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 destabilized, however, it makes me question myself more than the source of the destabilization. There are poems that have troubled and taught me for nearly thirty-five years. They linger in the back of my mind, challenging me, not just when I write, but when I deal with the world around me. These poems are not easy, but they continue to change my life.

Ed Roberson, asked what changed

Ed Roberson

Asked what changed (US)

BK-GRIFFIN-POETS asked what changed, by Ed Roberson, Wesleyan University Press Uploaded by: Deborah Dundas

Without implying gnosticism, but my belief is that the nature of time is hard; there are only difficult times. The excitement, joy, and inherent challenges of self-questioning being listed for the Griffin Award don’t come easy. It’s especially not easy when trying to balance the difficult times that are happening simultaneously in the current communities of Buffalo and Uvalde and Ukraine in its world. Thus, the role of the poet and of poetry is constant and insists on the recording, provisioning, healing and unification of forces for the survival and well-being of man – and of life in the sense wide. This language we live in has tremendous creative power for correction toward balance.

Canadian poets

David Bradford, Dreaming of No One But Myself, Brick Books

David Bradford

Dreaming of no one but me

Dreaming of No One But Myself, by David Bradford (Brick Books)

Every bit of poetry amid these big issues is an attempt to understand them. I think the only difference between the poet and anyone looking for the soft nuances that can displace one issue or another is that the poet spends a lot of time organizing a record of his gaze. This is perhaps the great usefulness of what we do: manifest settlements of problems. Articulations on which other people can bounce, find echoes, in their own search for a change.

I turn to poetry to have a different look: on love, on anger, on who I am, on who they are, on where we have been, where we are going, what we think we know. Both in my own poetry and in that of others.

Liz Howard, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos (McClelland and Stewart)

Liz Howard

Letters in a bruised cosmos

Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, by Liz Howard, McClelland & Stewart, 70 pages, $19.95

I’m reluctant to the idea that a poet has or should have some sort of defined role. There is also the question of how we conceive of conflict, what conflict is under consideration, and who perpetuates and/or benefits from this conflict. Through poetry, we will encounter many approaches to difficulties, often in the same collection, which offer consolation, comfort, recognition, solidarity and possibilities for transformation. All of these approaches are valid and have a necessary place in our conversation about the uses of language.

I turn to poetry for challenge and for the rush to engage 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, unknown truths and alternative frames. A poem can present us with the unexpected, an opportunity to take the leap or answer the call, without knowing where we might end up or how it might change us.

Tolu Oloruntoba, Junta of Chance, Palimpsest Press

Tolu Oloruntoba

The junta of chance

Tolu Oloruntoba, Junta of Chance, Palimpsest Press

The role of the poet at all times, but especially in times of conflict, is that of witness; invite others to see beyond the simple facts; draw others into the emotional core of what is being talked about; providing accelerators that help others make their own meanings; and help us all make non-obvious connections. The struggles at the moment look like civil and imperialist wars; a resurgence of fascism; multiple refugee crises, with people not only feeling 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 it all and present their findings to us.

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

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