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Scott Griffin founder of Griffin Prize holds up a poem by E.E. Cummings in Vancouver May 7, 2014. The Griffin Prize is in Vancouver this week for the Poetry in Voice National Finals. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Scott Griffin founder of Griffin Prize holds up a poem by E.E. Cummings in Vancouver May 7, 2014. The Griffin Prize is in Vancouver this week for the Poetry in Voice National Finals. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Scott Griffin brings poetry back into the mainstream of cultural life Add to ...

For poets in Canada and around the world, Scott Griffin’s name is, well, poetry. In 2000, he founded the Griffin Poetry Prize – Canada’s richest poetry award. Every year, a Canadian poet and an international poet are each awarded $65,000 at a swanky Toronto party. In addition, each shortlisted poet, including the winners, receives $10,000. (The prize money was doubled in 2010.)

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Mr. Griffin has since established Poetry in Voice – a recitation competition for Canadian high school students now in its third year.

This year, organizers estimate that 30,000 to 35,000 students competed at the classroom level at the beginning of the competition. Some of the winners advanced to an online competition in which they submitted videos of themselves reciting poetry. Those 576 videos were judged by top Canadian poets, who chose the best 39. They will be down to the top three in English, French and bilingual streams for the finals on Friday. At stake is $25,000 in prize money: Winners in each stream receive $5,000 and their school libraries get $1,000 – $500 of which must be spent on poetry books.

This year, the finals have left Toronto for the first time, and are being held in Vancouver.

Mr. Griffin is in town for the competition. The Globe and Mail met with him at SFU Woodward’s, where the national finals will be held on Friday night.

Remind us – why did you establish the Griffin Prize?

It seemed to me that poetry had really slipped out of the mainstream of our cultural lives. It was no longer taught in the schools. Most people didn’t read it. And certainly nobody recited it. So it was just sort of slipping away and that was particularly true in Canada, it seemed to me. Because in the states, there’s still great interest in poetry. And, of course, in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe.

So the idea was to try and reintroduce poetry back into Canadian culture. That’s a tough job, but we’re making some headway, I think.

Do you think the Griffin Prize had an impact?

I do. I remember our first session: We had the seven poets come from everywhere and we had 147 people turn up for the readings. This year, we’re sold out at Koerner Hall [in Toronto], which holds over 1,000 people. For poetry, that’s quite good.

Was part of the strategy to make a splash by awarding a huge sum of money?

Yes, we wanted to indicate that poetry was just as important, if not more so, than the big prizes that go with fiction, non-fiction, everything else. Poetry has always been at the bottom of the ladder.

How important is poetry to you?

It’s always been important. When we grew up, our father used to read it to us in the evenings, and he also used it as a punishment. Whenever we did something wrong, we had to memorize a poem and recite it for the family before dinner. I was what you would call a difficult child, so I learned a lot of poetry. And after a while, he said ‘you can choose your own poem,’ and I was being contrary; I was determined to find poetry that he didn’t recognize and that was not easy, because he was very well-read. But his poetry stopped with Eliot and Pound, so I went on and discovered people like E.E. Cummings or [Irving] Layton and that was a lot of fun.

Why, with this competition, are you asking for recitation of an existing poem, rather than having the students present an original one?

To really understand a poem, you have to memorize it. That’s really the only way you can get close to it short of having written it. Memorization got a bad name. It was sort of considered rote learning, but, in fact, you really get to understand the various levels and layers in the poem by memorizing it. And also in this program, students have to be able to get up on their feet in front of an audience, and that gives them a tremendous sense of confidence.

If a high school student asked for a recommendation, where would you start them?

Well, you’d probably start with the classics; tell them to read some Tennyson – Ulysses. There are some great lines in there. And a little bit depends on the person. In the competition, they have a choice of 500 poems and they can choose any one that they identify with. That’s important, because if they’re going to get up and perform, they’ve got to have a feeling for it.

The Poetry in Voice National Finals will be held May 9 at 7 p.m. at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. Admission rates are starving-poet friendly - $5 or $10.

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