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Griffin Prize judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry's humour, modesty Add to ...

In addition to recognizing the best poetry at home and abroad, the Griffin Prize has a long-standing tradition of recruiting truly outstanding judges. This year’s group includes the British poet Alice Oswald, author most recently of Memorial, an exceptional volume of verse that reimagines Homer’s The Iliad. Ahead of this year’s ceremony, The Globe asked Oswald about her experience on the prize jury.

I was excited when you were named as a judge for this prize, because it seemed to me that the temperament of your own work would perhaps collide in interesting ways with the Canadian submissions for this prize. How much did you know of Canadian poetry before you began reading for the prize? What was your sense of it?

I’ve always admired Anne Carson’s work, perhaps because it is borderless and unplaceable: a bit French, a bit Greek, slightly Cycladic, Hermetic, German, Canadian, lunar. Robert Bringhurst’s work has a similarly international range, though his research into Haida culture tethers him (in a good way) to one part of the world. I was drawn to his writing early on because of my interest in oral traditions and through him came to know the poetry of Jan Zwicky – which I’ve loved. Tim Lilburn’s book, Moosewood Sandhills, made a strong impression on me and perhaps because of that, I came to think of Canadian poetry as a quiet discipline – watchful and outdoor and philosophical.

Did the submissions you read line up with that sense? What surprised you (or didn’t, I suppose!) about them?

I was astonished by the quantity and variety of Canadian submissions. Poetry is hard at work out there! It was particularly good for me to come across so much urban Canadian poetry – I liked its humour and swiftness.

Did you notice any particular trends or through lines that set the Canadian submissions apart from the international ones?

There was a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions. Sometimes this manifested as a bashful attentiveness to the natural world, sometimes as a self-deprecating humour in the face of the urban world. Modesty is a good quality, although too much of it might deprive a poem of necessary contradictions. Related to this modesty there seemed to be a strain of anxiety about land ownership – which at its most interesting emerged as a disturbance or wavering in the language.

I’ve watched with great interest as a younger generation of British poets seems to be coalescing – I’m thinking of some of your Faber and Faber colleagues, in Jack Underwood and Emily Berry, and writers such as Rebecca Perry, whose first book I quite liked. What is new and interesting in British verse? Where is it going next?

I’m no expert in new English verse because I don’t live at the centre of it, but I’ve been excited by the effect of American rap on younger poets. Performance poetry is no longer looked on as inferior to page poetry and I think that has brought drama and increased clarity to the poetry world. Kate Tempest’s work is well-known, but there are plenty of others. There’s also room for experimental work, with digital poetry now more widely known and a lot of visual or audio poetry installed in public places – and, as you mention, there is a wave of interesting new poets, including Rebecca Perry, Sam Riviere, Russell Jones, Harry Mann, Fiona Benson, et cetera. So I would say that poetry is thriving in its world – but there is a wider context, in which the arts are being undervalued in schools and universities and underfunded across the country. I do think our culture is suffering from the unequal education systems that now operate over here.

I’ve previously argued that the division between the Canadian and International categories should be dissolved, and it should just be one big thing – that doing so, in fact, is necessary to the long-term legitimacy of the Griffin Prize. What do you think of that idea?

Yes, I agree with this. Writers must always shed their categories and it would surely stimulate Canadian poets to feel they were competing internationally.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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