Major book awards are occasionally accused of playing it safe and rewarding the familiar. This year’s Griffin Poetry Prize is an exception: All of the titles on the Canadian short list – Letters in a Bruised Cosmos by former Griffin winner Liz Howard, The Junta of Happenstance by B.C.-based health worker Tolu Oloruntoba, and Dream of No One But Myself by Montreal’s David Bradford – are daring in their language and structure, as well as in the ways they connect enormous social and cultural ideas to personal histories. Given the intensity and distinctiveness of these poets’ voices, we thought it best to get out of their way and let them ask questions of each other about their nominated books.
Liz Howard: David and Tolu, the opening poems of your collections demonstrate a profound sonic attunement and invite the reader into a sense of place. How did you select these poems to appear first? And do you view them as a foundation, invitation or something else entirely?
Tolu Oloruntoba: The Junta of Happenstance began as a trilogy of chapbooks, with triads of poems. Lookout, Amplitude and Patrimonial formed one of those triads. They eventually shuffled themselves out within the first section of the book, but Lookout had become the first poem by the time I sent the manuscript to [editor and poet] Jim Johnstone. Something about the image of the speaker standing at a vantage, querying the world and wishing better for their child, struck me as a good place to begin.
David Bradford: It’s funny, the three “family phrase” poems [that begin Dream of No One But Myself] came much later in the writing of the book. (Family phrases, as in phrases that may not be particular to my family but that became sort of interlinguistic memes within it.) Un vent pour écorner les boeufs – this wind for dehorning steers, from my mother’s end of the family – was the first one to come to mind. And very quickly I followed this sound of translation via malapropism to try to begin to articulate a missing, heavy thing in a light way: this family story is also one of bridging distances, of gaps strained across. The gusts of these stories that followed me to Toronto and back to Montreal – my mother and I talked them out in French. So, all throughout this book, she’s translated. To put the poem up front is to say, she’s always there, whatever that means.
Tolu: Liz and David, your collections poignantly examine parental relationships, dysfunctional family dynamics and the residues of trauma they can leave. What role does this kind of witness play in the wider literary and societal context, and how did it change you?
David: Every step of the way I think something that inspired me to keep going was that the readers I was lucky to work with said this work was really useful to them. A lot of people are trying to lay out their ill-fitting stories. There’s this thing of “Here’s a bad/inconvenient story,” and “here’s another one, and here’s another one, and …” But then there’s “oh, here’s one I forgot about,” and, “oh, I hadn’t considered this more empathetically,” and, “wow, I didn’t know that was there, what now.” I wanted to describe all those things, darn my way across their fabric, then really honour them with all the mess they bring.
Liz: What I have written is perhaps a personal testimony or witnessing, but it is also a microcosmic account of forces we are all implicated in or subject to. Poetry has always struck me as a transformational process. Often I am engaging with the raw materials of my life, but these are in a sense sublimated by the various aesthetic procedures and decisions I enact. In this way my experience enters into a conversation with literature. Writing about my father’s disappearance and death opened me up to the idea of intergenerational healing, that through awareness and action I can break the cycle of trauma. I now understand that as a descendant of those who had no voice, I can now give voice to our intersecting histories.
David: I’m interested in the way single poems can often take on, sometimes despite themselves, the effect of a planted key to a book of poetry, like a simple but deep passphrase for a reader to remember and speak for entry. For instance, Moose comes to mind, Tolu. I’m also thinking of As If Our Future Past Bore a Bad Algorithm, Liz. Both feel like they could open secret doors. Is that an effect you invested in? Is there something you particularly relish, or find worrisome, about the potential of such “passphrase” poems?
Tolu: As a poet, of course, you’d get this. Poets, as far as I know, don’t mean for their collections to be puzzle books. But because it is difficult to hit the exact notes we hear in our heads, or because there are some things we choose to hold back, there are indeed passphrases that can open up more layers. So you’re right, Moose holds one such key. I’d describe the thesis thus: the speaker, a survivor of trauma, is saying “I have decided to head toward my healing; do not stand in my way.” Another such poem is Via Negativa, which outlines some of the experimentation with which the speakers of the book’s poems interrogate trauma, mental illness, the history of colonial violence, migrant labour and the rot at the heart of our current capitalism. I also think the reader adds a substrate that can yield a different compound than the author intended. I worry sometimes that this folding, much of which is not deliberate, may make the reader frustrated, but as long as they succeed as poem-objects in their own right, I’d like to allow my poems their own agency. They can hide things from even me, if they wish.
Liz: The idea of a poem as a key reminds me of a poem by 11th century troubadour poet Guillem IX called Farai un vers de dreyt rien, or I shall make a verse about nothing. He announces that his poem will be about nothing, not about himself or anyone else, and then he goes on to describe his poor health and the pain of loving a woman he’s never seen or met, but who cares anyway when there are other better-looking women around? He then decides that his poem has been written despite having no “topic” or addressee, and that he will send it to a friend. He imagines that this friend, upon receiving the poem, will then take a key out of a box and send that back to him. He concludes with the line “box or verse, the key to it.” The poem is really joking about impossibilities, about writing a poem about nothing that is in fact about a lot of things. But perhaps it is also about meaning arising out of impossibility or “nothing.” I like the notion of some poems being keys that could open secret doors.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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