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Griffin finalists on the role of poetry in the 'era of pandemic writing'

Last Updated May 13, 2020 at 10:54 am EST

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic has left some of Canada’s top literary minds grasping for the words to describe our current moment.

The three Canadian contenders for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, which will be virtually awarded Tuesday, seem up for the creative challenge.

The Canadian Press asked the finalists to discuss how the novel coronavirus has influenced their artistic approach.

 

Chantal Gibson of Vancouver, nominated for her debut book of poetry, “How She Read”

CP: What role can poetry have in helping us come to terms with some of our feelings during the pandemic?

Gibson: Poems are often concise and compact, in contrast to short stories and novels. Right now, readers may have constraints on their time and energy, especially those working from home and caring for others. Some may be coping with the ache of isolation, the demands of social distancing, the challenges of economic constraints. For those who can only spare a few minutes with their morning coffee or one or two pages before bed, a single poem can be sampled in one sitting.

CP: Are you drawing inspiration from this time? How do you think it will manifest itself creatively?

Gibson: I have been working on a hybrid novel, a collection of poetic-narratives that fold and stitch together, told across different time periods and geographies. A few weeks ago, it hit me that all the stories told in 2020 and beyond no longer felt authentic or relevant, because they did not reflect the realities of the current moment. I was a bit out of sorts for a while, like, “What do I do now?” … We are in the era of pandemic writing. Just imagine what’s coming. So I’m slowing down, sometimes stepping back from the page to consider the impact of the present on my future work.

 

Doyali Islam, Toronto-based editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, nominated for “Heft”

CP: What role can poetry have in helping us come to terms with some of our feelings during the pandemic?

Islam: Writing and reading poems is one way to reclaim story, but if poems don’t call to you right now, pursue whatever listening practices and creative forms do. If that’s sleeping, sleep more: your body will quite literally regenerate – the most miraculous creative act.

CP: Are you drawing inspiration from this time? How do you think it will manifest itself creatively?

Islam: I just came through a scary health crisis. I was writhing in pain and didn’t know if I would live. It was a point of transformation, because I now refuse to speculate or fantasize about how anything might manifest: for me, that kind of imagining would be an act of attaching, and attachment creates the potential for suffering. Creatively, my imagination has leapt in new ways due to the compression and intensity of the pandemic. My imagination is insistent, but my body is more insistent. Now I try to make small day-to-day decisions, and stay present and open and grateful.

 

Kaie Kellough, Montreal-based writer nominated for his third poetry collection, “Magnetic Equator”

CP: What poem or verse brings you comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Kellough: I haven’t found one that does. I turn to music for comfort, for ease, and less so to poetry. Where poetry is concerned, I’m too attuned to how the language works, to the poem-as-mechanism. The poets whose work I most admire aren’t the kind to offer comfort, but rather the ones to disrupt it.

CP: Are you drawing inspiration from this time? How do you think it will manifest itself?

Kellough: Right now I’m still in shock, still watching the world. I’m trying not to think creatively. When ideas drift through my thoughts, I let them drift. I’m trying to remain unaware of what I’ve absorbed or how it will manifest itself. I always tell myself to write less while thinking and observing more. I do feel pressure to respond to the moment, yet I experience writing poetry and fiction as slow processes of extended rumination.

The authors’ emailed responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press