A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman
This was going to be about how I spent my summer vacation, but something's come up.
In fact, PEI's hyperactive poets are implicated by the recent news that one Scott Griffin, a "Toronto-based industrialist and philanthropist," has established the two-pronged Griffin Poetry Prize, worth C$80,000; surely one of the richest literary trophies anywhere, certainly for verse. The award also includes a job, albeit a seasonal one-shot, at the University of Toronto's swank Massey College, and, get this, "an entrée into Toronto's vibrant literary communities." I'm hardly the one to question any scheme that would keep a deserving creative talent going for a year or two, but in this era of millionaire survivors, the news that practitioners of a nearly extinct art form are about to be rewarded, entrées included, at a greater rate than that most fiction writers can shoot for...well, it's enough to make any ambitious writer iambic.
Of that C$80,000, half will go to the year's best Canadian poetry book in English, the other half to the best collection in English published anywhere-as selected by a blue-ribbon jury. But if the winner of the first forty grand and the winner of the second are different poets (they needn't be but what odds?), the second win must surely take the wind out of the sails of the first. Take the money and run, you say?
Mr. Griffin's philanthropy-and his is an impressive commitment-is supposed to encourage lovers of poetry as well as poets, but those folks are already sold. Are there many potential converts? And what sort of real incentive is there, anyway, to enter this particular lottery? True, all Canadian poets will be caught in the glow of attention, but only one can sashay to the bank. Also, publishers are permitted to submit a maximum of only three of their books; they'll have to pick and choose from among their own writers. That should be fun.
And one might ask what a Canadian is doing handing out prize money to non-Canadians, even if it is worth only about $25,000 U.S. Dare I suggest revisiting the formula and giving one of the awards to a Francophone poet?
I wonder if $80,000 of the Griffin Trust's dollars would go further in the form of four to ten scholarships-maybe half to educate poets and half to train teachers of poetry. Or what about cash awards to maybe eight fine poets to spread the bread around? There could be beginning, mid-career, and senior categories.
Yes, a single $40,000 cheque will buy one lucky devil some fortified time in the trenches, but several poets could rent writing time with lesser amounts; and this would nurture and elevate some of our finest writers without invoking the fickle star system.
One thing's sure, if the reading public is already inclined to get into a tiz-woz about the year's Governor-General's and Giller Prize shortlists, it's never going to concur on who the richest poet ought to be. First off, folks'll have to read a number of the books...but I reckon that's the idea. The $40,000 selection itself is bound to sell, even if poetry is rarely on the average menu. With all the PEI poets boasting new books of late, who knows, maybe our guys will put a lock on some of the Griffin thousands for a few prizes to come. It's not inconceivable that the first of these could be a rich literary star by April of 2001, and making his or her Toronto entrée.
Thanks to Scott Griffin, ambitious young Islanders are already thinking, Gee, I wonder if I should become a pro golfer or a poet.