Launch of the Griffin Poetry Prize

Opening speech
by playwright David Young, Trustee

Launch of the Griffin Poetry Prize on September 6, 2000 (left to  right) Robin Robertson, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Scott  Griffin, David Young
Launch of the Griffin Poetry Prize on September 6, 2000 (left to right) Robin Robertson, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Scott Griffin, David Young
Good morning and welcome, my name is David Young. We’re here today to share some wonderful news about a new literary prize that will brighten the future for poets all over the world. Scott Griffin will tell you all about the prize in just a moment. Since the Griffin Trust is a new entity in the literary firmament it seemed worthwhile to take a minute to give you a little background on the man who is the moving spirit behind the prize.

I’ve known various members of the Griffin clan since I was in my early 20s. They are a distinguished family, with deep roots in the social, economic and political fabric of our country. You’ll have to travel far to find a more interesting gang of people. There is something special about the Griffins, a kind of energetic aura, a will to live a larger life. If you track that energy back to its source, you’ll discover Tony and Kitty Griffin, Scott’s parents, two absolutely remarkable people. Tony and Kitty are here today and before I say anything unpleasant about their son, and I do unfortunately have to say a couple of unpleasant things, I’d like to say to them: Tony, Kitty, you did your best, it’s not your fault.

So, who is Scott Griffin, the enigmatic man who has put his money on the table to make this prize a reality?

I talked to Kitty this morning and she recalled that Scott first ran away from home when he was ten months old. Seriously. Scott was asleep outside in his pram. He woke up, took a look around and realized he was unguarded. He wriggled out of his harness and rocked the pram back and forth until it flipped over, then he crawled through the hedge into the neighbour’s garden. When his rather distraught mother came looking for him, he saw her coming and crawled away as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

A quintessential moment. Scott Griffin, escape artist.

His younger brother, Tim, remembers Scott in a slightly different light. When Tim was very small Scott, 11 years older, gave him an important life lesson. They were up to their waists in the lake and Scott said: “If somebody holds you underwater, this is what you do. You struggle. Then you go limp. Okay, let’s try it.” Scott held his baby brother under water. Tim struggled, then he went limp. Scott didn’t let him up. So Tim struggled again, more desperately now, then went limp again. Scott held him under water. And so on. Tim remembers the incident as was one of the first real moments in his life.

Another quintessential Scott moment. His friend Peter Blaikie remembers the first time he met Scott at Bishop’s University. They were going down a circular staircase, they stopped on the second floor landing to chat. Without warning Scott vaulted the banister and dropped twenty feet to the basement floor, landed like a cat and walked away laughing.

Above all else, Scott Griffin is a master of the calculated risk. He knows when to jump. And he always lands on his feet.

Friends from student days remember him as someone with a literary rather than a mathematical turn of mind. He was, as they say, not good at sums. Despite this handicap, Scott went on to do rather well in the world of business and finance. With his own rare mix of nerve and intuition, he built a mini-conglomerate in the field of high technology engineering and manufacturing. Then, as his habit, he made another great escape, over the banister, two floors straight down.

Scott walked away from the company he built and the life that went with it. He took an entirely new direction. It’s worth noting that Scott made it through this rather turbulent period in his life thanks to the wisdom, love and support of his wife Krystyne. Krystyne has stood by this guy through thick and thin and, believe me, all of us on the sidelines wonder how she puts up with him. Anyway …

I forgot to mention that Scott pilots his own plane, a vintage Cessna 180 tail-dragger. He’s single-handed that tiny plane across the Atlantic – twice – wearing a survival suit, sitting on bladders of fuel. The last time Scott flew the Atlantic, he left the world of high finance behind. He flew his little plane to Africa and spent two years ferrying medical relief teams around the Kenya for AMREF.

Scott is defined by daring. He has flown the entire coastline of Africa in his little plane. He’s crash landed on an island in the middle of Lake Tanganyika. He’s dragged sledges on epic journeys across the Baffin Island icecap. He’s paddled the great rivers of the Northwest Territories. He’s sailed the world’s oceans. And he’s read poetry. Scott is the first to admit that it’s his lifelong interest in poetry that has provided meaning and context for his journey through this world. In recognition of that fact, he has created a new landmark in the geography of world literature.

Last January, Scott and Krystyne invited Michael and I over for dinner. Scott casually took us into the living room and said he was going to park a chunk of money in a trust fund and set up a poetry prize. A big one. What did we think?

When I was young, it was the poets who taught me how to write in a building about three blocks from here, the Coach House Press. This prize is a breathtaking initiative. All of us are very proud to have been part of the birthing team.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce Scott Griffin, who will give you more details. Then we’ll welcome any questions. Please welcome Scott Griffin …

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by Scott Griffin, Chairman, Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry

Thank you, David, for that kind and somewhat embarrassing introduction …

David is a wonderful person, with many interesting things to say, it’s just that sometimes it’s necessary to recognize when it’s necessary to divide by six …

Nevertheless, I wish to add my welcome to his to the press, publishers, poets, family and friends. It’s exciting and gratifying to see such a large turnout. Thank you for coming.

I wish to thank the Master of Massey College, John Fraser, for providing such a perfect day in such idyllic surroundings.

Now I wish to introduce to you the trustees to the Griffin Trust – not that they need introduction – but it provides me with the opportunity to say just how important they are to this initiative and to publicly thank them for the tremendous work they have done thus far and how much they are expected to do in the future – but more about that in a minute.

They are: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson (who deserves special mention since he has come all the way from England to attend this event), David Young (who has introduced himself and who is our emcee) and Robert Hass (who unfortunately has a teaching engagement at Berkeley University, California and is unable to be with us today). I am sure that you will agree that they represent an impressive group of trustees with which to launch a new trust for poetry.

You may be interested to know that over the past few days I have been asked the same questions over and over again. They are:

“From where has this idea of a trust for poetry come? And why poetry?”

The fact that these questions could be posed is, I submit, an indication of just how far poetry has slipped from the mainstream of our cultural lives.

This is a shame and more than anything else, serves as the justification and purpose for the establishment of the Griffin Trust.

Poetry speaks to the soul of a nation and its people, and these days, at least in North America, it seems to me that there is precious little that addresses the soul.

In my case, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where poetry was a feature of our lives. My parents, in particular my father, used it as both a weapon and a form of enlightenment. We were required to memorize it and recite it as a punishment for misdemeanors. On the other hand, we were permitted to stay up late and have it read to us aloud on those few occasions when we were able to muster decent behaviour.

And so perhaps it was natural that an idea such as this one should fall on fallow ground and quietly germinate over the years.

It was not until last January at a dinner with Michael Ondaatje and David Young that the idea really took hold, followed almost immediately by an enthusiastic endorsement from Margaret Atwood.

Surprisingly, quickly thereafter, with only one or two meetings, we were able to establish the following three principles behind the Griffin Trust:

The first was that the poetry prize had to be of sufficient size to make a statement, a statement that declared that poets and poetry are just as important as novelists and their works.

Too often, poets are relegated to the bottom of the cultural heap – and this is surprising since some of our best novelists were first poets and are still writing poetry. Witness the majority of our trustees with us here today.

The second principle, which was one that arose perhaps at my insistence more than that of the others, was that the selection of the trustees had to come from the literary community. There was no place really for bankers, accountants, businessmen or statesmen. The direction, strategy and above all the tone of the trust had to be set by poets for poetry – hence the composition of the trustees, myself excluded.

And thirdly, we all agreed that the trust had to be international in scale while not losing sight of our Canadian roots.

After all, poetry is universal, and it is hoped that this initiative will further Canadians’ interest in poetry from around the world while at the same time help promote Canadian poetry beyond our borders.

Now, it is finally my pleasure to announce to you the names of the judges for the selections of poetry submitted in the current year.

They are: Carolyn Forché, an American poetess, Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet, and Dennis Lee, one of our Canadian poets.

These judges will have the enviable task of selecting seven short listed poets whose names will be announced in April next year, and from this list will be selected the winners whose names will be announced in early June next year.

So there you have it – the beginnings and the first principles of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. Admittedly, it is just a beginning and we have “miles to go before I sleep,” but it is a fun beginning and we have a great team and a great idea and for all of us – “hope springs eternal.”

Thank you for coming and for being part of it – Thank you.

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Photo credit: Joy Von Tiedemann