It’s been just a little over two weeks since last I wrote and I can’t tell you how relaxing it is just to be able to sit here and daydream and ponder and meditate and generally commune with my self without being sent into fits of panicky shambolic distraction with thoughts of: “It’s coming, it’s nearly here – what have I forgotten, what am I supposed to do? What will go wrong?”
The Griffin Poetry Prize. It’s happened – it’s been awarded, it was here and now its gone, along with the judges, the Trustees, the parties, the performances, the caterers, the waiterers, the driver, the web mistress, the manager, the philanthropist (and his wife… everybody now!) the hotel concierge, the gorgeous gay party planner, the fabulous flower person, the assistants and staff members and bartenders and theatre managers (not to mention the union guys without whom you mayn’t touch a glass, or a table or a chair or a cushion with the word ‘POETRY’ emblazoned on its front on their stage without risking strike, walkout, or serious, cranky, brow-knit grumbling) and the couriers and the RCMP officers who guard the Governor General as though she was at permanent Code Red risk of assassination at all times (well, maybe…) the hors douevre makers (and there must be a few dozen of those folks right this minute resting their weary fingers from plaiting together several thousand miniature asparagus and duck liver ‘amouse bouche’ complete with chive garnish-type finger food) and the guests and the fans and the family members and the press, good, (by far the majority) and the press, bad, (people for whom the words ‘rude’ and ‘entitlement’ seem to have been specifically designed) and the poets.
The lovely, lovely poets, who were a constant surprise and a delight; real people – with giant, magical brains – layered, mysterious people, who see the world in a different way, and despite the fact that until recently nobody seemed to give a good goddamn about, created and create masterpieces of words and spaces that transform your understanding by providing a unique perspective, a perspective so distilled and pared down that the images and emotions are immediately and permanently seared into your memory and may actually change the way you think.
At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
They were cool is what I’m saying. Cool and nice and human and just a little strange, but a good strange, and quietly thrilled to bits to be recognized for that weird and marvelous and necessary esoteric thing they do.
And I, small cog in the vast machinery of proceedings that preceded the events (the Readings on June 1st and the Awards on June 2nd) and produced the events and supported the events from press releases to plane reservations, to airport pick-ups, to hotel check-in, to mapping and strategizing their individual schedules, to scooping them up and carrying them along and introducing them and amusing them and sometimes babysitting them or their children, and smoothing their way with the press and getting them where they needed to be on time (traffic, road construction, unforeseen screw-ups and confusion notwithstanding) and drank with them and ate with them and giggled with them and congratulated them and checked and re-checked their return reservations and somehow managed to get them into the passenger van and back to their hotel after a couple of long and liquid celebrations, got to see all this up close and extremely personal. And I got paid to do it.
So that’s where I’ve been the last couple of weeks – before and during; now I’m in the after – and that’s where my mind has been.
And I’ve learned much – and experienced much. And I can only now enjoy it in retrospect; in the present it was just too busy and too important to risk dropping a stitch by stopping to reflect. So here (distilled) are the highlights and lowlights of a PR Director’s experience of the Griffin Poetry Prize…
Highlight: Bright and early Wednesday morning I pick up Michael Symmons Roberts (British International nominee for ‘Corpus’) at the Park Hyatt and deliver him to the CBC for a radio interview with Mary Hynes of Tapestry. He is immediately warm and friendly, down to earth and delightful. Things are definitely looking up – my fears that the poets would be superior in mind (realized) and attitude (completely the opposite) are answered. I sit in with the technician and equally warm and friendly producer Susan Mahoney as MSR and the program host settle in for a fascinating discussion on the nature of God and the mystery of existence. Thoroughly enjoying myself, I am surprised into unstoppable sniffles as MSR reads from his BBC commissioned poem about 9/11 and the messages sent from the doomed victims to their families that day. I have never even considered crying over poetry and am deeply moved and considerably moistened by the experience.
Lowlight: None yet.
Highlight: After dropping MSR in the Kensington Market area for a quick relax and recce(where he bumps into his London-based publisher – and Griffin Trustee – Robin Robertson by complete accident) I hop into the Griffin-mobile with the Prize Manager for a couple of airport pickups.
I am assigned to collect Charles Simic (International nominee for ‘Collected Poems 1963-2003’ and eventual winner of the $50,000.00 International prize) who comes out of the customs area looking reassuringly exactly like his photograph (not a universal experience with the poets) and precisely on time.
Lowlight: From the look he bestows upon me I’m sure he thinks I’m a piece of blonde fluff and cannot imagine how he is going to maintain a straight face or polite conversation for the 30-45 minute drive to the hotel.
Lowlight: The Manager of the Prize is at another terminal collecting another poet (Fanny Howe – also an International nominee, for ‘On the Ground’) and asks us to keep circling the airport as Fanny has mysteriously disappeared and we cannot stop out front of the arrivals area. We circle for about an hour. (PS The slippery Ms Howe has somehow eluded the Manager and made her own way into the city. She is fine.)
Highlight: Charles and I get on like a house on fire: the 67 year old Yugoslavian born poet and professor at the University of New Hampshire who has seen both enormous suffering and great personal success and I discover we have a mutual antipathy for George Bush, the religious right, gun laws, the state of education and the Governor of California. What we don’t mind so much is Jimmy Carter, jokes and circling the airport for an hour plus the 45 minute drive back to Toronto as we chat and laugh and get to know one another. He says I can call him Charlie. I do.
Lowlight: We nip over to the MacMillan Theatre to see if everything is in hand for the evening’s Readings and right away I realize the poets, my boss and the Governor General of Canada will be kept in a holding pen offstage that could as easily be described as a pigpen. Union rules mean I must keep my itching to tidy (most certainly not a universal nor normal feeling for me) fingers to myself. The boss’s wife looks at me with some disappointment when she realizes I have not organized a proper crystal jug and tumblers for the thirsty poets and those who will introduce them onstage. My idea of plastic water bottles – easily transportable and unlikely to shatter when dropped by nervous fingers – is met with something close to disgust. Whoops.
Highlight: The extremely kind and patient stage manager sorts it out.
Highlight: After a quick trip home to feed the dog and change, I return to the hotel for the first of several hors douevres-fests that poses as the backdrop for a meet and greet of all the interested parties (poets, judges, trustees, family and friends, Scott and Krsytyne and minions) who hoover up snacks and cocktails with a gusto heretofore unimagined. I meet a couple of the Trustees for the first time (Atwood, Ondaatje, Robertson, Forche) and fall madly in love with the five year old daughter of British Judge Simon Armitage and his lovely BBC producer wife Sue, and promptly establish best friend status with the charming tap-dancing Emily.
I also meet the gold-braid and medal strewn Aide de Camp of the GG (and wouldn’t it be fun to have that job title on your resume) who turns out not to be the stiff and formal military geek we’d been expecting, with a mania for protocol and a gimlet eye for anyone who might trouble herself; turns out he is absolutely strict on protocol, but loose and easy with jokes and friendship. Great guy.
Lowest of the Lowlights: We troop en masse to the Macmillan Theatre, an easy and pleasant five minute stroll from the swank hotel at University and Bloor, and within moments of entering the building off Philosopher’s Walk, I lead everyone (poets, GG, posse and boss) to the wrong location. We must climb two flights of stairs to get to the actual location of the holding pen. I – carrying about ten pounds of soft drinks, juice and bottled water for the potentially parched poets – race madly around before leading them shame-faced and perspiring to the correct door. “We are not amused” practically in neon over the GG’s fixed and grim professional smile. I shudder. I carry on.
Highlight: The MacMillan is packed to the rafters. 800 plus poetry lovers can’t be wrong.
Highlight: They’re not wrong. The first half of the program goes off without a hitch and to much applause and raucous hoots and hollers of approval. (Like the old dog pound on Arsinio Hall. “Woof, woof, woof, WOOF!” You don’t remember Arsinio? Geez…)
Low, lowlight: We discover at intermission that the bookseller hasn’t delivered any copies of fourth and final International poet (and babe-magnet) Matt Rohrer’s nominated book 'Green Light'.
Highlight: The second half is even more exciting and the crowd is clearly experiencing paroxysms of joy as the Canadian poets read: Roo Borson – the eventual $50,000.00 Canadian winner for ‘Short Journey Upriver Towards Oishida’ - George Bowering, former Poet Laureate, all around good guy and author of ‘Changing on the Fly’ and previous nominee Don MacKay who brings down the house with his reading from his nominated work ‘Camber’. Success is ours! Margaret Atwood presents each with a leather bound copy of their work and the crowd goes wild!
Low lowlight Part 2: A crowd of teenage girls swarms the bookstall looking for copies of Matt Rohrer’s book to take to the autograph line for him to sign and for them to preen and giggle over. Horrors. There are no copies of 'Green Light'. Dozens of everyone else’s, including work by the judges and Trustees, but nothing for the boyish (and happily married – down girls) poet. The teens (and not a few middle aged gals) purchase the Anthology so as to have something to present to the Tigerbeat-worthy Rohrer.
Low lowlight Part 3: Rohrer’s publisher –a dead ringer for scary guy actor Eric Bogosian – leaps upon me with undisguised rage. “Unprofessional… simply not good enough… humiliating… disgraceful… stupid…” and so on. There’s nothing I can do. I cravenly thank God I’m not responsible as I listen and nod and apologize, activities which do nothing to assuage his temper, but seem to strangely egg him on. I introduce him to the tall cool drink of water who is the manager of the Prize, and he crumbles like cheap, dry cookie. She has something, this Ruth.
And we really are sorry: how often does a poet get a chance to sell books like this? Not just dollars, but poetry converts are lost to the shortsightedness of the bookseller, who didn’t even think to alert us. Bastard. May he die of a thousand paper cuts, or just receive a thousand paper cuts. Whatever. Matt Rohrer remains calm and never complains. He is, after all, that classiest of cultural personages: the poet.
Highlight: The signing over, the poets relaxed and happy now that the built up tension of anticipating reading their most private thoughts to 800 plus people, practically gambol in their delight, over the intersection and down the street to Prego Della Piazza for more finger food and gallons of liquor.
Lowlight: My feet – in brand new stilettos, they-felt-fine-in-the-shop – are officially killing me after spending the last three hours standing on the hard as rock backstage area at the MacMillan. I must find a seat. I do. I never move from it until it’s time for me to go.
Highlight: Luckily, the Aide de Camp is happy to provide personal bartending services and since the food floats by with no effort on my part, I am refreshed.
Highlight: I awake ready and hangover-free and looking forward to embark upon part two of our literary relay. First up: taking the three judges (also internationally renowned poets) to the CBC for a chat with bookish radio host (and calm gentle person) Eleanor Wachtel, who will quiz them on poetry in the 21st Century and the judging of same.
Lowlight (for the judges): Two out of three are feeling tired and emotional – break the code yourself – as I try to herd them into the Griffin-mobile for the trip to the broadcast centre. Coffee helps a bit, but quite frankly, they’re suffering.
Highlight: We arrive on time (my new favourite hobby) and are met by the funny and charming producer Lisa, who hustles us up and settles them down and brings in the host and then relaxes with me and the technician on the other side of the studio glass as the interview unfolds. We enjoy ourselves.
Highlight: Lo and behold, over-refreshing oneself is clearly no barrier to intellectual chitchat, as the three (Brit Simon Armitage, Canadian Erin Moure and Slovenian Tomaz Salamun) stun us with their insights and articulateness. Armitage actually uses the word ‘hegemony’ in conversation. I am so low, I have only ever read it on the page before. Clearly my stock is rising with the company I keep.
Highlight: After the CBC, it’s off to the Kensington Kitchen for a rooftop luncheon where the poets will receive a copy of this year’s anthology. It’s a beautiful book inside and out and so is the lunch – outside and inside of us, I mean.
Lowlight: I am denied life-giving sustenance and dispatched to pick up another dozen or so copies of the anthology, as the trustees and judges want copies too.
Highlight: It’s a gorgeous day and since I haven’t spent much time alone recently, I thoroughly enjoy the easy errand.
Highlight: I return before the food has been taken away and am able to share a plate with my new best friend Emily, who graciously invites me to read the journal she’s keeping of the trip away from her home in Yorkshire. (And the kid can write. Witty stuff too.) After lunch, while all the poets and people are swapping anthologies for each other’s autographs exactly like yearbooks on the last day of high school, Emily and I paste stickers in her book with the help of last year’s International winner (for 'The Strange Hours Travellers Keep')and this year’s host of the Awards, August Kleinzahler. He is so gentle and patient, so focused and intent on the little girl, I am charmed completely by the San Francisco based writer. (He includes her in his speech that night, describing Simon Armitage as “his friend Emily’s father”. She is transported.)
Highlight: I go home to take a quick nap.
Lowlight: I cannot nap. An extremely rude member of the press calls me and demands a copy of the anthology so she can read the book before completing her story that night (this is at 4:30 on the afternoon of the awards) practically accusing me of trying to keep it from her. I have actually been trying to provide her with information and story ideas since April, but I bite my tongue and arrange for the publisher to provide and a courier to deliver (rush) and get the book to her within the half hour. She seems to be unaware of the quaint custom of please or thank you, but thank heaven, she’s one of the very few.
Highlight: Dressed in a cream-coloured sheath, I arrive an hour before the guests are set to arrive and am given a tour of the Stone Distillery – the home of the awards ceremony – and am astonished to be entering what I kid you not, is a pale green fairyland, compete with grass and fountains and trees and butterflies everywhere. It is simply stunning, and the man responsible for the dinner is simply stunning as well. He responds to any plea for help in the midst of providing a three course dinner (smoked fish and rack of lamb and chocolate beyond your wildest dreams) with wine to compliment and drinks for those who’d prefer, for about 350 people, with humour and warmth, and more importantly, good answers. He tells me I am doing a great job – and I think he means it. I am his forever more. If I could only dispose of his boyfriend, all would be well.
High and Low lights: The evening passes in a blur. I spend the cocktail hour ferrying poets between cameras and microphones and reporters, I try to greet as many of the mysterious and until now faceless members of the press as possible, but am torn and dragged thither and yon, trying to please all of the people all of the time. Lincoln was right, but I do my best, supported by the gorgeous and helpful videographer who’s been down this road before, and the talented photographer who can point out an obscure literary figure at 50 paces. Both conspire to make my evening a success. I can do nothing but thank them.
The speech, the speech – finally. Scott Griffin stands up in a shirt of such blinding and flattering tropical blue I’m surprised the audience can even make out what he’s saying he’s so gorgeous. In his early 60’s he’s a total babe. He’s a small giant among men; an entrepreneur/philanthropist/family man, who in his spare and holiday time gives away hundreds and thousands of dollars in a one man effort to save poetry from terminal obscurity, and flys his plane to Africa to transport doctors and medicine around AIDS-ridden regions in an effort to save children from terminal disease. He’s funny, self-deprecating and quick to introduce August, who gives a keynote so insightful and funny, the crowd is overwhelmed. A cable TV camera-toting youth who I’d dismissed as callow (it was his hair – I admit it) afterward said it was the most important and moving address he’d ever heard. He was lit up with excitement. From a speech. About poetry.
It’s at about this point a camera crew from The National who’ve been hanging around for a couple of hours says they cannot stick around for the winner who was scheduled to be announced by Peter Mansbridge live in the final segment. There’s not enough time – could we please cough up the names of the winners. Scott Griffin is unmoved; even he doesn’t know who the winner is and he has pledged never to give it up to the press; the prize and the poets do not exist to serve the Fourth Estate – if he loses coverage, que sera. Principled to the end – nothing, not the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The National Post, Peter Mansbridge and the full power of the 10 o’clock national news (all of whom have demanded in a very highhanded ‘I am the press’ kind of way for an embargoed early peek ) will sway him.
The CBC (some of them anyway, we still have our lovely and loyal radio contingent) departs moments before the winners are announced – surprise, happiness, disappointment, excitement, tears, laughter and the usual assortment of over-the-top reactions. Charlie Simic and Roo Borson are both genuinely shocked and overwhelmed. (Are they thinking ‘Toodle-oo VISA bill… ha ha car payment”? Or is it something finer and more worthy than that? I don’t know because I don’t ask.)
My job now is to swing the winners through the press once again and the all important Eleanor Wachtel interviews are – for sake of sound difficulties – conducted once again outside in Ms Wachtel’s personal automobile. Once a shame, now a tradition. We like it that way.
For the rest of the crowd, it’s dancing and more drinking and an outrageous chocolate fountain spilling over fruit and marshmallows and other tidbits for dessert. Coffees and cocktails and cookies and the music of the 70’s and 80’s is all over the former 19th century factory, and despite the celebrations and lively enjoyment, it still looks like a pale green fairyland. MY duties complete, I dance and play with Emily, exchanging paste-on tattoos from Anansi Press (after two showers, mine still adorns my shoulder) and stickers from her sticker book.
The last of the poets is poured into the 15 seater Griffin-mobile sometime after 1:30 AM, after which the driver (Ralph – a calm and helpful presence throughout) takes me home. And that’s it.
Sole lowlight: My feet are killing me.
It’s over. The cheques have been written, the sets have been struck, the poets have departed and in 10 days the Griffin team leaves for Ireland and the Dublin Writers Festival where we will participate in the company of some more of some of the greatest writers and poets in the world.
And all I can think is: “It’s coming, it’s nearly here – what have I forgotten, what am I supposed to do? What will go wrong?”