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The Chat: Griffin Poetry Prize Roundtable 2022

We’re so pleased to once again partner with our friends at the Griffin Poetry Prize to spotlight each of this year’s Canadian finalists in a special roundtable edition of The Chat.

This year’s shortlisted Canadian titles include Dream of No One but Myself (Brick Books) by David Bradford; Letters in a Bruised Cosmos (McClelland and Stewart) by Liz Howard; and The Junta of Happenstance by Tolu Oloruntoba (Palimpsest Press). The winners of both the Canadian and International prizes will be announced June 15.


David Bradford is a poet and editor based in Tioh’tia:ke (Montréal). He holds a BA from Concordia University and an MFA from the University of Guelph. A lifelong Montrealer, Bradford’s work formally engages and frustrates dominant conceptions of Blackness in the Diaspora. His poetry has appeared in, among others, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, filling Station, The Capilano Review, Carte Blanche, and anthologized in The Unpublished City, a 2018 Toronto Book Awards finalist. He is the author of several chapbooks, including Call Out (2017), Nell Zink Is Damn Free (2017), and The Plot (2018). Bradford’s first book, Dream of No One but Myself,  is an interdisciplinary inquiry into the versioning aspects of his and his family’s histories with abuse and trauma.


Liz Howard was born and raised in northern Ontario. She received an Honours Bachelor of Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto. Her poetry has appeared on Canadian literary journals such as The Capilano Review, The Puritan, and Matrix Magazine. Her chapbook Skullambient was shortlisted for the 2012 bpNichol Chapbook Award. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph and works as a research officer in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto.


Tolu Oloruntoba is the author of chapbook Manubrium, shortlisted for the 2020 bpNichol Chapbook Award. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, PRISM International, Columbia Journal, Obsidian, and Canadian Literature, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His short fiction has appeared in translation in Dansk PEN Magazine. He practised medicine before his current work managing projects for health authorities in British Columbia. After a somewhat itinerant life in Nigeria and the United States, he emigrated to the Greater Vancouver Area, where he lives with his family in the territories of the Semiahmoo, Katzie, and Kwantlen First Nations.


What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for the 2022 Griffin Prize?


Liz Howard: I called my mom. I think she was concerned at first by the pitch of my voice but became very excited when I told her the news.

David Bradford: I was in a work meeting when I heard! Messages and calls had my phone buzzing non-stop and finally I decided to investigate when my publisher’s call popped up. It was sweet to hear it from her first, and directly from the Griffin shortly thereafter.

First thing I did was take a break from the meeting lol. Then I jumped online to share the news, share the other finalists, reshare the news, returned all the lovely messages headed my way. And somewhere in the heat of the moment I ordered a camping mattress I’d been pining for.

Tolu Oloruntoba: I’d been making breakfast so I went to tell my partner. I immediately asked her not to hug me as tightly as she had in November when the Governor General’s Literary Award was announced, because she might have cracked my ribs then.

We’re living a period of great social and political upheaval. How does poetry speak to the current moment in ways other art forms cannot?


TO: Poetry speaks to every moment. This is especially required when the pace and content of what is happening makes it hard to parse what is going on. Poetry helps us access the unsayable, and to make some sense of the world, even if only on a subliminal level. We may find ourselves in a poem; it may help us align our scattered emotions; it can help us identify with the “other”; it can give us what we need: shelter, hope, or excitement; and it can show us we are not alone. Conflict, war, inequality, disasters, the plague, institutionalized hatred, and the continuing greed and brutality of empire may want to intimidate us into fatalism, but poetry can give us comfort, vision, and fire. This is my hope, anyway.


Poetry speaks to every moment. This is especially required when the pace and content of what is happening makes it hard to parse what is going on.

DB: A lot of things will do when you call it poetry that might not quite do otherwise. There’s something about the form that’s become shorthand for inquiry, for formulating the question, for describing experiencing the problem. I don’t know that poetry is big on explicit answers, and I trust that. But I do think poems and poetry books are, at their best, big on nuance, ambiguity, ending up somewhere new. There are cut-and-dry right and wrong sides to a lot of the upheavals we’re living through, but there aren’t always cut-and-dry obvious answers to where we’re headed, how we got here, what needs making or unmaking, what we do with the bad things, bad ways, bad ones, how to carry the good ones with us every day. Poetry might not have answers either, but it has tools to temper and grow them, to get to the next set of questions, to document the impasse, like a landscape, and describe a walk through it.

LH: Poetry is capacious, diverse, and perhaps even adaptive, or at least responsive. Its infinite possibilities can offer analysis, solace, solidarity, reframing, and necessary dissent. Poetry, in foregrounding language, can present us with information that is self-referencing, “meta”, or otherwise challenging in ways that have the potential to shift consciousness. Often it can accomplish this within an economy of compression and also its capacity to hold uncertainty, “the unsaid,” the white space of the page (a silence that speaks), and what is written “between the lines.” 

Was there a pivotal moment in your own journey toward poetry? Did you choose poetry, or did poetry choose you?


DB: I think the first time, I chose poetry. It felt like a way to stay alive. And then for years I stopped writing it, tried to do other things, because the poets that were around weren’t people I wanted anything to do with.


I think the first time, I chose poetry. It felt like a way to stay alive.

I think the second time, though, poetry chose me. A couple of years before I’d really write about family stuff, my father died and poetry started coming out again. And then poems about other things than family, steadily, for a long time. There was no stopping after that second time.

TO: When I was about 17 or 18, I wrote a few poems about events in my family, but I presented them with a fantastical slant that transformed them. I hadn’t really considered myself a poet before then, but the evidence before me: new objects that made order where there had been chaos, transforming my inchoate rage and confusion into harmless objects outside of myself, that calmed my anxieties and lifted me when I read them again, gave me the validation I needed to continue. Those early poems would be embarrassing now, if I could find them, but they did their job. I would have chosen poetry, and earlier, if I had known how it would save me. But I merely stumbled upon it, and it has been good to and for me.

LH: There are three strands of experience that converge for me into a kind of an origin story. The first was discovering a high school copy of Macbeth in a box of my mother’s things when I was six or seven. Reading had been a hard won skill for me. I remember pouring over books that had been donated to us when I was five and just staring at the pages and trying to “will” the marks to reveal their secrets to me and they did, eventually. I probably didn’t understand much of Macbeth but the core imagery of witches, a murdered king, and a sleepwalking queen stuck with me as did the meter/style of their speech. It was like an earworm and I found my own thoughts calibrating to that “tune.” I started writing what I was thinking/hearing in small diaries and notebooks.

The second was when I was 10 or 11 and a friend took me to the town library. There was a whole shelf of Shakespeare in the “Drama” section right beside “Poetry” which I gradually meandered through. I remember taking out an anthology of “modern verse” that contained Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke, and books by Canadian poets. I loved the iconoclasm of Irving Layton, the sensuousness of Lenard Cohen, the sea-witchery of Susan Musgrave, how Margaret Atwood seemed to be writing of the north I was living in, and the shape of Phyllis Webb’s poems. I found these influences moving into my own work and reading Susan Musgrave’s creative nonfiction brought me to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. They gave me permission to write about all the things I was told to keep hidden.

The third was that around this time of heavy reading and writing I was moved into the basement of the house to make way for my youngest brother. Our house was on the highway out of town, between a graveyard and a swamp, and was otherwise surrounded by the bush. I dreamt one night that my screaming woke up the dead and when I left the house in my dream there were coming from the graveyard to air their complaints. When I woke up I realized that I was sleeping and dreaming at the same level as the dead were buried a few metres away, about six feet below ground. I came to see my writing and my dreaming as coextensive and in conversation with the unknown, with the ancestral, and with being an embodied presence in the land. I think by that time poetry had chosen me but I didn’t fully “give over” to it until years later. Happy that I did!

I came to see my writing and my dreaming as coextensive and in conversation with the unknown, with the ancestral, and with being an embodied presence in the land.

What Canadian poetry collections have moved or inspired you recently?

LH: I’ve been savouring Lisa Robertson’s Boat which just came out from Coach House this month. Lisa is my favourite writer (full stop) and a former mentor and just holding a new book of hers is an event. I had the honour of writing a blurb for Matthew James Weigel’s Whitemud Walking (Coach House Books) which is a phenomenal achievement of a book and I also lent a few words of support to Selina Boan’s exquisite collection Undoing Hours (Nightwood Editions) which I can’t recommend enough. I’ve also been taking solace and instruction re the possibility of grace in Adam Sol’s Broken Dawn Blessings (ECW Press).

DB: I’ve been writing a bit about M. NourbeSe Philip, thinking about the ongoing life of Zong!, which feels like it’s grown so much since its publication. Looking back through the work and how it’s evolved out loud, in performance and in collaboration, over the years, it has me thinking a lot about the bigger possibilities of a work’s life after publication, and the prospect of a social space a work might make, that a practice might nurture. It has me thinking about making something with the potential to beget practices and spaces for the work to keep going.

TO: There are so many, but I’ll mention three: Pebble Swing, by Isabella Wang, Washes, Prays, by Noor Naga, and Intruder, by Bardia Sinaee.

What would winning this year’s Griffin Prize mean for you?

TO: Oh, likely just the usual combination of self-consciousness, bewilderment, and impostor syndrome that currently have me in a choke-hold.

LH: I don’t mean to be precious but I really can’t entertain the thought of winning, especially after having already experienced that honour. The nomination itself was so unexpected. I’ve been so inexpressibly happy that this recognition might mean the book will find more readers, readers who need it. I suppose a win might mean more readers and less worry about dental bills.

DB: This is kind of the dream, right? I think it’s already been such a shift—in position, in fortune, in responsibility. I feel like I haven’t come to it in disbelief, but I definitely haven’t come to it as a given either.

To win, though—I often think of this thing Jalen Rose says about NBA players: unreasonable amounts of confidence are required to pursue this. Unreasonable amounts of work, too. A lot of people, people who were really interested in this book, didn’t really see how it could work. I already know the unreasonable confidence paid off. I also know the stretches of intensely sitting alone ruffling papers that this work required. It’s been such a gift to see this book mean something to folx, to see it be of use to them. If I was hopefully, unreasonably confident of something, it was of that. If one thing really kept me working, it was that.

I think that’s what I’d like winning to mean. To know these impasses, these bits of endless digging I’m unreasonably drawn to—with Dream of, with the next things—to know the ways I choose to describe these experiences and problems are of use to people. I hope it’ll be a feeling that this whole unreasonably way of going after this thing was to play it the right way. That I was right to trust myself. That people are pretty glad I did. That for the next while at least it’s me, and a growing number of them, and the unreasonable. And so to keep after it all, unreasonably.




PMS winter solstice, the hereditary gist of a fractal
interior. I buried another yesterday by the back door
of this expanding universe just before I dreamt in Gmail.
As if all new visions visit digitally: a reply all cri de coeur
from Athens, a bcc-promoted punk tour streamed via a cave
system linked to the romantic history of strange quarks.
Spooky action at a distance. I slid down a snow bank into a
northern stream and then you smiled as if you like me now,
now that my ass is wet. At midnight that stream became the
border between New France and my dream of being intelligible.
Then I’m awake in the garage with my firstborn thought.
A thought that sublimates into a braid of snowflakes.
What could offer me an office in the February pension:
a warmth that only makes its way into the deepest
pockets. A novice love that can’t help but become
a flight risk.

From Letters in a Bruised Cosmos by Liz Howard
Copyright © 2021 by Liz Howard



The tannins have browned your double skin,
your cowhide robe, your velvet heart,
your handle, your pommel, the cruel knot
at the bottom good for long-range whipping.
Your two strands graceful, a denial,
a DNA of violence, your slender arms
foldable into switchblade elbows,
fetchable from the bottom drawer upstairs,
beside the thing stolen from me
for taking the thing that wasn’t mine.

From The Junta of Happenstance by Tolu Oloruntoba
Copyright © 2021 by Tolu Oloruntoba



like patched-up drywall
New hope in wallpapering
True love yellows lousy with flowers

Then that bratty medley of
pink moon and purple rain
Deep water over latex Good old neon
Old smartass 2 oz. pac blood All
those second thoughts Pastel blues
minding winter like street salt

Then blessed rancid golden-hour greens
Shade and leaves like frosted tips
Illest accents Way before this

Brushed over salt peanuts
and rank citizens Zink oxide
Antique blacks all up in whites
right up to the little edges

Fleshed out long talks
in all them good voices

and ain’t no one scares

From Dream of No One But Myself by David Bradford
Copyright © 2021 by David Bradford

Author photo credits: Sarah Bohdri (David Bradford); Ralph Kolewe (Liz Howard); Franctal Studios (Tolu Oloruntoba)

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