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Scott Griffin brings poetry into Canadian schools

Canadian literary benefactor Scott Griffin is taking his passion for poetry “ in particular, the live recitation of poetry “ into schools across Canada with a new bilingual recitation contest that will award $10,000 to students and school libraries.

Griffin announced the initiative, known as Poetry in Voice, at a press conference in Toronto on Tuesday. A pilot program is currently underway at a dozen Ontario high schools, and the plan is to expand to Quebec in 2011“12 and across the country in 2012“13.

Griffin, who recites a favourite poem from memory at each annual Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist announcement, spoke of the importance of recitation in discovering poetry. “The best way to know a poem short of writing it is to memorize it,” he said. “It’s amazing how different emotional settings or scenes will resurrect that particular poem because it strikes exactly what you’re experiencing at the time.”

Griffin wants to change the negative attitude many people have toward the rote memorization of poetry. “We hope this program … will excite students to want to memorize [poetry], and then they will discover the value of the poem,” he said.

Students participating in the pilot program can choose three poems from an online anthology that currently comprises more than 100 English-language and 25 French-language poems in the public domain, as selected by Poetry in Voice director Damian Rogers (author of the collection Paper Radio, published by ECW Press) and three-time Governor General’s Literary Award“winning poet Pierre Nepveu.

According to Rogers, the contest will serve as a platform for bringing Canadian literature and contemporary poets into schools. “I want students to make the connection that poetry is part of the Canadian cultural landscape across the country,” said Rogers, who added that the group is currently in the process of securing rights to contemporary and Canadian poems.

Competing students will be judged according to a variety of criteria, including physical presence, voice and articulation, accuracy, and dramatization. Griffin says students who choose to recite at least one poem in their non-native tongue will have a slight advantage over other competitors.

The province-wide finalists will face off on April 12 at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, with the winning student receiving $5,000, plus an additional $2,500 for the student’s school library. The runner-up will receive $1,000 (plus $500 for the library), while the third-place student will receive $500 (plus $500 for the library).

In addition to the $10,000 earmarked for the Poetry in Voice program, the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry will hand out $200,000 to the nominees of the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize.