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Canada's Next Top Poetry Stars
High school students will lead the revival of poetry in Canada. Meet three champs of the first national Poetry in Voice competition

Poetry in Voice’s national finalists last night with Scott and Krystyne Griffin

It is often propagated that poetry is a dying art. Not if Scott Griffin has anything to do with it. In 2000, Griffin founded The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry aimed at “awareness of the crucial role poetry plays in our cultural life.” Since its inception — with the support of trustees Margaret Atwood, Carolyn Forché, Robert Hass, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson, and David Young — the Prize has become the world’s largest of its kind for a first edition single collection of poetry. This mission gave way to Poetry in Voice, a competition that sees high school students recite contemporary and classical poems to promote the preservation of the art form in the classroom and beyond. Originally conceived three years ago in Ontario, the 2013 edition marks the first time Poetry in Voice has gone national. Drawing in submissions from all corners of the country, 39 finalists converged on Toronto for a full week of cultural immersion, including workshops led by famed wordsmiths Stuart Ross and Swann Paradis, as well as an afternoon of art and poetry with Atwood at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 

Divided into three streams (English, French and Bilingual), The Poetry in Voice process is a rigorous pyramid to climb: students compete in classroom contests before continuing to a school-wide showdown. Winning performances are recorded and submitted to the online semifinals, which then produces the finalists. But it’s worth it: with $25,000 in prizes, first place winners take home $5,000 plus $1,000 for their school library, and no student walks away without a cheque and funds for book budgets. Hosted by Johanne Blais of CBC Radio’s C’est la vie, last night was the competition’s apex as the nine surviving finalists from round one faced off for a panel of discerning judges, including Order of Canada member Fiona Reid, journalist wonder woman Lynn Crosbin, and Griffin Poetry Prize nominee Kevin Connolly.

But you don’t have to look far to find this kind of soothing cultural spectacle in Toronto. Our slam scene is on fire: The Art Bar Poetry Series, Canada’s longest-running poetry series that goes down every Tuesday at Q Space (382 College St.), featuring three readings from local poets reciting original material with an open mic to close the night. There’s also the Toronto Poetry Slam, a twice-monthly spoken word jam in The Drake Hotel’s Underground space that also sees judges vote on each poem and amateurs speak their truths. In order to really foster the next generation of poets, my only counsel for the Poetry in Voice process would be to urge students to present original works, perhaps creating an entirely new stream devoted to it.

Meet the three Poetry in Voice champions below. (Oh, and FYI: interested educators can already register for the 2014 edition.)

Sarah Kordlouie, 15, French First Prize Champion 

Alma mater: Montreal’s Villa Sainte-Marcelline

Poems: Charles Baudelaire’s “Spleen”;  François Malherbe’s “Dessein de quitter une dame qui ne le contentait que de promesses

Non-literary hobby: Playing piano

Idol: Mother

Future aspirations: Doctor

The performance: Kordlouie floated along the stage, more secure and audacious than she appears in conversation, to deliver a missive wrapped in delicate, sweet tones filled with hope and hurt, as if each stanza could be torn and placed within the pages of Les Mis

On getting involved: “At first it wasn’t a choice, but if we wanted to continue, then we could. I really came to like poetry, so I did.”

On choosing the material: “The narrators are all in the first person, so I thought I could relate more to the poems.”

On high school: “I don’t know if my school is normal because it’s all girls. But it’s all good.”

On kids and poetry: “I don’t really think kids connect to poetry because it’s not something we usually read. Also, the way that words are used, even common ones, can make it hard to understand the meaning of the poem, so maybe [kids] can’t relate to it.”

Khalil Mair, 15, Bilingual First Prize Champion

Alma mater: Toronto French School

Poems: Elizabeth Bachinsky’s “Wolf Lake”; Albert Samain’s “Il est d’étranges soirs…

Non-literary hobby: Biking

Idol: Hilary Clinton

Future aspirations: Poet or international relations

The performance: As the only male to advance to the top nine national finalists, Mair brought carefully-considered ease and controlled passion to Bachinsky’s dark, haunting subject matter of sexual abuse 

On getting involved: “Personally, it was not a choice — we did it as a course assignment. But I love poetry, so naturally I was drawn to do as well as I could in [the competition].”

On choosing the material: “The choice of my two poems was centered around my English poem [“Wolf Lake”] because I loved it so much — it was the last poem I looked at. I was looking through the Canadian section and I started reading the last few lines and absolutely fell in love with it.”

On poetry outside of the classroom: “I hardly write anything other than poetry and I love reading it. I do slam poetry as well, so that’s mostly what I do in terms of literature. It’s hard for kids to connect to poetry because it’s not something we grow up reading — we grow up reading novels and fiction. People don’t grow up being used to poetry, so I think you have to ready one poem and get really into it or be nurtured with poetry.”

On high school: “Oh golly. My school doesn’t really have a high school, it’s grade six to 12 in the same building — it’s different than what you’d imagine. It’s normal, nothing bad.”

Kyla Kane, 18, English First Prize Champion

Alma mater: Vancouver Technical Secondary School

Poems: Lady Mary Chudleigh’s “To the Ladies”; Don McKay’s “Sometimes a Voice (1)”; Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago

Non-literary hobby: Drama

Future aspirations: Actress

Idols: Tom Hardy, Leonardo DiCaprio and Old Christine in the New Adventures of Old Christine

The performance: Among the eldest competitors, Kane brought bravado, with a light sprinkling of camp, to her recitations as each poem became a monologue in her one-woman show. Her closer, “Chicago”, brought the theatre to its knees. The makings of a powerful stage actress, you’d think instinctually       

On getting involved: “I do the morning announcements at school, so I read the announcement for it and though, ‘Hey, I can do this!’”

On choosing the material: “I just related to all three of the poems in a different way, and I made a personal connection to all of them.”

On poetry outside of the classroom: “I do read poetry. I love when I listen to music, I pay attention to the lyrics mostly — it’s all I care about. I like words.”

On high school: “I like it, and it is just crazy in every way. But I’m so excited to move on to a different chapter. I think that a lot of high school students just don’t read a lot of poetry, but when we’re forced to, in class, anyone can make a connection to a poem. They always do.”


Paul Aguirre-Livingston is a Toronto-based writer and guest editor at Toronto Standard. Find him on Twitter or online.

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