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Being Ousted from the Best Seat at the Griffin Poetry Prize

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Bernard Gauthier (Bravo TV) and myself arrived early at the Griffin Poetry Prize award dinner in Toronto on June 7. The Distillery District hall doors had only been open for a few minutes. We were one of the first to be welcomed by Scott and Krystyne Griffin, the founders and funders of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. The prize is the largest annual award for a single book of poetry in the world.

I had trouble hearing our hosts because of the Mexican mariachi band that had just begun to tune up. I am sure I would have heard all the details about the seating arrangements if I leaned a little closer in.

We entered the large exposed brick space that was once used for the fermentation of millions of gallons of liquor. The room soon began to fill with everyone I have read in the past 10 years. Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Christopher Dwedney, Richard Gwyn. There were TV stars journalists, and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.

More and more people poured into the space. It was an elbows-up cocktail hour. This was going to be a sold-out show. Bernard and I worried we would get separated and not be able to sit together when the dinner bell rang.

We decided to stake a claim at one of the round dining tables. I placed my car keys and glass of beer on the table. Bernard put his notes and bag on a chair beside me. We went our different ways, promising to meet up when the dinner began.

The supper announcement was made and I sat down at our table. Soon I was joined by a man I had met at a Huffington Post party a week before: the recently released Conrad Black. He had out-dressed me. He was joined by his wife Barbara Amiel, whom I used to see when I helped out at Maclean's 15 years ago. Our table started to fill up with Murray Frum and an actress whose name I was told and promptly forgot.

No one spoke to me. One couple standing nearby glared. No Bernard. I hung onto his seat as long as I could.

But soon, the iron gaze behind me made it obvious that this table was not an open seating spot. I gave up my chair (and Bernard's too) to an annoyed elderly couple who seemed to know everyone at the table.

Not a bum's rush but I blushed none the same. I grabbed Bernard's bag and made my escape. We met up at the media table. CBC, CP, filmmakers, photographer Tom Sandler: They laughed at my story and one bun got tossed my way. We had a good meal. A lot of laughs!

David Harsent's Night and Ken Babstock's Methodist Hatchet were the international and Canadian winners of the 2012 annual Griffin Poetry Prize. They each received $65,000 in prize money. As we were leaving I handed Bernard back his bag. "Mon ami," he said, "that is not my bag, where did you get it?"

It had been on the chair beside Lord Black. I was going to return it to their table, but you know, at the age 60, I try to only blush once a day. I found one of the organizers, told her what had happened, gave her the satchel and very quickly disappeared into the night.