TORONTO—When Soraya Peerbaye first learned of the brutal slaying of Vancouver Island teen Reena Virk, the Toronto poet recalled being haunted by the harrowing nature of the crime.
“Like many people across the country, I was just struck by the details of the story: the youth of the assailants and their gender and, of course, the sheer brutality of it,” said Peerbaye.
In November 1997, Virk was swarmed by a crowd of mostly girls under a bridge in the Victoria area. After the 14-year-old was beaten, she limped across the bridge followed by Kelly Ellard and Warren Glowatski. A trial later found the duo continued the beating and held Virk’s head underwater until she drowned.
Ellard is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, and was denied parole May 3. Glowatski, who was also convicted of second-degree murder, was given full parole in 2010.
Peerbaye was in the courtroom for Ellard’s 2004 trial—which ended in a mistrial—and was present again for the 2005 trial when Ellard was found guilty.
Peerbaye’s exploration of Virk’s story has extended into her creative work with the anthology “Tell: Poems for a Girlhood” (Pedlar Press).
The collection is one of three Canadian titles nominated for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, which will be awarded at a Toronto gala on June 2. “Tell” was also recently shortlisted for the Ontario Trillium Book Award for Poetry.
“The work doesn’t delve into biography,” Peerbaye said of the anthology. “It’s not an attempt to say who (Virk) was, and it’s not an attempt to position myself as an authority of her experience….
“It’s really a reflection—and almost a critique—of the public literature, the trials and how she was seen by the witnesses or the Crown … and how her identity and her agency were described by those narratives.”
Peerbaye drew on court transcripts which she described as “very troubling—maybe even more so than watching the trials.”
“There were so many small and slight details that were brought up … and when you’re reading the transcript, it all seems even. In a way, it’s all kind of flat, like there’s no emotion, there’s no intonation.
“So, the feeling of an expert witness testifying to the tides doesn’t actually feel different from a young person describing participating in the assault. The texture of those words is the same.”
“In a way, it actually makes you watch more closely. There were things that I read in the transcript that I don’t think I would have caught otherwise.”
Peerbaye said she found writing the poems in “Tell” challenging in ways she hadn’t anticipated.
“I think part of it was that it was a strange imaginative exercise to try to take myself through—and then it was also an impossible exercise,” she said.
“The intensity of suffering and fear and loneliness she must have experienced, I think, is truly unimaginable.”
Also from Canada in contention for the Griffin prize is “Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments” (Brick Books) by Danish poet Ulrikka S. Gernes. The work was translated by Canadian collaborators Per Brask and Patrick Friesen.
Rounding out the Canadian nominees is northern Ontario writer Liz Howard for “Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent” (McClelland & Stewart).