Saturday, December 1, 2007

The uneasy fit between poetry and awards

I've been a regular reader of Alex Good's website for interesting links and thoughtful book reviews for some time now ( He recently held his fourth annual Runaway Jury (with Carmine Starnino and Paul Vermeersch) to reassess the GG poetry selections. The most interesting comment I think came from Carmine who said "This country is bursting at the seams with word-happy, form-shifting poets hungry for change and constantly on the look-out for what Auden called "new rhetoric." But rather than tracking this large-scale shift, this leap into "new rhetoric," this year’s jury produced a shortlist that feels like a standing hop." Zach Wells, another one my favourites, also commented on this ( Carmine may be right, but my thought was that the most interesting moves artistically have always taken place away from the centre, at the margins. Why should the Canada Council (or any other cultural institution) be expected to "track" changes in artistic innovation. They are by definition certifiers of a cultural norm, a standard that is acceptable and typically already widely accepted ("bluechip," Carmine calls it.) The Domanski choice is eminently understandable in this regard (as is the tendency to award authors for their careers instead of their books.) In the arts there is no more uncomfortable fit then awards for poetry. This also begs the question of the role of public funding for poetry production and publication and whether it is relevant and even needed any longer. It seems to me that poetry is flourishing in print and online because the means are available to inexpensively produce, re-produce and widely distribute it. The same can not be said of any other artform which requires huge resources and benefits from public funding (visual arts, dance, theatre, film). The public subsidizing of poetry publications and poetry-related events seems to have achieved very little with respect to generating new audiences, more book buyers or more proficient and relevant practioners. I don't think we should expect otherwise.


Zachariah Wells said...

Glen, it's clear, I think, from Carmine's comments that he doesn't _expect_ anything to change substantially. Which is exactly the reason to make noise about the situation, thru things like book reviews, blogs and Alex's annual jury. The more noise there is competing with the dominant broadcast signal from institutions like the CC, the broader the basis individual readers have for making decisions about what they should be reading and which voices they can trust to guide them.

As I said on my blog, the problem isn't that the jury didn't pick the list that I, or Carmine, or Alex or whomever would have chosen. The problem is that there's no overlap whatsoever. And that several of the books shortlisted have what amount to objective editorial flaws. It's one thing to give an award to someone for their career, but when two poets of significant international stature like Eric Ormsby and Daryl Hine publish career-defining books and don't even make the shortlist, the choices made--Domanski for an uneven single collection, Lee for a conceptually interesting half-book, Atwood for a feeble gathering of late work, Winger and Henderson for ambitious broad canvas works that don't hold together (or even hold a reader's interest)--are especially glaring. Hine, in particular, has been the recipient of a Guggenheim and a MacArthur "genius" grant; if a successful career in poetry is to be rewarded in 2007, it's his. The vagaries of subjective judgment only go so far in excusing this kind of omission. If I was on a shortlist that omitted these books I'd be more embarrassed than honoured. Not that I'd be on any shortlist compiled by Bok, Dewdney and Allen.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

I think you may be giving too much weight to the CC (or any institutional certifiers), particularly with respect to poetry. I guess that's my ultimate point. Only the meagre poetry-interested public truly cares about the state of poetry and we're a small enough band to know better than to be guided by GG Award selections. We know where the truly exciting writing is happening and it's usually far from the centre. We know that awards like the GGs are idiosyncratic, and ultimately inconsequential in every meaningful regard when it comes to poetry. Unlike the fiction prize, (significantly) more books will not be sold from a GG gold star on a poetry book, (Chapters/Indigo will not be rushing to stock their shelves) and tastes will not be defined. Carmine was exactly right when he said we won't remember who the winner was next year (please don't quiz me on past five winners.) The mighty Griffin Prize does little more than raise a poet's profile for a month or two, but that's about it. A prize for poetry ultimately only serves to beef up the resume for one lucky poet looking to dip once more into the Canada Council till. Or it represents a pat on the back and a gold watch for a poet on the way out. (Are Ormsby and Hine even eligible seeing as they are not Canadian residents?)