There's a bit of a brouhaha boiling away on the CanLit backburner that's Canadian poetry. Winners of this year's Governor General's Awards for Literary Prowess were announced a couple of weeks ago and Jacob Scheier won for poetry with his debut collection More to Keep Us Warm. Just when you'd think a guy could celebrate such tangible good fortune it comes out that two members of the GG jury's triumvirate have seen this book before because Pier Georgio di Cicco blurbed it and Di Brandt had something to do with the translation of the first poem (by Rilke) and goes back aways with Scheier. Both jurors were mentioned in Acknowledgements and now there's a lot of calling "Off with their heads"! (Been reading Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass with Kyran, who's five).
If you don't think it's a big deal to be mentioned in Acknowledgements, think about the third juror who wasn't. A quick Google tells me Connie Fife is from Nanaimo. I don't know her work. So many poets...so little time. But just think of the press she'd be getting if she and Jacob had crossed paths. It's as if she wasn't on that jury, but I suspect she had her say.
Conflict of interest. How does one groom a jury? How do you guarantee impartiality? How peerish must one be to be one of your peers? Can poetry be judged by someone who isn't a poet? Should it be? Would that fix anything? What if your plumber turned out to be a poetry judge and you'd made the shortlist? Conflict? If you've ever taken a workshop with someone, that's rife with conflict possibilities. Did a reading together? Leave a taste in your mouth? Whether it's for inclusion in a fly-by-night litmag or the GG, if someone is judging your work and you've hung out with then for more than the time it takes for a cursory introduction, you're slipping into conflict territory.
I've always thought of the GG as being something to aspire to. As well as what I now perceive as the dubious, uncertain, at-the-very-least fleeting prestige, you get $25K AND a specially bound copy of your book, which really appeals to the bookbinder in me. Sounds like having a book submitted to the machinations of the GGs is a lot like submitting your work anywhere. It's just another place where people who may or may not know you, either online, in print, or in person, decide whether or not it's your lucky day and they'll print your poem, and if you're really lucky there will be no typos and you might even get a small cheque, or a book or two in the mail. And hopefully no one's going to point out that you and [Name of Jury Person] once spent a weekend in each other's company at a vacation spa. Submitting poetry to be judged always carries an element of risk to its creator because the poetry scene in Canada is quite small, really, and it's not unusual for your work to be scrutinized by someone who has knowledge of you which may, or may not, influence their decision to look favourably, or not, on the work itself.
Scheier's editor rose to his defense in the National Post. I haven't seen anything from Scheier himself. He's probably either in oven mode or he's sensibly decided to refrain from adding to all the quotations swirling about.
I wonder how many of the people who are querying the ethics of this situation have actually read all five books that made the shortlist. I just ordered Sheier's book. It's a start. But then, I'm always curious to see what's getting the nod in the award's circuit.
(Stephen Harper must be loving this. One can only hope he's too busy with his perceived potential dethronement at the hands of a Coalition (whose head is slated to be replaced in an immanent leadership review) to notice that one of the few what-must-seem-to-him sacred cows he left alone is causing such dissension in the ranks and since nobody seems to approve of the way the cash is doled out, why don't we just chop arts' funding some more? Jeez! We shouldn't be giving him such an excuse!)
Speaking of awards, I won the Canadian Poetry Association's 2007 contest. So far, the judge(s) remain anonymous. Maybe they just liked my poem. Ya think?
COULD BE A BIGGER ONE
(after Tom Wayman’s The Big Theft)
sure they’re going to hang you
for assembling a truck
piece by piece in your garage
(the one you built from all the bricks
you found near the building site)
and sure they’re going to call you up on the carpet
(the one that’s not there any more
because it’s in your family room)
for walking away with a computer
or a set of barstools for the basement
(the one you renovated with the power tools
you borrowed from work and forgot to return)
I’d never do anything like that
but then I notice I’m writing this with a pen
that bears the name of a company I left some years ago
it occurs to me
I’ve seen scores of such pens around the house.
They lounge in drawers,
clean their nails out on the porch,
warm themselves on top of the furnace,
snuggle down for the winter
in the pocket of a summer jacket
I bet if I wrote about how marvellous it was
to work for this company
it would proudly claim the writing as its own
but if I wrote something nasty
they’d claim the pen