GG awards and grumbling

November 25th, 2008

I was rather relieved to find out there was a controversy over this year’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry. It reminded me of something I should know – just how human this process of awarding literary prizes is.

Like the other 123 poets who were not short-listed for the 2008 prize, I was disappointed when the list came out. I spent ten years writing The Office Tower Tales, and – though I am obviously prejudiced in my assessment – I felt my book was good enough to be there with the others that did make it. (I don’t think I’m completely delusional in this matter. I’ve had spontaneously good reviews of the work, even by people I don’t know.)

When a list of the ‘best’ books of the year comes out and you’re not on it, you tend to think it has been set in some sort of Mosaic edict, that you just didn’t measure up to some fixed standard of excellence. You weren’t fast enough, you didn’t get the compulsory figures right or you didn’t show enough verve in your long program.

But when you get down to it, a literary prize only reflects what that year’s jury liked best. It’s not completely arbitrary. There’s a certain threshold of more-than-basic competence that you have to meet to get in the door. Beyond that, our human perceptions of what subjects are interesting, what approaches are new or what touches our emotions are individual.

I should have known this right away on my pale-blue afternoon of disappointment. I’ve been through the process of jurying poetry prizes. I know how baffling it can be when you bring forward your list of favourites and find they hardly intersect at all with those of your fellow jurors. And I know the dynamics of negotiation that go into reaching some sort of cohesion around the short list, never mind agreeing on a winner.

On the one hand, subject matter or poetic approach that seems exciting and novel to one person can seem dreadfully derivative to another who happens to be more exposed to a particular trend. On the other hand, you can’t help assessing a poet that you’ve actually heard reading her work differently than one you’ve met only on the flat page.

But I always forget all this when I’m the one being judged. So to find out that this year’s G-G jury decision has been fired on because two of the jurors had particularly close connections with the winning book was oddly comforting. Not because I could sniff and say the whole process is flawed, that the Soviet judges always give an artificially high rating to their country’s skaters. It just reminds me the process is about people, not absolute standards.

How on earth do you read 129 books of poetry with equal attention and diligence? The most I’ve had to read for any one competition is a couple of dozen books, and even then, let me tell you, your eyes glaze over. Poetry is something that grows on you with familiarity. It is very difficult not to favour a voice that you have heard, a voice you have some personal acquaintance with. It’s far too easy to slur over unfamiliar pages that you only read once.

We sometimes say that the Canadian poetry world is too incestuous and that’s why juries are flawed. You’re bound to know people whose books come before you. Maybe the problem is that we’re not quite incestuous enough – we don’t know every poet, so it’s hard to distinguish who is genuinely memorable from poets who are trading on our unconscious assessments because we know them personally.

In the early days of the GG’s, Northrop Frye could read and review all the Canadian poetry books published in any given year. A process that involved three jurors was a pretty good way of assessing the relative merits of fifteen or twenty books. I don’t see how it can possibly work with more than a hundred titles, all of which have cleared some basic quality hurdles to become published in the first place.

Did this year’s jury do the best they could? Were they as dispassionate, as careful as they could have been? I don’t know. It’s a question for their own hearts. When I look at the list of titles submitted to the GG awards this year, I know I would have chosen a different short list. There are many books by poets I admire and who deserve the recognition. (Including that sadly-overlooked-but-brilliant oeuvre, The Office Tower Tales.) But I also know my list would have been just as idiosyncratic – as much about what I like and have been exposed to.

We have prizes such as the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, not to choose something that’s ‘best’, but to remind the reading public that poetry is written here, in this country.  Of course, if that is the real purpose, I often wonder whether we could spend the money more effectively. Why not have a gala performance of 8-10 poets at the National Arts Centre stage their readings brilliantly and broadcast/podcast the results? It would probably do more to liven up the audience for poetry than a gold-foil circle on a book.

If we do want to find a ‘best’ book, we probably need to look at how. The processes that work in a small system don’t work when it becomes bigger. In the first few stages of fetal development, you can depend on cell-to-cell diffusion to provide nutrients and remove waste. But that quickly becomes inadequate as more cells are added and go beyond the capacity for immediate connection. You need circulatory systems in something as complex as a human being.

And we probably probably need them in poetry competitions too.

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