Archive for November, 2008

GG awards and grumbling

Tuesday, 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 shortlist. 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.

Dog days

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Exercise – they say dog-owners get more of it and are healthier as a result. Ha! I used to get long, healthy walks in the river valley. Then I got a dog.

“We’re going for a walk, Whiffle,” I say to our 12-pound conniption of black fur, who promptly does that dog thing of double back-flips. It’s like trying to get into the car with the entire Chinese circus.

We head to my favourite part of the river valley, Louise McKinney Park behind the convention centre. There’s a path that goes down through banks of hardy roses to the footbridge. From there you can hike for miles along the trails.

Lemme at it, says Whiffle, leaping from the car door. And we’re off, my arm stretched out as she swings from side to side, so that I look like a water diviner with a particularly willful wand.

Rabbit…Dog A … Dog B … she snuffles. Dog A again … rabbit … rabbit … Whoa! what’s that? And I’m spun like a compass needle.

It’s time to assert dominance. “Sit,” I say loudly. She looks doubtfully up at me and then at the muddy path. You really want me to sit on this?

“SIT,” I growl again and she lowers her bum like a Victorian lady with a bustle. I align myself with the leash held to match the diagram in the obedience manual, then order “Walk.” For a few yards we manage a sedate pace that wouldn’t flutter an centenarian’s pulse.

But by the first switchback through the rose garden, Whiffle is once again hull-down on the trail of rapture. She’s desperate to take the turn-off to one of the flat lawns that punctuate the headlong slope of the river valley.

Please, please, please, she gasps, just this side of strangulation.

Now one of the things I like about Louise McKinney Park is that it’s often very quiet. I look around – there’s no one here. Yes, I know it’s not an off-leash area, but she’s just a little dog.

“If I let you off the lead, will you come right back when I tell you to?”

Her eyes express the puppy equivalent of Honest, cross my heart, hope to die.

I take another furtive look towards the ramparts of Jasper Avenue at the top of the valley. All clear. “Okay, just for a minute,” I tell her.

Off she flies, and almost immediately I look up to see a man on the path above me in a peaked cap that looks ominously official. My brain flashes to Edmonton’s $100 fine for letting dogs run loose in parks. I have to get that wretched dog back before we’re both shipped off to the pound.

But Whiffle’s already on the far side of the lawn. I scuttle after her, whispering, “Whiffle, come.” It’s hardly the masterful sound I need to get her attention.

“Come!” A squawk like an anguished magpie. I look nervously up at the hat. Has he noticed?

Whiffle hasn’t. Rabbit, Dog C … she’s dancing out of reach. The hat is strolling down the first switchback. Desperation lends authority to my final croaked “Come!”

Oh, if you make a point of it. Whiffle lets me reconnect the lead and we skulk off to the stairs at the far end of the lawn so I won’t have to make eye contact with the man in the hat.

Back in the car, Whiffle licks my nose. Wasn’t that fun!

“Fun!” I tell her bitterly. “I’ve had the cardiac workout of a goldfish in a teacup, and you’ve got burrs in your ears.”

But I needed the exercise, she says.

“You need exercise, you go to the gym,” I tell her. “I’m taking a walk by myself.”

Originally published in Avenue magazine

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