Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Literary Conspiracist Extraordinaire: Zach Wells on the Griffin Prize

I stole this from Zach Wells' blog, as he's not been contributing much these days to Thirsty, damn him. Note: he posted this and ran, off on the rails for 6 days, though even VIA has wireless service these days. Perhaps he'll check in.

Now, if this had been published in Geist, as with Stephen Henighan's most recent missive about the Giller, we could expect hysteria: letters about children suffering from rickets, accusations of racism, jealousy, psychosis. But, hey, maybe we'll get lucky.

Zach talked me down from publishing a collection of his essays last night. I reluctantly gave it up, as I do have several other books of his lined up in 08-09: an anthology of Canadian Sonnets (Jailbreaks), a children's book, and a collection of poems. But he's making me regret it already.

OFF the Rails (with Zach Wells)

Hittin' the Rails

Yep, again, no rest for the Z-man. After this trip, however, I settle down into my regular schedule of 5/6 days on the road and 6 days at home. Can't wait.

So the Griffin Prize is being announced tomorrow, but I won't likely know the official result till Thursday when I get into Winnipeg. Most of the speculation seems to have Don McKay as the winner, but I figured, as soon as I read the jury announcement, never mind the shortlist, that this was Ken Babstock's year to take home the golden lottery ticket. All the instruments agree. Babstock's been a poetry superstar (how's that for an oxymoron) ever since his first book was published in '99--fortunately, he's a poet with ability more or less commensurate with his reputation--but prior to this year had won none of the big prizes. Airstream Land Yacht has so far been shortlisted for the Governor General's Award (of the titles shortlisted, it really should have won, much as I would've liked to see Liz Bachinsky take the prize) and just yesterday it won the Trillium, a prize that seems to have more cachet than other provincial awards, probably because Ontario/Toronto is at the centre of the Canadian book industry, and the Trillium, at $10,000 is more money than any other regional prize. Some might say that his notice for these other awards reduces his chances, but the recent example of Roo Borson suggests that the "spread-it-around" mentality is not as significant as one might assume.

Airstream Land Yacht, although I have mixed feelings about it, is a book worthy of notice and it contains a handful of Babstock's best poems, especially "Palindromic" and "The World's Hub." But that's not why I figured it would win the Griffin. Like I say, it was the announcement of the jury, not reading the book, that led to my prediction. The big problem with these prizes isn't that they always go to unworthy winners--although they often do--but that, even when the winner is a good pick, the decision is too often traceable to nepotistic networks. The Griffin Jury consists of Karen Solie (an old friend of Babstock's), Charles Simic (co-editor of the anthology New British Poetry, published and prefaced by Babstock at House of Anansi, and John Burnside, a contributor to said anthology. McKay is also connected to Solie, through Brick Books, Solie's publisher: McKay is a central member of Brick's editorial board. Priscilla Uppal seems to be the sacrificial lamb of the shortlist. It may or may not be significant that, on a list whose favourites are both pale-skinned fellows, she is neither. Call me a cynic, but what I've read of her poetry makes me doubt she was chosen for literary reasons. Back to Babstock, it has also been pointed out that Babstock is not only published by House of Anansi but is also employed by said press, and that House of Anansi is owned by Scott Griffin, founder of the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. In theory and possibly in fact as well, this should have zero impact on the decision, but added to the mix, it makes the integrity of this prestigious prize pretty easy to doubt, don't it?

I've long had serious reservations about the awards culture that predominates these days. I was recently asked to judge an award. I was tempted to accept, if only to see firsthand what went on. But I was informed by the prize administrators that the entries were pre-screened and that I would read only the ones deemed appropriate by the administrator. I said that I'd only agree if I could read all the books. They said no. So did I. I imagine one form or another of this kind of backroom manipulation occurs in most prizes. (When I wrote a column on the Griffin Prize a few years ago, I asked if I could see a list of titles submitted to the award. The administrator I wrote to accidentally cc'd an email to me intended for another Prize official in which she said, "If we tell him what was submitted, then he'll know what wasn't submitted." And we can't have that, now can we?) The ReLit Award has gone so far, this year, as to keep its jury composition secret, presumably to deflect attention away from political speculation towards the books themselves. But really, all this does is add fuel to the speculative fires and give jurors who want to reward their friends more protection from criticism. Let's face it, these prizes, no matter how scrupulously run, are not objective, so to pretend otherwise is to perpetrate a fraud of sorts.

So, you ask, why do I care at all? Why not just ignore the whole sordid business, take the high road, etc.? It's mostly because, as a reviewer and critic, I try to spark honest, engaged discussion about poetry. These awards are also about shining light on poetry, but it's more of a spotlight than a floodlight, leaving far more obscure than illumined. Whereas criticism should strike a balance between censure and celebration, these glitzy prizes are all good news and marketing (it was clear to me, attending recent BC Book Prizes events, that the sponsors were far more important than the authors). I know several poets who have been nominated for these awards have come out of the process highly disenchanted, feeling more than a little used and abused. The prizes aren't about to go away, however; the more people chip away at their tarnished credibility, the less influence they'll have on what gets taken seriously by the public, media and academies. At least, that's what I like to think...


Zachariah Wells said...

Wireless??!! Spoken like someone on the arsehole end of the Q.C./Windsor Corridor! No wireless on the transcon yet. Good thing, because I'm probably not allowed to check my email at work...

I'd post more here if I could simply post under my existing blogger i.d. (less hassle than switching). Anyone know how to add a blogger to a blog?

Brenda Schmidt said...

Perhaps something here will help.