Recently, I’ve been thinking about things that go unnoticed. I’ve been thinking about writing that goes unread. I’ve been thinking about the issues that have been ignored. I’ve been thinking about all the books that haven’t been talked about.
Partly, I’ve been thinking about these issues because of this article that Jared Bland wrote. In the piece, he suggests that restructuring the Griffin Poetry Prize—so that it no longer has separated national and international categories—will ultimately improve the quality of the competing Canadian poetry. In a lot of ways, his arguments make sense to me. I definitely feel that certain Canadian books can compete on an international scale, and that those books and authors are truly world-class. In other ways, I feel like the issue might be more related to the shortlist selection process. I read an article last year by Kim Goldberg outlining her experiences as a juror for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and, ever since then, I’ve been curious about how these kinds of selections are made.
Here’s one of the first things that I thought after reading Bland’s article: “I’m pretty sure I read a bunch of poetry books this year that didn’t make it onto the shortlist.” And: “some of those books, from what I can recall, were spectacular.” I figured that I must have been misremembering the publication dates for a few of these books. I read a lot. And I don’t always pay attention to the year that any particular book comes out. So I decided to check the Griffin Prize website (turns out they have a convenient searchable database of all of the books submitted in any given year). I searched for Canadian books that had been submitted in 2013, and after reading through the 185 entries, I realized that I had actually read a bunch of the books. And that some of those books were indeed world-class.
Sadly, though, I haven’t actually talked to many people about those books. They’re the kind of books that go unnoticed. Partly because they’re not easily labeled. Partly because they’re challenging. There are numerous reasons why books go unnoticed. But, in case you’re wondering, these are the books that I’m thinking of: We, Beasts by Oana Avasilichioaei, I Don’t Feel So Good by Elizabeth Bachinsky, Repeater by Andrew McEwan, and Undark: An Oratorio by Sandy Pool. In Bland’s article, he writes that the Canadian shortlist “is characterized by a kind of inoffensive geniality.” That is certainly not true of the books that I listed above. Perhaps it’s not even true of many of the books that were submitted to the award. And, if it is true of the shortlist, perhaps that’s really more a reflection of the selection process than of the quality and diversity of poetry produced by Canadians in any given year.
Awards culture and prize juries have always been a focal point for writers. The close examination of jury processes and various regional allegiances are often discussed at length. Sometimes, a writer is invested because they are a reader. Sometimes, a writer is invested because they have a book under consideration or have had a book under consideration in previous years. The thinking, as far as I understand it, is that if your book wins one of the awards offered each year, then your book will have a longer lifespan and more people will read it. Perhaps that is true.
However, I do wonder how much our poetry culture would change if we all just read and purchased more books of poetry? If we just talked about poetry more often and in more places? If we took the time to discuss the poems we had read in this magazine or that magazine? Would we still feel the same way about the Griffin Poetry Prize? Would we still put so much emphasis on prize culture? Or would it not matter as much any more if everyone was already talking to each other about poetry?
Of course, poetry published in magazines is much more difficult to notice than poetry published in a collection. Books of poetry occasionally get reviewed. Books of poetry get talked about every now and then. Books of poetry are sometimes noticed at the right place and at the right time. But poems published in magazines are not talked about. Poems in magazines are skipped over and ignored.
Each year the National Magazine Awards shortlists a few poems and, from what I’ve read, those poems tend to be pretty good. Tightrope Books annually collects some great poems—originally published in magazines—into an anthology called Best Canadian Poetry In English. Unfortunately, the Western Magazine Awards don’t officially recognize poetry as a category at all.
So when are we going to talk about Faye Harnest’s “ice”? When will we have a chance to explore the materiality of text and the complexity that can occur with repetition and erasure? When are we going to talk about Jon R. Flieger’s “Thank you”? When are we going to talk about obstruction and the aesthetic of the page? When are we going to talk about Ashok Mathur’s “Bildungsroman: a life in line items”? Are we ever going to discuss momentum and the linearity of age? Are we going to talk about compression? And what about the five poems by Michael Turner? Are we ever going to talk about “O”? When are we going to talk about the work in TCR’s Narrative Issue? When are we going to talk about poetry?
Image: Jon R. Fleiger's "Thank You" from TCR's Narrative Issue.