Racing for the Prize

I recently was “short-listed,” as they say, for a big literary prize. How big is big, you well may ask. Big enough to get my name on lists in a bunch of newspapers across Canada, but “big,” as we all know, is a relative term inflected by a lot of different factors. For instance, is the prize for poetry or fiction? In the current world of literary value, the biggest prize for poetry, even if the pot is richer, will never be as big as any prize for fiction. Smaller fiction prizes provide endless material for cultural pundits to speculate on in the arts sections of newspapers across the country. Fiction prizes even have their own season—headlines announce “the race is on,” and photographs of serious-looking writers sport captions indicating who has pulled ahead. Like horses. Or dogs chasing fake rabbits. They are interviewed and profiled endlessly. Poetry prizes and their nominees, meanwhile, languish far down the page in long, unadorned lists somewhere under the nominees for children’s lit.

The big prize I was nominated for was a poetry prize, so even though it was referred to as “prestigious” in a congratulatory form letter from the large cultural institution proffering the prize, things soon sank into a slough of silence as the fiction contests heated up and speculation intensified as to who would win the most races this racing season. Still, even though it immediately was swallowed by the Poetry Cone of Silence (PCS), the nomination did cause me some discomfort because it was a big prize for poetry and a couple of years before I had made a public statement making fun of such prizes.

I made that statement when my previous book of poetry, a swell if obscure little book called 22 Skidoo, received a swell, if obscure, little prize called The Friggin (yes, that is an anagram). The Friggin Prize was not a real prize, although I did get a shiny sticker for the front cover of my book (that’s another story) and fifty bucks for beer, but it wasn’t real enough, in the scheme of prize quiddities, to deserve even a long list, much less a short one. In fact, the somewhat sassy slogan of the Friggin Prize was, “No long list; no short list; no guest list; just the Friggin Prize.” It was obviously an insouciant little prize with something of a chip on its shoulder, and it called for an acceptance speech equally insouciant and chippy, which I happily composed.

I was fortunate because it was a somewhat scandalous time for poetry prizes and I was handed some juicy material for the speech which, in the true spirit of the Friggin, made fun of all those big prizes and the culture of commercialized writing they seem to reflect. In England, for instance, a contestant for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry, admittedly not a prize in the literal sense, but certainly a plum with lots of prize-like trappings, was busted for slandering another distinguished poet competitor in order to better her chances for the job, an act more appropriate for a boardroom brouhaha than a poetry contest. In Canada, meanwhile, the same big prize I got nominated for was awarded to a young man whose writing teacher/mentor was on the jury that made the award. She had also written the introduction for the same book. When it was suggested that this might be construed as a form of blatant nepotism, that the relations were a little too close for justifiable comfort, she turned on her accusers like a cornered wolverine (how’s that for a cool Canadian simile), damning them with the vicious label “dada poets,” apparently a state of literary being that mellifluous lyricists hold to be in ultimate bad taste. But then, as one of those Dada artists, Max Ernst, once said: “Art has nothing to do with taste. Art is not there to be tasted.” Except, perhaps, in Manitoba.

I pointed to these and other prizes in the Friggin Acceptance Speech as examples of a writing culture that has lost sight of poetry’s mission because it has become focused on prizes and races, so much so that many people have begun to write with the prize in mind. I did have a good time poking fun at them, but beneath that fun lurked some potentially serious issues about the relation of commerce to art. Such issues have been around for a while now—at least since Michelangelo bitched about what a drag it was to have to adjust his work to the philistine expectations of his patrons— which we have largely lost sight of since everything, including poetry, has become professionalized with its own university programs, career courses, and commercial measures of success of which the prize has become a key indicator. A recent issue of Arc (“Canada’s poetry magazine”) focused on prizes and contests, for instance, contains a story by John Barton (“Getting on the Island: Literary Contests as Reality TV on The Aquarium ChannelTM”) about a “famous” poet who introduced himself to another poet (his guest) at a dinner party by demanding to know how many awards he had won. It is not hard to find something to make fun of in such a culture.

Of course, once I got short-listed for the big prize I was soon hoisted on my own petard. Some blogger who no doubt Googled the nominees as soon as the lists were published, joyfully discovered my Friggin Speech and reprinted two paragraphs under the heading “Michael Boughn’s Gov-Gen Acceptance Speech?”

And then, of course, having the judges that bestow the prizes for literary excellence write the excellent introductions to your excellent book before they give you the prizes for your excellence—that too is literary excellence above and beyond the normal kind of excellence which is usually just kind of run of the mill. . . .
We, however, are here because we know better. Poetry is not about truth or beauty or, heaven forbid, making things out of words. It’s about getting the prize. It’s about being on the committee that gives out the prizes so you can make sure your friends and students get the prizes, because if they don’t get the prizes, then what the hell does that say about you?

Whether that would have been my Governor General’s acceptance speech is now a moot point. I have done more outrageous things at various points in my life, but in this case I probably wouldn’t have, if only out of courtesy to the Governor General, who, after all, is the representative of the Queen to whom I swore allegiance in 2001. It took me thirty-five years to come to an understanding that would permit me to take that oath in good faith, and being a poet, that is someone who takes—or at least ought to take—words seriously, I am not about to violate it now.

No doubt the blogger who posted the excerpt would have seen this as “selling out,” a thought that crossed my own mind, however briefly, causing the discomfort I mentioned previously. The phrase, “selling out,” describes a debased relation between art and commerce. It is implicitly premised on the idea of a certain potential authenticity to art, or at least a value that, if not transcendent, or grounded in some realm beyond the quotidian, is at least outside the market, including the prize market. Exactly what that value is remains difficult to put your finger on. It seemed the blog positioned the quote in such a way as to accuse me of inconsistency or hypocrisy, of abandoning my personal values (there’s that word again) in order to reap the recognition and money—especially the money—that goes along with a big prize. It is easy to be insouciant and sassy when there is nothing at stake, but will you stick by your words when there is dough on the table? What about your personal values then?

The idea lingers in some circles that art—at least certain kinds of art—ought to be a bastion of integrity against the prostitution of mind and spirit that capitalism offers up as culture. That was the implicit idea at the core of the Friggin speech. Selling out has to do with tailoring your work to a market, consciously or unconsciously adjusting your creative decisions, in order to maximize the work’s attractiveness to potential buyers (or prize awarders). But as much as artists need to create they also have to eat, and if you are not independently wealthy or supported by someone who has a regular job, presumably selling your art helps in that regard. If you can sell it, at least you can go on making it rather than starving to death in a grubby basement apartment while the world waits with bated breath to find out who is going to win the latest literary contest.

But is art—all of it—just another commodity in the market to be produced and consumed, a race for the prize, or does it still potentially lay claim to some other realm or mode of existence? While it is fashionable in some intellectual circles to go on about the end of authenticity and originality, the death of the author, and so on, real writing does go on and I don’t mean by that the kind of writing associated with the phrase “Writers and Poets.” “Writers and Poets” is a nonsense phrase invented by the hordes of graduates from arts management programs to explain what they are supposed to manage. When I raised this issue in a public forum, asking what poets are presumed to do if not write, there was general agreement that the word “poets” in this context means people who do not earn money from writing, whereas writers, at least potentially, do, a crucial distinction for arts managers. Arguing that that was not a bad thing, a terrific poet (Peter Culley) who writes books that those who award prizes are apparently severely allergic to, responded by arguing that in fact “poetry is being ruined by people who are trying to turn it into a ‘real’ & non-fucked (commercial) activity instead of the art form reserved for deadbeats & losers who don’t want to be bothered by worrying about asshole audiences. . . .”

The writing that is at stake in Culley’s thinking is of another order than the one implied in “Writers and Poets,” one that has recourse to a sense of . . . what are you going to call it if not authenticity or integrity? Well, say attention, attention not merely to some thought of the world arranged in an aesthetically pleasing formation that can win a prize. Culley’s thinking has this writing taking place at a point where every word resonates with a field of meaning that opens up to the extraordinary and uncontainable complexity of the sounding of the world— that kind of attention, the kind where every choice, which is to say every word, opens the sentence, the line, to what is always opening beyond it. There is an adventure in that that most prize awarding panels find, well, stupefying, because mostly they have been trained to read (and write) a conventional (prize-winning) verse that is taught in the professional writing programs that the judges have been trained in.

It is hard for me to argue with Culley’s point, given my own writing, notwithstanding the—I think “fluke” would work adequately here although someone else has suggested “luck” as more appropriate—of the big prize nomination. Not that Cosmographia—a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic didn’t deserve it, if only for being the only post-Lucretian faux micro-epic ever written not only in Canada but the whole world, but the flukiness of the process as a whole is legendary among those who have participated on various art booty panels—not that it could be otherwise, though it does seem usually dominated by a certain narrow range of sensibility. Brian Fawcett, in an essay called “Why Sharon Thesen doesn’t win poetry prizes,” locates four crucial characteristics of the prize winning sensibility: 1) earnestness, free of all irony; 2) an addiction to repetitious tropes illustrative of the poet; 3) the ability to campaign tirelessly for themselves; and 4) a craving for public recognition. I think you could safely add a fifth, which would be the deep, heartfelt belief that intimate revelations of their inner most selves are endlessly interesting.

There is a marvellous little set piece near the beginning of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, La Brava, in which the two main characters, Tony La Brava, a secret service agent turned art photographer, and his new lover, the aging film star Jean Shaw, discuss responses to a recent show of La Brava’s work. After going through a list of art-speak comments—“His work is a compendium of humanity’s defeat at the hands of venture capital”; “He sees himself as dispossessed, unassimilated” —La Brava responds with classic naïve anti-art speak, “I thought I was just taking pictures.” And then he goes on to relate a further overheard conversation in which a man said, “I think he takes pictures to make a buck, and anything else is fringe.”

Of course, making a buck had to come up. Even in pulp fiction, the dirty bottom rung on the ladder of literary excellence, any discussion of art will lead into the quagmire of its relation to money and commerce—maybe especially because it is pulp fiction, whose very existence is presumably premised on commercialism—work done for money, for a market. La Brava’s response would be shocking in high art circles: “I would’ve kissed the guy,” he says, “but it might have ruined his perspective.” Even more so than the proposition that there is such a thing as “just taking pictures,” La Brava’s open embrace of the idea that it is not only OK to make a buck with your art, but actually a good thing, pushes the conversation into a zone that resonates beyond the apparent commonness of the situation, given that the book we are holding as we read is precisely analogous, written no doubt to make a buck.

Is La Brava just an art whore—and naïve to boot? Is Elmore Leonard just using a character to justify his own selling out? A turn in the conversation complicates things when La Brava introduces Walker Evans into the equation. Evans, of course, was the ultimate American art photographer, connected at least briefly to Stieglitz and the New York art crowd of the 1920s and 30s. He rejected the artiness of that scene to do “documentary” work for the Farm Security Administration, work that came to visually define America in the Great Depression and reorient the art of photography. He was Emersonian in his commitment to the common and the low, virtually paraphrasing Emerson in his 1969 book on photography: “After a certain point in his formative years, [the photographer] learns to do his looking outside of art museums: his place is in the street, the village, and the ordinary countryside. For his eye, the raw feast: much-used shops, bedrooms, and yards, far from the halls of full-dress architecture, landscaped splendour, or the more obviously scenic nature.”

La Brava quotes Evans to the effect that his photographs, like Evans’, are “images whose meanings exceed the local circumstances that provide their occasion.” What exactly is this excessive meaning, and what is it doing in a piece of low-rent genre fiction about murder, duplicity, and mayhem? For La Brava, it seems to define the very possibility of art—certainly his art—that the most common image, or the image of the common, can be informed by a power, a force, utterly unique and independent of the photographer. Evans was moving counter to the elaborate romanticism of Steichen and the artiness of Stieglitz, a genuine low art. What he achieved is often referred to as “realism,” but I think it is closer to what the poet Charles Olson—roughly Evans’ contemporary—called objectism.

Objectism was the name Olson gave his push in poetry away from the lyrical (which he saw as an interference, much as Evans saw Stieglitz’s carefully crafted art shots) and toward his sense of the unique and specific revelatory force any object projects in the world—and by object he meant persons as much as stones or Mayan artifacts—the utter specificity of each element of the world, each object. Olson, in a letter to Robert Creeley, cites this as “to force the particular to yield dimension.” That yielded dimension seems to me analogous to Evans’ “meaning which exceeds its occasion.” Olson elsewhere writes of it in terms of what he calls a secularism that loses nothing of the divine.

Walker Evans fought against what he saw as commercialism his entire artistic life, even as he sought to sell his art, to make a living from it, and complained about the difficulty of that. This is not the same “commercialism” that bothers Peter Culley—not exactly, anyway—though it is not the same as the commercialism La Brava embraces either. Culley, I think, is concerned that the bounds of the work might be set by some other demand or attention than what is specific to the work at any moment—the thought of some reward, whether money or a prize. La Brava embraces the idea that if you do your work, you should be rewarded for it, an idea Walker Evans shared.

So while part of me cringed at the announcement of my nomination, anticipating the blogger’s accusation of hypocrisy and commercial sellout, wondering briefly if I should withdraw my name, another part of me virtually swooned with excitement at the thought of this reward for my work. There is no question it feels great to have your book named among five out of hundreds as deserving of special attention, even if it was a fluke and the notice quickly disappeared in the Poetry Cone of Silence (PCS). Poetry will never be as financially rewarding as La Brava’s photographs, but after labouring at it for almost 50 years and making some interesting things out of words from time to time, it is nice to be recognized, however fleetingly. There is no profound, unprincipled inconsistency between that pleasure and the sentiments of the Friggin speech, and even if there were, who cares? As Emerson famously said in his defence of self-reliance and the necessity to be true to the force of the moment, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Marcel Duchamp, yet another Dada artist, put it somewhat differently, but to much the same effect: “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”

But for all the pleasure of being noticed and put into those lists—however unadorned and far down the page they were—there were also drawbacks. The worst part was the inevitable competition that situation breeds, no matter how hard one tries to resist it. That is not exactly selling out, but in some ways it is worse. I do believe that poets are not in competition with each other. The very nature of the process that I love—the fidelity to the opening, to the emergence of form, the language of that—is destroyed by competition that sets your work against the work of someone else in order to determine which is the “poem of the year,” as if there was some actual measure whereby one could be judged against the other, as if poetry existed in a market. Even our Oedipal relations are not quite competitive—we embrace those who came before us, honour them and incorporate them into our work with loving attention.

Or maybe not. Peter Quartermain calls me on that, reminding me that competition among artists is inevitable in some sense and not necessarily a bad thing: “Bunting once told me,” he writes, “that he thought Shelley’s last gasp as he drowned must have been ‘destroy all my work’ because it doesn’t (couldn’t) match the work he loved: that ambition is in a different arena than the marketplace or the sports stadium has to offer, and of course one competes. But not to put down the other, but to say ‘hey look at this!’ the pleasure one takes in one’s own work.” It is hard to argue with that, but I don’t think this is the nature of the competition involved in a culture of poetry contests, of which the big prize is the ultimate expression. I was recently sent a flyer titled “A Year of Deadlines / A compendium of poetry competitions in Canada.” Under headings including National, Provincial, Regional, and Cities, no less than 75 different poetry contests are listed on what looks like a page from the want ads in the daily newspaper. While Bunting may have been right about Shelley’s last thoughts, it is rather difficult to imagine Shelley pondering whether to submit “Prometheus Unbound” to the Malahat Review long poem prize or the Arc poem of the year award. He was far too busy writing.

At the risk of seeming arrogant, it seems doubtful to me that most of the poets entering the 75 contests even know what “Prometheus Unbound” is, much less have read it. Reading the great poetry of the past is not a requirement for an MFA, and most creative writing classes are too busy searching for a catchy simile to worry about what the great artists of the tradition have done or how their own work might relate to that. This is not a question of high or low culture or commercial or non-commercial art. It has to do with Culley’s sense of the transformation of poetry by the great cultural machine made up of creative writing classes, MFA programs, university degrees in poetry writing, and the infinitely expanding world of professionalized contests, in which the like-minded reward each other for making pretty things.

I suppose what’s at stake here are differing senses of competition, probably related to the etymological divergence at the root of the word. To petition together—to try to mutually attain, to seek together—still lurks in competition’s possibilities and in Quartermain’s thought of a different arena. But in our world of commercial determinations, the rivalry invariably ends up in the marketplace. That competition belongs to another world—business or sports, institutional conflict—and to put poets in a situation that encourages that is an arts management notion designed for marketing purposes. It degrades the writers, turning them into tokens in a race that doesn’t even really exist, since the arts managers know who won from the git go.

It is also a drag being turned into a loser when previously you were happily doing your work with no thought of winning or losing or beating or being beaten. As someone who had previously been through the race for the big prize mentioned to me, it is a process designed for the production of losers. If we want to award laurels for great poetry (and we should), it would be far better for the writers (if anyone actually cares about the writers) to simply announce the winners and the runners-up—or maybe 5 winners—and then organize celebrations of their accomplishments. There are no losers in that scenario, only winners—but there are, unfortunately, reduced marketing opportunities. Which brings me to the point. The Literary Racing Season, it turns out, is really not so much about Literary Excellence as it is about marketing products, both the books themselves and the digestible visions that populate them. It is finally just a way to sell books (not necessarily a bad thing, although easily accomplished in other ways) and guarantee jobs for arts managers (well, we could probably do without that), while reassuring everyone that the situation is under control and help is on the way. In so far as the culture it generates gives rise to a sense that the value of writing can be measured through prizes and awards, it is utterly destructive and we need to rethink how to do it.

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