Friday, November 21, 2008

Open Letter to the Canada Council

Here's what I've sent to Melanie Rutledge, head of the Writing and Publishing arm of the Canada Council for the Arts. I'm cc'ing it to Robert Sirman, the Director of the CC:

Dear Mr. Sirman,

Below is the text of a message I have sent to Melanie Rutledge. As this matter applies not only to the Writing and Publishing division, but to the Council more broadly, I think it appropriate to send it to you as well. I remember when you started this job you said that you wanted less mediocre art to be rewarded. There are practical, concrete measures that can, and must, be taken to insure that, at least, awards are given in good faith and are not tainted by blatant favouritism, as was the case with this year's GG Award for Poetry.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to my concerns.

Sincerely,

Zachariah Wells
Writer and editor

Dear Ms. Rutledge,

No doubt you have been following the controversy regarding Jacob Scheier's win of the Governor General's Award for Poetry this year. It is clear that this decision has dismayed a great many people involved in Canadian poetry and has done much to undermine the credibility and prestige of this award.

I am writing to urge you, and the Canada Council more broadly, to adopt measures to make the award-nomination and -granting process more transparent, objective and fair. At a time when arts funding has been questioned and cut by government, it's especially important now that there is not even the appearance of taxpayers' money being disbursed in an unethical and inappropriate manner.

Thank you for taking the time to listen my concerns.

Sincerely,

Zachariah Wells
Writer and editor

12 comments:

Alex said...

This is just more of your dadaist posturing, isn't it? Apparently Brandt has your number.

Ian LeTourneau said...

I sent a letter yesterday, too. You think we'll get some response back, since we had to provide an email address?

Zachariah Wells said...

I've already had a brief response from Robert Sirman, saying that he'll address the matter when he returns to the country in December. I got an auto-reply-out-of-office message from Melanie Rutledge.

Brian Campbell said...

Excellent letter, Zach -- I'll be writing one myself, although I couldn't put it better than this.

Since your finger is so much on the pulse of current Canadian poetry, would be interesting to see what choices you would consider more worthy of this award. I'm sure there are quite a few.

Zachariah Wells said...

I posted about this a month ago, Brian:

http://zachariahwells.blogspot.com/2008/10/ggs.html

The question of who better to win is somewhat beside the point now; the real question is who (or how) better to judge.

Brian Campbell said...

Come to think of it, I remember skimming through that post, and the previous year's as well... they have all the more meaning now. Your remarks about "when it's all too frequently all too easy to play connect-the-dots between jurors and nominees--it's hard to have any faith in the value of this institution", become all the more prophetic in the light of this.

Problem is, of course, the Canadian poetry world is so small that compromising connections are hard to avoid in a peer judging situation. (Even the American poetry world is too small.) You would need to find a bevy of abstemious monks on a mountain top somewhere to do the bidding. This decision, tho, was really over the top... and these particular monks could hardly be called abstemious.

Zachariah Wells said...

Someone at Bookninja, Glen Rotchin I think, proposed having more than 3 jurors. I think having five or six jurors, at least one of whom is NOT a poet, making their decision independently on a points system, instead of meeting up and trying to persuade each other of the merits of their particular favourites, would go a great distance towards remedying this particular problem.

One thing Di Brandt has said strikes me as being particularly disingenuous. She claims that the decisions by the jury was "unanimous," ergo legitimate. What this elides is the power dynamics of that particular jury. You have on one hand di Cicco (poet laureate of Toronto and eminence grise of Canadian poetry) and Brandt (a 2x GG nominee and 1x Griffin nominee); and on the other hand, you have Connie Fife, a poet in Nanaimo that almost no one has heard of. It's not only 2:1, but its big2:small1. This shouldn't make any difference. All jurors should be equal, but in a jury format where they meet and discuss their choices, it's naive to believe that sociodynamics plays no role.

At any rate, I find the whole "Canadian poetry's so small, so whatcha gonna do?" argument a cop-out. It's also a very big country with quite distinct regions. An awful lot of people don't know an awful lot of people. (This was brought home to me recently when a BC-based editor of a nature poetry anthology told me she wasn't aware of the work of Harry Thurston.) Choose people from a variety of regions to make your jury and their regional biases should cancel each other out--in a points system that is.

Brian Campbell said...

I think you're right there. And yes, I concede defeat on that argument ... but I must admit, I had fun imagining that bevy of abstemious (and unabstemious) monks.

Zachariah Wells said...

Brian, did you know that di Cicco actually was a monk? If not, this is even more hilarious.

Brian Campbell said...

I made the joke in full knowledge that he was a monk. I assumed you'd pick up on that. Subtle, eh?

Zachariah Wells said...

Clearly far too subtle for the likes of me!

Daniela said...

I think it will be quite interesting to hear the deliberations of The Jury on CBC radio. Like some other picks. Why not. Then we will all be clear on what points the books scored, or got nominated, or disqualified on. There will be less monk-eying around. And if there are any concerns people can call in with questions.

From the nature of the jury you describe there was probably not much deliberation.

i also think Zach your point about having at least one person who is not a poet, quite appeals to me. The prospect of that may allow others to get excited about these nominations, not just writers.

There should be more substance behind the stamp.