Shortly after the news of this year's poetry GG controversy broke, I got an email from Owen Percy, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. Percy's research focuses on, in his own words, "literary awards in Canada, cultural prestige, and the history of the GGs in English poetry." He very kindly sent me an electronic copy of his interview with Christian Bök on this very subject. I think it's a very important document in light of recent events. The interview was published in Open Letter magazine last summer, but was not available online. Percy, Bök and Open Letter have graciously allowed me to reproduce the interview here on CLM.
Thanks to all parties for letting me post it here.
Bök, who wishes it to be made clear that he initially agreed to the interview out of a sense of public obligation rather than to settle a score with the Canada Council, has many fascinating insights into the whole botched process. It's also very interesting to see his longlist at the end of the interview. I don't think it could be said that many other possible jurors, from any aesthetic camp, would have come up with so diverse a list. It's particularly interesting to hear him speak so highly of Steven Price's Anatomy of Keys, a book I thought unjustly left off that year's shortlist. Bök's observation that most "lyrical poets" don't have a firm grasp on what makes for a good lyrical poem is devastatingly accurate.
The Politics of Poetics:
Christian Bök on Success, Recognition, Jury Duty, and the Governor General’s Awards.
CHRISTIAN BÖK is an Assistant Professor of Canadian Literature, Critical Theory, and Poetics in the Department of English at the
OWEN PERCY: I’d like to begin by asking you a couple of questions, and I’m hoping that you might answer, not as an experienced literary prize jury member, but as an expert specialist in the field of Canadian literature and as a working poet. My first question is about the recent proliferation of literary prizes available to writers in
CHRISTIAN BÖK: Well, I think such prizes have made the expectations of recognition greater among aspiring poets even though most of the prizes probably have only a modest impact upon sales. And I think that it’s very difficult to discriminate amongst the aesthetic mandates of these prizes. In many respects, the only thing that really distinguishes them is the amount of either money or cachet associated with winning them. There are very few differences among the standards of judgment for these prizes. The trustees for many of the awards draw from the same pool of jurors, many of whom share a common vision of lyric merit.
OP: I spoke to George Bowering in September and he suggested, not in so many words, that the Giller Prize had become a sort of anti-GG in terms of the GG having an explicitly national scope and the Giller focusing on what he seemed to think was a more Eastern, McClelland & Stewart
CB: I would concur with George that the Giller Prize is in fact a kind of anti-GG insofar as the jurors on that prize, I think, believe that they are making choices based purely upon the literary merits of the candidates. The jurors do not qualify their selection with any demand for either regional representation or national pronouncement. But by the same token, the winners of the GG and the winners of the Giller Prize are still cut, in many respects, from the same cloth. The people who typically win these prizes are trying to aspire to a particular kind of aesthetic protocol which, from my perspective, seems very ordinary, if not mediocre: the most competent of the least anomalous. There are, of course, noteworthy exceptions in the history of both of these prizes, but generally the prizes are designed to homogenize taste. The prizes enforce lyric norms to which all writers might effectively conform. The ReLit award is of course an exception to this protocol. It purports to reward work that would otherwise be neglected, but of course because the prize offers no cash and no fame, the merits of winning it seem moot. It doesn’t do much to advance the cause of neglected work—except to underline the marginality of such writing. The prize itself has become a marginal footnote to any other prize that a writer might win.
OP: What do you think of the concept of national prizes or recognition—for example the Governor General’s Awards, which purport to speak for “Canadian Literature.” What do you think of an award which claims to be ‘national.’
CB: Oh, well I think that any prize that aspires to be “national” is probably more concerned with propaganda than aesthetics. All the prizes, of course, claim to pick the most meritorious work. To me, assertions about merit have to address the innovation that a work might have to offer literary history—not simply for one minor nation, but for our whole planet. Nevertheless, nobody creates a prize saying ‘We’re going to pick only the most conservative, most recognizable, work.’ Every panel of judges is going to say that their choices for winners represent the cutting edge of all contenders. But from my perspective as an academic looking at the history of literature on a planetary scale—the shortlists for these prizes often seem very pathological. The jurors are supposed to be selected from among your peers—but when I see the results of their deliberations, I always ask myself:’ What the hell are my peers thinking?’ How is it possible that they can call themselves writers, aspire to greatness, know something presumably about literary history, and yet nevertheless pick mediocre work—work likely to be forgotten within fifty years?
OP: Well, Stephen Cain, in American Standard/Canada Dry, has a suite of poems—“The History of Canada”—where he talks about M.T. Kelly winning the GG over Michael Ondaatje and things like that—what he calls the “tyranny of the Governor General.”
CB: If there is a tyranny of the Governor General’s Award, I think that its reign of terror is being challenged by the prestige of the Giller or the
OP: At the awards ceremony for the very first Griffin Prize awarded in 2001—Anne Carson won it—Margaret Atwood said something along the lines of ‘We wanted to create an award in poetry that was equal to some of the attention that was being paid, in terms of awards, for prose.’ And she said that nothing really exists in
CB: Well, to people from my generation and younger, the GGs now look like a joke by comparison to other prizes. The winners of the GG don’t seem to me to have merited the attention that they have otherwise received, and I think that, as a marker of literary merit, I would not be looking to the winners of the GG for any standard-bearers.
OP: In your mind then, what is the most respected poetry prize extant in
CB: It’s still probably the Griffin Prize. Aside from the Nobel Prize. there’s more money offered to a poet by the Griffin Prize than by any other award in the world. It’s certainly the most glamourous public event lavished upon poets (bearing in mind, of course, that most poets are, in general, poverty-stricken cockroaches of culture). We poets don’t often get to experience the lavish excesses of celebrity, and there’s a great deal of ceremony around the experience. Sylvia Legris noted that getting her nomination was tantamount to receiving a golden ticket in the mail from Willy Wonka. You do feel quite privileged to be in attendance. Nevertheless, the attention that the media pays to the prize seems to have gradually declined since the first event. There aren’t as many full-page spreads of gossip columnists, speculating about the winners. There isn’t the same hoopla that occurred in the first few years of the prize, but this situation may change. The whole story of the prize is still unfinished. I think, likewise, the Giller went through many strange twists over the course of its initiation into our culture. I think that, in both cases, the average writer, craving international acknowledgement, would probably prefer to win a
OP: Well, what did winning the
CB: Winning meant that a far more mainstream audience could find reason to take my practice seriously . In the literary community. I gained an extraordinary amount of credibility that I didn’t otherwise have. I also attracted far more international attention. As a side effect of my exposure to the public through the prize, I have received many invitations to lecture and to perform around the world. I get taken more seriously for travel grants, and I get more serious acclaim from academics outside the country—
OP: But is that a result of the international emphasis of the Griffin Prize? Your success, arguably, is greater internationally than it is within
CB: I think that your observation is probably true—certainly true for most of my peers in the community of experimental writing: they enjoy greater prestige elsewhere than they ever do at home. When I’m speaking to international poets abroad and I ask them about Canadian literature, the poets that they tend to recognize are, of course, big names like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson, and Leonard Cohen. Everybody knows the work of such celebrities. But if I move down a tier from them and start citing names like Lorna Crozier or George Elliott Clarke, far fewer people recognize these names, than recognize names like Steve McCaffery or bpNichol.
OP: Now those conversations that you’re having, do they perhaps come as a condition of the type of writer that you are and the type of audience that you would attract to a reading or an event?
CB: Well I think that I have addressed diverse audiences, and I think that the results of my very limited polling have more to do with the literary cultures of places, like
OP: Getting back to the Governor General’s Awards…you mentioned earlier that there have been notable exceptions to the pathological impetus of the prize; do you feel that the Governor General’s Awards have paid appropriate heed to the experimental or the avant garde given that, for example, George Bowering won in 1969, Fred Wah has won (1985), Erin Mouré has won (1988)? I mean you’ve still got the Al Purdys and the E.D. Blodgetts and the Phyllis Webbs, but…
CB: Well, as part of my acceptance speech for the Griffin Prize I actually felt obliged to stand on a soapbox and comment upon the lack of recognition for avant garde practice. I tried to contextualize my own achievement within a history of my influences. I noted that thirty years had passed since a major prize was given to any avant-garde writer for a work of avant-garde poetry. I think that the last occasion was in the early 1970s when Michael Ondaatje and bpNichol shared the GG.
OP: For the Billy the Kid books. It was the 1970 GGs.
CB: Yes, that’s right. That was the last occasion when an experimental writer won for an experimental work. Now tellingly, the writers that you have mentioned—George or Fred or Erin—won for books which, by most contemporary, experimental standards, are far more lyrical than they are radical. They represent a more readerly practice in their own oeuvres. I did however mention six occasions where extremely meritorious works were shortlisted for the GG and lost to, I think, very inferior candidates. I noted for example that Debbie by Lisa Robertson lost to a book by Stephanie Bolster,. Theory of Sediment by Steve McCaffery lost out to a book by Lorna Crozier,;The Holy Forest by Robin Blaser lost out to a book by Robert Hilles. There have been a couple of occasions when Chris Dewdney could have won—he was nominated for Predators of the Adoration and the year afterwards, I think, for The Immaculate Perception—both of which were far more noteworthy than the other contenders. Finally, I think that Steve McCaffery’s selected works, Seven Pages Missing, lost out to a pretty disposable book by George Elliott Clarke. These cases were the six occasions where I thought that the juries had committed an execrable injustice to poetry. I am not suggesting that every year a great work of experimental literature deserves attention. I don’t think that we have to pay lip service to avant-garde practice all the time and reward it. But I do think that on these six occasions—when such books had been shortlisted—they were up against far inferior candidates. And they didn’t win. To me that seems quite outrageous. I can also speak about my own book Eunoia, which was shortlisted, of course, for the Griffin and won, but which didn’t even get shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, which—
OP: Which leads into my next question. You sell more copies of Eunoia than there are theoretically people who read poetry in
CB: Eunoia tends to polarize opinion. People either really, really love it or really, really hate it. By virtue of its success, I think that I have inadvertently established a kind of unachievable standard for other poetic practice, if not for my own future practice. I have now set the bar very high for a lot of poets who might have thought that they could get away with a mediocre career. I think that the success of the book will always be in the back of their minds as a kind of unequalled anomaly—a benchmark for subsequent achievement. For some people, the book might prove inspiring. It might be great to know that it’s possible for an avant-garde poet to become a bestseller. But even so, the success of Eunoia as a cultural artifact pales in comparison to the success of the average videogame or to the success of someone like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. I think that, for poets, our standards of success have become so impoverished that to sell a few thousand copies of your work in a year constitutes a badge of extreme honour…when in fact the humble scales of such achievement suggest something about the failure of my own literary vocation. Nevertheless, the book has tended to polarize opinion, and there has been a backlash against it among the most philistine versifiers in the country. I think that there has been some desire to see the work falter. I know via the rumour mill that, on the GG jury, two of the three judges would have liked to have seen the book shortlisted as an acknowledgement of its cultural success. I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to win the award, given the controversies around the book, but I did think that I deserved the acknowledgement; however, one of the judges insisted quite categorically that, under no circumstances, would the book receive even this modest recognition. I think that there’s been some attempts to mitigate against the success of the book, and in some respects the book has set an extreme standard now for my own practice. I have yet to figure out how to outdo myself.
OP: Well, that brings me around to a conversation I’d like to have about the jury experience and specifically how jury members can and do influence the awarding of a prize. You have recently had a unique experience as a GG jury member. I’d like you to explain or give me a quick narrative about your experience on and subsequently off the GG jury. I would also like to know how you ended up on this year’s GG jury in the first place, and how your subsequent experience altered your perception of the awards process.
CB: Of course. Perhaps I should contextualize my anecdote by talking about my other experiences on juries prior to this one. I’ve been on numerous juries for both prizes and grants. I have found each of those experiences very interesting and they have taught me a great deal about the social politics of the awards process. What pleases me is that my experience has been, for the most part, very collegial and relatively uneventful. However I have noticed that some jurors come more prepared than others or less prepared than others, that some come to the process with unreasonable expectations about their influence on the jury. Others come with more reasonable expectations. I think that some jurors have greater or lesser expertise than you might like to see in such a context. Nevertheless, I think that my experience has been pretty normative, and I have generally been very happy with the results of my work on juries. I think that merit has generally prevailed. I don’t think that I have ever had to make unhappy concessions. I have never felt that I have somehow compromised my own sensibilities. What I’ve noticed about the fundamental psychology of the process is that, for most people on a jury, a vote for the winner is actually a kind of vote for yourself. You are hoping, in a certain sense, to see yourself either reflected or embodied in the winner. I think that this fact alone may account in large part for the mediocrity of many prizewinners. I think that, if you are a mediocre assessor , you are going to have difficulty advancing the cause of your betters at the expense of your own career.
OP: Or of your own ego?
CB: Yeah. I mean, it seems to me that, in the history of art, consensus never explains who the best people are in the short term. Really, I think that any statements about the future importance of an author for posterity’s sake are generally made as wagers by charismatic individuals staking an expert claim against history. I had never been on a jury for the GG prize, and typically you have to be nominated by your peers, and you have to fill out paperwork indicating that you’re willing to participate in future committees. In this case, I was called directly by the Governor General’s Committee, which is a branch of the Writing and Publishing Section of the Canada Council. The representative asked me whether or not I would be willing to participate, and I said ‘Certainly!’ Nobody with my expertise from my generation had ever been asked to participate on this jury, and despite many other competing priorities, I felt obliged to do this community service. As a young writer, you never really imagine that can ever get your hands on the levers of cultural control, you know? So when you’re given an opportunity like this one, I think that you’re obliged to take it. I received a description of my responsibilities in the mail —paperwork outlining conflicts of interest, guidelines for assessment, and a schedule of obligations. I had to reserve about five months in order to read about 125 books. I got them in increments, as they were received by the GG Committee. I had to generate a longlist of ten books that would be subsequently submitted a fortnight in advance of any deliberations so that other jurors could see what we would be discussing. I was pretty assiduous about my performance, and read all the books completely. I ranked them all with notes to remind myself about my rationales for each evaluation. I felt pretty confident that I had a very good longlist of ten books. Now the Canada Council did offer a description of what constituted a conflict of interest, and I thought that it would be very difficult to be an informed committee member without having some reason to comment upon a potential conflict: first, by being involved in an intimate relationship with a poet; second, by being financially obligated through cultural institutions to another poet; and third, by being an artistic collaborator with other poets. The community is very small despite the number of people writing in
OP: Well, conflicts of interest, it seems to me, especially in the GG processes, seem almost inevitable given the still-quite insular and even incestuous Canadian poetry community. There is an absolute history, with the GG specifically, of blatant conflicts of interest which seem to go publicly unaddressed. For example, George Bowering famously wins in 1969 with Warren Tallman sitting on the jury; Fred Wah winning with Bowering on the jury in 1985; Roy Miki winning with Daphne Marlatt—his colleague at Simon Fraser—on the jury…is it even reasonable to expect objectivity given such a restricted pool from which jurors seem to be drawn?
CB: Well, I think that, on the paperwork from the GG, conflicts were pertinent if you had a financial, familial, or intimate relationship with the person in question. Being friends, for example, was not technically an issue. Being a mentor or a student of a contender, was not technically an issue. But the paperwork had this very open section on ‘other things that you might wish to confess,’ and I think that there’s an element of discretion used to determine whether or not you indicate your debt to somebody else. I think that it’s very difficult to be a writer of merit in this country without befriending other writers of merit. In a social network as small as this one, I think that you inevitably become intimate with all the people whom you might upstage or emulate, and certainly, given the limited number of coteries in
OP: Given your admission that you have to be paying close attention to those people that you are trying to emulate or improve upon in your own practice, how do you see it working the other way in terms of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, tribalism? What I mean by that is, for example, despite the grumblings on either side which deny a rift between the—and I’m generalizing here—often more experimental poetic communities of say Calgary, versus the more traditional or lyrical poetic communities thought to exist, for example, in Montréal, it also seems inevitable to me that you would end up on a jury which considers Carmine Starnino’s latest book and vice versa. For the same reasons, you’re always going to have the Coach House poet jury member reading the Véhicule/Signal poet’s books and vice versa.
CB: Well, let me put it this way: If Carmine Starnino had submitted a book this last year while I was on this jury, I would have signalled a conflict as a matter of course. I am, however, absolutely certain that I could have objectively assessed the merits of his work. I’ve read a few good poems by him, and I wouldn’t categorically dismiss his merits— but that said, I think that, if other jurors didn’t know that he and I have had an intellectual sparring match, then I would feel obliged to apprise the judges of this circumstance so that they could contextualize my assessment of his work. I’d be quite happy to make sure that everybody had all of the information at hand, in part because this courtesy would protect me from any accusations of underhandedness, and I would have an opportunity to demonstrate my scrupulous objectivity.
OP: So the personal poetics of jury members, in your mind, are inconsequential? Are jury members asked or expected to leave their poetics at the door, or are they selected as jury members for their particular poetics?
CB: I do not think that jurors must park their biases at the door. They are, of course, always asked to evaluate the merit of the work. I think that depending upon your own conception of literary history, what constitutes merit is going to vary…
OP: This is exactly what I mean though…
CB: I would like to think though, that unlike many poets my age or younger, I’m operating from a position of relative, historic strength. I have a doctorate in poetry. I’ve dedicated 25 years of my life to its study, and now I have a black belt in the subject. I have already demonstrated a thorough immersion in the history of writing, including the history of traditions outside my areas of interest.
OP: But knowing something about a particular aesthetic school, understanding how and why it might be meritorious, and saying ‘This is the best book of poetry this year’ are two different things. If you are on a jury with someone from a conservative literary camp, are you expected to both be making concessions in order to come to an agreement?
CB: Well I would like to think that I’m in fact not making concessions. If we’re trying to be persuasive about the merits of a work, then the logic of the most informed argument must prevail in any discussion. I’ve been on juries where I’ve found myself, to my dismay, defending the merits of a work of lyrical poetry which was not receiving its due recognition. And I couldn’t understand how I would be the one defending its merits. I’m often dismayed by the fact that lyric poets who purported to value merit nevertheless ignored the best work of lyrical poetry. They seemed to be somehow ignorant of its merits, or at least willing to ignore these merits in order to celebrate something mediocre and inferior. That’s what I find most infuriating. That’s the strangest thing. People who purport to be supporting their own practice can’t seem to figure out what constitutes the best work in that milieu.
OP: Alright. Well, I’m sorry for getting us side-tracked with this. Your personal experience recently on the GG jury in terms of conflict of interest…?
CB: Right. This last year, my best friend Darren Wershler-Henry published a book called Apostrophe with his good friend Bill Kennedy. Apostrophe is a work of poetry written almost entirely by machine. In the 1990s Bill Kennedy wrote a very whimsical poem called “Apostrophe,” which consists of a whole series of non-sequiturs, each of which begins with the phrase “You are.” He read from it quite frequently in
OP: But there are protocols in place?
CB: Well, actually, there are none. That’s what is so galling about the whole experience. As is the case for any other jury on which I have participated, I did all the work on the assumption that there are actually very formal rules of governance written down, to which the jury members and the award managers must conform. Apparently there are none for the GG prize. The woman to whom I first spoke was responsible for managing the logistics of the prize, and she apparently gave me information that was completely incorrect. I would in fact not be able to participate. When I asked for the formal documentation indicating what the protocols were. no one could provide it because it simply didn’t exist. Members of the committee had decided quite arbitrarily to excuse me from duty at the last minute, in effect for no good reason. They had made up the protocols as they went along. For whatever reason, they felt a lack of confidence in me after several months of work. I don’t know why— the excuses of the Canada Council seemed absurd to me. The committee had suddenly decided (months after my initial enquiry) that I had exceeded my duties as a juror and that it would be impossible for me to judge any application objectively by virtue of having made inquiries about the book’s submission to the prize.
OP: Now, you say that you were dismissed for ‘no good reason,’ but I would imagine that someone had to have formulated some definitive reason somewhere along the line…
CB: Well, the ‘no good reason’ has to do with the fact that there are no rules of governance—so they’re making up the reasons as they go. And to me that’s unconscionable for a prize that’s supposed to be this important. Throughout the process, the woman responsible for managing the GG in Writing and Publishing was saying that she was trying to “protect the integrity of the award.” This justification seemed to me completely bogus. As you have already noted, there have been many occasions in the past when the committee has not really cared about the integrity of the award—and without written rules of governance, there is no standard by which we might judge the integrity of the process. It seemed to me that the rep at Canada Council was poorly informed about the history of Council’s relationship to experimental writers. I felt outraged that, as an experimental writer on a jury, I was being excused, despite being a PhD with a long history of involvement in similar juries.
OP: Well presumably, had your poetics and your personal avant garde sensibilities been an issue, you wouldn’t have been invited onto the jury in the first place…
CB: Yes, but my personal history with the Canada Council has always been somewhat vexed. The rep was very surprised when I reminded her, for example, that my book hadn’t been shortlisted for the GG. The very fact that people didn’t know that I might have some concerns about being personally involved in the process was disconcerting. It seemed that the GG committee had taken this opportunity to redress what was a very long oversight in the past and now, suddenly, were rescinding all of it. I could not believe that members of the committee could just make up these rules as they went along and then say that they were protecting the integrity of the award, when in fact there were no rules of governance around its management. If you can make these kinds of arbitrary decisions on a whim, then there is no integrity to the process. I don’t see what you’re protecting. I think that they could have demonstrated their integrity by adhering to the protocols that they had initially given me rather than making me do all the work after the fact, only to change their minds. I should have been having these arguments four months earlier, not on the very last day when they requested my longlist. So this brouhaha only highlighted for me the bureaucratic incompetence in the Canada Council; the process simply undermined my already-failing confidence in the institution—
OP: Yes, but it seems that you’ve had a long history of discord with the Canada Council dating back to your own poetic practice and struggle for funding with Eunoia, so did this ‘left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-is-doing’ come as a surprise to you?
CB: In a fundamental way, there was no surprise. It was just the degree of incompetence that blew me away. It was the fact that, yet again, I would be entering into a vexed relationship with the Council.
OP: And you’re calling it ‘incompetence’ as opposed to ‘inconsistency,’ or does inconsistency create incompetence?
CB: No, this was incompetence. I asked them what the rules were for handling a conflict of interest, and I was told one thing. And then four months later, they told me something else. And the person directly responsible for managing the award should know these rules. The reason that they didn’t was that there were no such rules. They don’t exist. Such lack of governance is irresponsible for an organization funded by taxpayers. I don’t think that, if I were perhaps a more prestigious poet than I am—if I were a Margaret Atwood or a Michael Ondaatje—I don’t think that the Council would have had the temerity to kick me off a jury summarily on the very day that they had asked me for my longlist! I found the behaviour of the Council to be an incredibly egregious abuse of my time—and of course, the rudeness of the process suggested that, from the perspective of the committee members, I was already just a disposable resource. They impugned my professionalism; they impugned my objectivity; and they impugned my scrupulousness— when in fact I think that, of all the people on the jury, I was the only person who actually had the most formal, most proven, track-record in all these qualities.
OP: What’s the solution in terms of an administrative fix at the GGs or at the Canada Council in order to prevent this from happening again?
CB: Obviously they have to have a set of rules of governance in place. The Council has admitted to me that there are none, and I have said that this situation is unconscionable. I am dismayed that an institution like this can run for 40-odd years without some protocols formally in place. I don’t know how that’s even been possible. I don’t know how the Canada Council can suggest that this award is well-managed, when in fact it actually has no governance. In any other organization of this scale, there would be written protocols in place, produced through consultation with the literary community—protocols that would have been assessed by a board of governors of some sort, and that would have been generated like a constitution. The very fact that the Council doesn’t even have these basic structures in place undermines the credibility of the award.
OP: The results of this year’s GG deliberations have obviously come out now—you were replaced by Cyril Dabydeen and—
CB: Yes, I was actually required to return all of the books, all 125 books, on short notice. I had to box them all up and send them back. I spent four or five months of dedicated time reading those books. I had to read a couple per day in order to maintain the pace required, and they insisted that whoever replaced me on the jury would in fact read all of the books and make an objective assessment about their merits. In less than two weeks. I think that’s impossible. There’s no way that anyone could’ve done a respectable job reading that many books and assessing their merits in less than two weeks. Now, they certainly paid me for my time of course, and I did receive letters of apology. I did make sure that some sort of recognition was paid—
OP: So there has been some sort of official apology or redress from the Canada Council?
CB: Only insofar as I have been invited to assist in writing any rules of governance for the award. And those rules are supposed to be generated before the next jury is convened in 2007.
OP: So you’ve been thanked and apologized to by being given more work?
CB: Well, among my top ten, the only credible contenders for the award which appeared on the new shortlist—the one generated by Cyril Dabydeen, Evelyn Lau, and Mary Di Michele—the only books which I thought were credible contenders were the one by Dionne Brand—she was ranked fifth on my list—and the one by Ken Babstock—he was ranked seventh on my list. I think that, if I had been on the reconvened jury with the indicated shortlist, I would have argued pretty hard for Dionne’s book to win, and I think my compromise candidate would have definitely been Ken’s book. Those two books are quite fabulous works of lyrical practice. I think they’re pretty good. I don’t necessarily think that either book was the most accomplished work of the year though.
OP: Who was your number one?
CB: I think that the best lyrical book published last year was a very lengthy book called Anatomy of Keys by Steven Price. It was his very first book, and I can’t believe that his book has not received the attention that it would otherwise deserve. While I probably prefer the more modern sensibilities of people like Dionne or Ken, I think that, as a first book, Steven’s work is an extraordinary achievement. It’s a historical treatment of Harry Houdini, very much reminiscent of a work like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, at least in the sense that it’s a kind of metapoetic retelling of historiography. And it doesn’t read like a first book. It’s an extraordinarily accomplished work, albeit traditional and conservative, according to my own tastes.. But given that it’s more than 100 pages long and that nearly every page is a pretty solid achievement, I am quite amazed that it hasn’t received more attention. So if I had to pick a lyrical book, I would have preferred to see this one on the list. But given the pathologies of the shortlist, I think that Dionne’s book and Ken’s book were certainly the most credible contenders, and Dionne’s book is probably the more important of the two. I could not understand why Stumbling in the Bloom would even be remotely considered let alone shortlisted. It ranked very very low on my own list of the 125. I don’t see how anyone can write a credible book of poetry entitled ‘participle, preposition, noun,’ you know? [laughs] The structure is too cliché, and the whole book is just so saccharine by comparison to the more advanced, euphonic sensibilities at play in the works by Dionne or Ken.
OP: You’ve mentioned that you are going to be a part of the process of creating regulations for the Canada Council for the GGs in the future. Would you participate in the GG process as a juror again if the opportunity arose?
CB: Well, that was my concern. I had raised such a fuss and gotten into such an argument with the rep—
OP: Do you feel that you shot yourself in the foot, or bit the hand that might feed you?
CB: Oh, absolutely! I believe that I have forfeited a lot of goodwill that the Canada Council might have reserved for me in the future. I have complained vociferously. I mean, I have really bitched at the members of the organization. I have really chewed them out. I was quite angry with the administrators and I pulled no punches about it. I was very candid about their incompetence. And at the same time, when I demanded that I get some sort of formal, written apology and acknowledgement of their incompetence, I also asked for a letter indicating that my complaints would not in any way compromise my future relationship with the Canada Council. I wanted assurances that I would be considered seriously in the future as a peer-assessor for future committees, and that I wouldn’t be blackballed for any future grants. I was concerned because I had a couple of grants in play at the time—a travel grant (which I received), and a very major arts grant (which I did not receive—I was quite appalled by the rejection)—plus a grant for a reading series made on behalf of the
OP: So just as some members of previous juries may have had motives that extended beyond the immediate books under review, you suspect that the Canada Council might have quite a good memory?
CB: Well, let’s just say that my experience with the Council has been difficult. For seven years, I couldn’t get money from any agency to support Eunoia. I only got funding for it finally in the seventh year, on the eve of its publication. At the time when it would’ve been almost useless to have the money. And the grant went, in effect, to paying down debt accumulated from spending years trying to get the patronage. But over the course of those seven years, I was told that, despite its apparent, whimsical merits, the jurors didn’t think that Eunoia was going to sell; they thought that the Council would be wasting its money; and they thought that the project looked impossible, etc. I mean, the Council offered a lot of spurious excuses for its lack of support—excuses that had little to do with the aesthetic merits of the work. And of course I noted this irony in my acceptance speech for the Griffin Prize. I could not believe that I had endured so much difficulty, trying to convince my peers that the work warranted funding, and I was appalled that I was turned down, over and over again, by the very institution which purported to reward works of advanced merit. The Council is supposed to reward the best of the best, and the Council does little to fulfill this mandate. People would invite me to reading series and would ask the Canada Council for funding on my behalf, and they would be continually refused. Only when Eunoia started enjoying success did I become important enough to warrant subsidy. And only then did I realize that the institution actually micromanages our careers for a pittance. I am certainly worried that, despite proving the merits of my practice beyond all reasonable doubt, I might still have even more difficulty obtaining support for it.
OP: So you’ve inadvertently become the enfant terrible in the eyes of the money?
CB: Well, not so inadvertently I guess! [laughs] I am still very idealistic about my chosen vocation—but the world of poetry could be much better. It could enjoy more recognition. It could be smarter. I think that the specific pathologies of a prize like the GG are symptomatic of the pathologies that prevail in the general, poetic community. In many respects, my indictment of the award is a synecdoche of sorts for my indictment of the poetic community as a whole.
OP: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.
CB: The pleasure was mine.
Christian Bök’s Longlist for the 2006 Governor General’s Award
in English Canadian Poetry
- Apostrophe by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry*
- Lemon Hound by Sina Queyras
- Nerve Squall by Sylvia Legris
- Anatomy of Keys by Steven Price
- Inventory by Dionne Brand
- The Men by Lisa Robertson
Yacht by Ken Babstock Air Stream Land
- Fractal Economies by derek beaulieu
- The Sleep of Four Cities by Jen Currin
- Fathom by Tim Bowling
[*Conflict of interest duly noted, of course…]
Further to the above discussion about the insular interconnectedness of the Canadian poetry community, Bök cites this list as an example of the seeming impossibility of managing “conflict of interest” without protocols for involvement on the jury. Having already established his connection with Darren Wershler-Henry and Bill Kennedy (whom Bök describes as “a very good friend”), Bök proceeds down the list to cite what the Canada Council might potentially flag as “conflicts of interest,” given the subjective interpretation of the term by the committee:
“Because of my asterisk attached to Apostrophe, I had expected this work to be bracketed, if not entirely disqualified, from any discussion. but I think that, by any objective standards, this book is the most conceptually sophisticated work of poetry published last year. I also knew that Apostrophe was unlikely to impress other members of the jury—although . I thought that, in discussions with Evelyn Lau and Mary Di Michele, I would have more luck arguing for the merits of Lemon Hound by Sina Queyras, the book which should have won. . Lemon Hound is a work of feminist, lyrical practice inspired by Gertrude Stein, and I think that, of all the submissions from last year, it is easily the most beautiful, both in its design and in its content: it’s a gorgeous production—and I would have argued that, since no work of experimental literature has won the prize in thirty years, this book might qualify as a superb redress. Sina Queyras is, however, the editor of Open Field, an anthology in which I appear, and she has in fact paid for my travel to
 The ReLit Awards (founded in 2000), whose motto is “Ideas, Not Money,” purport to be “an alternative to the big money prizes. The awards are open to books published by independent Canadian literary publishers. ReLit is short for Regarding Literature, Reinventing Literature, Reigniting Literature.” There is no money attached to the award, though winners receive a ring and are fêted at a yearly bonfire. (http://therelitawards.blogspot.com)
 Cain, Stephen. American Standard/Canada Dry.
 Atwood’s actual words were: “All of these prizes—they bring books into the hands of readers. And that is the valid reason for doing this. And the reason we wanted to do a poetry prize was that there wasn’t a major award in this country that was fulfilling that function in the way that we thought it could be fulfilled.”
 Bök was born in 1966.
 “The Griffin Trust was created to serve and encourage excellence in poetry written in English anywhere in the world.” (http://www.griffinpoetryprize.com/history.php). Two awards are given each year, “one to a living Canadian poet, the other to a living poet from any other country, which may include
 The Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded yearly by the Nobel Foundation of Stockholm, Sweden. The prize consists of a medal, a personal diploma, and a cash prize of 10,000,000 SEK (about $1,700,000 CDN). In Alfred Nobel’s will, he stipulated that the prize was meant to honour “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” and that “not only belle-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value” were to be considered. The prize generally rewards a body of work compiled over a career as opposed to a single specific work. (http://nobelprize.org)
 The two shared the award in 1970, bpNichol for The True Eventual History of Billy the Kid (Toronto: Weed/Flower Press, 1970) and Michael Ondaatje for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. (
 Bowering won for Rocky Mountain Foot and the Gangs of the Kosmos (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969) Wah for Waiting for Saskatchewan (Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1985), and Mouré for Furious (Toronto: Anansi, 1988).
 Debbie, an Epic (Vancouver: New Star, 1997) lost to Bolster’s White Stone: The Alice Poems (Montréal: Véhicule/Signal Editions, 1998).
 In 1992 Crozier’s Inventing the Hawk (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992) was selected over Steve McCaffery’s Theory of Sediment (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992).
 Blaser’s The Holy Forest (Toronto: Coach House, 1994) lost to Hilles’ Cantos from a Small Room (Hamilton: Wolsak & Wynn, 1994) in 1994.
 Dewdney’s Predators of the Adoration: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1983) lost to Settlements (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1983) by David Donnell in 1983, while The Immaculate Perception (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1986) lost to Al Purdy’s The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986) in 1986.
 Clarke’s Execution Poems (Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2001) was selected over McCaffery’s Seven Pages Missing (
 Eunoia (
 The GG jurors for 2002 were Daphne Marlatt, George Elliott Clarke, and Nicole Markotic.
 Included in the aforementioned paperwork sent to Dr. Bök by the Canada Council is a document titled “Governor General’s Literary Awards: Responsibilities of the Jury Members and the Program Officer.” Its introduction suggests that “Although the following notes are not to be taken as official jury guidelines, they have been very useful in the past to provide a frame of reference for the juries’ task.” The document states that jurors are expected to “[d]eclare any conflict of interest as soon as possible. Examples of conflict of interest can range from the obvious employer-employee or spouse/partner/relative connections to much more tenuous ones which depend to a large degree on the feelings of the juror.” In addition to this document, Dr. Bök was sent a general document entitled “Canada Council for the Arts: Guidelines for Peer Assessment Committee Members” which appears to be directed at grant or bursary assessment committees. It suggests that:
Conflict of interest exists if members are asked to assess and application:
-from a full-time employer, a client or an organization where they are a board member or serve as a consultant in strategic or financial planning;
-where they have a direct financial interest in the success or failure of a project/application;
-where the applicant is their spouse/partner or an immediate family member;
-where their spouse/partner or immediate family member is a senior staff member, contractor, or board member with the applicant organization;
-where they judge they are unable, for any other reason, to assess the application objectively.
 On the official “Canada Council for the Arts: Conflict of Interest Disclosure Form” submitted to the Council, Dr. Bök has checked the box marked “I wish to disclose the following involvement/activity” and has written “I am the best friend of Darren Wershler-Henry, one of the co-authors of the book Apostrophe, published by ECW Press.” The form is signed and dated
 Starnino, Poetry Editor for Montréal’s Vehicule Press/Signal Editions, wrote a scathing and lengthy review of Eunoia in Books in
 Kennedy, Bill, and Darren Wershler-Henry. Apostrophe.
 In a letter of apology sent to Dr. Bök, the Writing and Publishing Department of the Canada Council admits that “this situation could have been avoided had we had a prizes-tailored conflict of interest policy in place.”
 In an official letter of apology, the Council admits their oversight and the fact that they “have no policy governing conflict of interest as it relates to the awarding of prizes.” They conclude by suggesting that with Dr. Bök’s help, they are “hopeful that we can put into place the necessary controls to prevent this from happening again.”
 Babstock, Ken.
 Price, Steven. Anatomy of Keys.