Friday, January 9, 2009

My response to Robert Sirman's letter

Dear Mr. Sirman,

Thank you for your response, sir, but frankly, far from "helpful," I find it enormously disheartening. No doubt you've sent out identical copies of it to all the other people who wrote to you about this matter.

You say that "not everyone will be happy with the decisions of a particular peer assessment committee, no matter how stringently we have met the requirements for selection of the peers and how strongly we have adhered to the process." This is indisputably true. In past years, I have rarely been satisfied with the shortlists and winners of this award. In past years, there has been a great deal of talk, and articles written, about conflicts of interest. That this is the first year such talk has escalated to the level that it was deemed worthy of coverage by national print and broadcast media--and that this is the first year I and others have been sufficiently moved to complain directly to the Council about it--is significant. I do not appreciate you downplaying that significance. This is not a matter of gripes and sour grapes, Mr. Sirman, this is a matter of a serious ethical breach and a matter of a serious legislative breach that allowed it to happen.

I know all about the Council's official position on conflicts of interest. In fact, one year that I applied for a grant, the editor of one of my books was on the grant jury and had to recuse himself from decisions made on my application. I was glad to learn of this because it assured me the grant I did eventually get was not won dishonestly. I know that there are different rules for the GG Awards, but don't understand why some similar exemptions can't be integrated into that process. At any rate, the relationship my editor had to me was far less intimate and intricate than the one between Di Brandt and Jacob Scheier. If it's true that "[e]very effort [was] made to avoid conflicts of interest" in last year's poetry award selection, then I can only conclude that Christian Bok is correct in his assessment that the Canada Council's administration is incompetent. Because all it took to identify the conflicts was a perusal of the book. Let me remind you of certain facts:

  • Di Brandt is the co-author of one of the poems in the winning book
  • Di Brandt's first name is the title of another poem in said book
  • Di Brandt was a good friend of the author's late mother, to whom the book is a tribute
  • Di Brandt is also a good friend of the author, who has described her as a "mentor"
  • Di Brandt is thanked copiously by the author in the book's acknowledgments
  • Pier Giorgio di Cicco provided promotional copy for the book, which appears on the book's back cover
  • Pier Giorgio di Cicco is thanked by the author in the book's acknowledgments
At the very least, Di Brandt should have been disqualified from the jury; her connections to the book and its author are blatant and manifest. It's true that this was "not a decision ... made by one peer alone." If only Brandt or only Di Cicco had been on the jury, I would have a great deal more confidence that conflict of interest hadn't tainted the award. Having them both on the jury makes that very hard to believe--especially when you look outside the abstract mathematics of the selection process and realize that Brandt and Di Cicco are far more prominent people in the poetry world than the third juror, Connie Fife, who is relatively unknown. It would be nice to believe that their votes only counted for one-third each of the decision, but anyone who has served time on any sort of committee knows well that committee decisions can be swayed by particularly forceful personalities. The dynamics of this jury were not well balanced, even if you believe there is no problem of conflict of interest.

Why was Di Brandt allowed to remain on last year's jury when Christian Bok was removed, at the last minute, in a previous year? Michael Lista, in researching an article on the controversy for Canadian Notes & Queries, was told that the disclosure statements signed by the jurors were private documents and therefore not subject to access to information legislation. So we are left to wonder: did Di Brandt disclose her relationship to Jacob Scheier? Did Giorgio di Cicco? If so, why did they remain jurors, when other jurors in similar positions have either voluntarily stepped down or have been removed? If not, what repercussions are there for dishonesty? If there are none, then it's an absolutely meaningless document, a redundant piece of paperwork. If enforcement of the conflict of interest guidelines amounts to, as Melanie Rutledge has said, having a good talk with the jurors about their ethical obligations, what real hope is there that conflict of interest will be avoided?

I can hardly credit that you believe there was no conflict of interest. If you honestly think that the jury came to a disinterested decision, I can only conclude that you're a very credulous person. Alternatively, your response to me is a disingenuous piece of bureaucratic boilerplate. I rather suspect the latter. And this is why I find your letter so disheartening, Mr. Sirman. I remember when you assumed the directorship of the Council. I remember you saying that you didn't want to see "boring art" rewarded. This seemed a refreshingly honest assessment of the Council's previous shortcomings. But, Mr. Sirman, one of the ways boring art gets rewarded is croneyism. I understand that it's too late to do anything about 2008's fiasco, but if, as your letter seems to suggest, the Council plans to do nothing about this in the future, if the Council plans to continue with business as usual, we will continue to see middling books chosen for bad reasons. Were your remarks empty rhetoric, or have you been brought down to the Canada Council's level of bureaucratic mediocrity? As a stakeholder in the Canada Council and as a taxpaying citizen of Canada, sir, I hope, perhaps vainly, to see better.


Zachariah Wells


Nick said...

Good for you Zach.
Hopefully they will consider your facts and thoughts in
the future.

John Lofranco said...

Hey Zach. Good to see you are still fighting the good fight. What are the people who support Di Brant and the winner (Josh someone? I don't even know) saying? Is there a groundswell of support for this decision? That would be interesting to know, because if not, it would make it ever more clear that this is nothing but literary insider trading. Obviously the CC is going to defend itself, but what about the artists involved?

Zachariah Wells said...

Hi John,

I've heard no groundswell of support. Brandt has defended it, Scheier has defended it, Michael Holmes (Scheier's publisher) has defended it, and Marty Gervais (a publisher of Brandt's) has defended it and of course, the CC has defended it. I've heard less interested parties say that this is inevitable and always will be, which isn't so much a defense as a resignation.

Brian Campbell said...

Good show, Zach. So far, I have received no response to my letter.