If you watched the "cage match" between Carmine Starnino and Christian Bok and you stayed with it till the end, you would have heard a question addressed to both speakers about women and minorities. That questioner has now posted a report on the evening, in which she elaborates upon her concerns:
When I asked why they thought, in a country as ethnically diverse as Canada, that the most prominent writers they could call to mind were white men, neither Bök nor Starnino answered completely. With the exception of Starnino’s brief mention of the difficulties aboriginal writers perceive in publishing their work, both avoided the question of ethnicity, focusing on the role of women in their respective genres. Starnino asserted that as an editor he always invites women to submit either critical or creative work, and claims that these women often fail to answer his invitations. Bök claimed that the conceptual writing movement to which he belongs was started by accident with his friends in a bar, and it just happens that no women were there. Bök concluded by saying that the avant-garde would welcome a stronger female presence (I should mention here that I studied with Dr. X for three years at the Uof C, and he was, indeed, supportive of my experimental feminist poetic practice).
Despite their claims that they would welcome more diverse voices, both Bök’s and Starnino’s arguments throughout the debate reveal a problem with their approach to solving the issues they perceive in Canadian poetry. Faced with diminished readership, insufficient critical attention, and a growing cultural irrelevance, both writers argue that more needs to be done in Canadian poetry to reduce, restrict, and reject. But perhaps the decline of Canadian poetry needs to be answered not by putting more bars on the windows, but by throwing open the doors. Bök wants poetry to be culturally relevant. Starnino wants poetry to speak to people. But how can poetry do either of these things when most Canadians are poorly represented in the Canadian literary scene? Instead of trying to further limit poetry to make it relevant, to make it speak to people, what can we do to break poetry wide open, and let everyone in?
These are questions worth asking and they deserve a good answer. But the answer seems to me to be that if Bok and Starnino are closing doors, it's against writing that they perceive to be sub-standard, not against people of specific genders or ethnicities. It seems a particularly odd charge to sling at Carmine, given that he's the son of Italian immigrants. Who better than a child of non-English speakers, from a working-class family in a predominantly French-speaking city, would appreciate the challenges facing non-majority citizens aspiring towards literary legitimacy?
Leaving aside the question of Bok and Starnino's particular role, what about Ms. Hajnoczky's assertion that "most Canadians are poorly represented in the Canadian literary scene"? I'm wondering what metric she's used to come to this conclusion, because it seems to me to be manifestly incorrect. For one thing, "most Canadians" actually are white. Here are some statistics on ethnicity from the 2006 census:
Here are some stats on visible minorities:
Furthermore, it has to be taken into consideration that a fairly high percentage of visible minorities will be relatively recent immigrants, many of whom don't speak English as a first language. Here are the stats on language:
It has to be further taken into account that most immigrants are fundamentally concerned with improving their material circumstances and it is a proven fact that writing poetry is a poor method of achieving such goals. I attended a private high school in Ottawa, where many of my peers were the children of economically successful immigrants. For most of these kids, if artistic pursuits were encouraged at all, it was in the name of becoming a more well-rounded person, not as a career goal. Many of those kids had serious talents in one artistic field or another, but none that I know of went on to make an artistic pursuit their vocation. Those kids' kids, it seems to me, stand a far greater chance of being encouraged to pursue artistic goals, as their parents will want them to have what they lacked--just as their immigrant parents, in their turn, wanted their kids to possess a measure of the financial stability and security that they worked extremely hard to obtain.
The vast majority of poets in any culture come from the middle and upper classes because people entrenched in such circumstances in general have more leisure, financial security and education. To be a poet, in any meaningful sense of the word, requires not merely competence in, but mastery of, the language in which one writes, as well as a deep and broad knowledge of the poetic traditions in that language and in the poetries of other cultures, to say nothing of the technical and critical terminologies pertinent to the art form. So it should come as no surprise if the vast majority of Canadian poets writing in English are white and middle class. Or stupid and lazy, if you prefer Doc Bok's terminology.
Given this, are minorities actually under-represented, or do we see them publishing books of poetry in precisely the proportion one would expect? I don't have numbers on this, but consider the following facts. In 2001, South Asians represented a little over 3% of the Canadian population. It could reasonably be assumed, then, that South Asian females represented approximately 1.5% of the overall population: approximately 450,000 people. In 2004, Mansfield Press published Red Silk, an anthology of South Asian women poets; there were eleven contributors to the anthology. Assuming that the editors got all of the eligible contributors, that means about 1 in 40,000 South Asian females in Canada are poets. There are slightly fewer than 500 full members of the League of Canadian Poets, according to their website. Assuming there are as many poets publishing books with recognized presses who aren't members of the League, that means that there are approximately 1000 English-language poets in Canada. Going by the same 2001 population numbers, that means that 1 in 30,000 Canadians is an English-language poet. So, by this rough math, it does look like South Asian females are somewhat under-represented. But again, you have to take into account things like English-language competency, which is bound to be lower in a population that originates in countries whose official languages are not English. Given that the percentage of South Asians in Canada went up 1% in five years between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, it seems very likely that there has been a significant influx of new immigrants from the region. The probability of first-generation ESL immigrants becoming competent English-language poets is extraordinarily small. So it would seem that, in fact, South Asian women are not having doors closed to them in the "poetry scene."
There are of course serious social issues mitigating against people from other demographic cohorts becoming English-language poets. It is a well-established fact, for instance, that aboriginals are disproportionately poor, disproportionately ill-educated and disproportionately incarcerated. These are all factors that make your average Native Canadian quite unlikely to become an English-language poet. I hope it will be generally agreed that this is a trivially minor problem facing Native peoples. And I think it's safe to say that they are in the situation in which they find themselves directly as the result of discriminatory policies on the part of Canada's conquering peoples (predominantly white Europeans). This is not the result, in other words, of systemic or systematic barriers within the poetry publishing establishment of contemporary Canada. If Native Canadians are not punching their poetic weight, statistically speaking, it is the product of much larger socio-economic issues. In other words, if aboriginals were on average wealthier, healthier and better educated, there would be more Native poets writing in English. (The complex post-colonial ironies of writing in the language of your traditional oppressor is a topic for another post.) There are certainly many presses who have demonstrated an openness to publishing such Native Canadian poets as Sky-Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe, Philp Kevin Paul, Randy Lundy, Gregory Scofield and Beth Cuthand, to name a few.
At any rate, the field is ripe for further statistical analysis, but one thing, I think, can be safely stated: Any perception of inbuilt bias against minority Canadians in the poetry publishing establishment can be nothing better than an assumption. In order for poets to be welcomed with open arms, they first have to exist.