The Council does not see a conflict of interest in authors assessing books by other authors that are produced by their publishing house. Peer assessors are professionals and dedicated to making the best decision possible. If authors were not able to sit on a peer assessment committee to discuss books produced by their publisher, it would be impossible for the Council to have qualified representation on these committees. As noted by Mr. Wells, Mr. McCaffery has a stellar reputation in the poetry community. The Council benefited from the expertise of all three members of the jury in this selection process.
A number of things to address here. First off, I agree in principle with the first sentence. Obviously, peer jurying would be inconceivable otherwise. I have my issues with peer jurying, but I've never said that no poets should ever be on the jury. However. Agreeing with this a priori does not mean that one need agree with it a posteriori. When three titles by a single press make it onto the shortlist, one immediately looks for an explanation. The altruistic explanation is that it was just an exceptionally good year for BookThug. Bravo, BookThug! This could also be the cynical explanation, depending on your angle. The altruistic explanation only holds water if you can't otherwise account for such a high number of shortlistees. (Keep in mind that BookThug submissions accounted for 6% of books under consideration for the award, but 60% of shortlisted titles. Just having one title on the list defies the odds; having three is akin to the mathematical improbability that saw the Tampa Bay Rays make the MLB playoffs this year.) We could speculate endlessly about how this extremely improbable scenario took shape--and we must speculate, as the CC insists on acting like some kind of goddamn Star Chamber--but Occam's Razor insists that we pin responsibility on an interested party.
Enter Steve McCaffery, BookThug author and Champion of All Things Avant Garde. The spokesperson from the CC said that I made reference to Dr. McCaffery's "stellar reputation in the poetry community." I said nothing of the sort. For one thing, I've never held Dr. McCaffery's work or opinions in high regard. For another, I'm far from alone in this. I said that McCaffery is an eminence grise. Which he is. He is a polarising figure who has dedicated his life and work to the promotion of one stream of poetry and the diminishment of all others. If he is to be placed on a jury, this needs to be taken into account. Dr. McCaffery is not simply a variable to be inserted into a jury equation. He is a theorist and poetic ideologue dedicated to the promotion of postmodern values in poetry, who would have a number of preformulated arguments at his fingertips, which he would no doubt bring to bear in any discussions with fellow jurors to determine a shortlist. If your average possible juror is x, then McCaffery is 5x. For a jury including him to be balanced, the other jurors must be similarly formidable figures. Douglas Burnet Smith is a good writer and a smart man, but has nothing like McCaffery's stature or zeal. Joanne Arnott, to be frank, is little better than an amateur. In the absence of disclosures from the CC, it is only reasonable to assume that McCaffery had a disproportionate influence on the shortlist. The CC is to blame for this, for choosing an unbalanced jury in the first place and for failing to redress the unbalanced shortlist in the second.
Something that's gone unmentioned is the fact that the unbalance isn't restricted to the presence of 3 BookThug titles. Besides those, there is also a book by a writer, Garry Thomas Morse, associated with the Kootenay School of Writing, which is aesthetically aligned with BookThug and its pedagogical arm, the Toronto New School of Writing. So, four out of five titles have "avant garde" credentials. And we're to believe that McCaffery, a longtime avant-garde general, had no more say in this than the other two. Who have no avant-garde affiliations, by the way. Uh-huh. A likely story. Occam? Not bloody likely, you say? Oh. (And please note that the CC carefully avoids saying that all jurors had equal input.)
As usual, the CC is owning no responsibility for this cock-up. Same thing happened a couple of years ago with the Di Brandt/Jacob Scheier mess. They said everything was okay. But then they started cracking down hard, going so far as to remove juror Brian Bartlett from jury duty because a poet he barely knew happened to dedicate one poem to Bartlett (because the poem borrowed a line of Bartlett's). The CC doesn't seem to realize that conflict of interest is something that has to be watched more on the back-end than the front-end of a juried competition; a potential conflict of interest is immaterial if the compromised juror selects no books to which s/he has an affiliation. Had this year's jury only turned up one BookThug/avant-garde title, you shrug and go "okay, that's to be expected." Three?! Then, you need to go back to the jury and find out, pardon me, what the fuck is going on. Let me remind you: there were 170 titles submitted to this award. 11 of them were from BookThug. Let me also remind you that this is a press that fairly prides itself on its own counter-culture marginality, on being "experimental" and "innovative." For them to have three books on this most mainstream of lists means either that they've sold out hardcore or that they've been given an unfair boost by an ardent fan.
Finally, I think this situation proves conclusively that the three-person peer jury consensus model is too broken to be fixed. Scrap it, and stop pretending it's the only way this thing can be done. I've made many suggestions in the past how this might be effected. Mark Sampson has recently made more elaborate, but eminently reasonable, suggestions. Canada Council: start listening to your constituents. Don't be like Steven Harper. Because even if you are, he'll still cut your ass.