Sunday, 27 April 2014

Circus Maximus

Almost from the start, the Griffin Poetry Prize has been dogged by the sense that something about the award just isn’t right. For some, it's the event’s Satyricon-ish vibe. The insane amount of money involved, the circus maximus scale of the operation, the proximity to "power"—a certain derangement sets in. It's as if staff slip something into everyone's drink; fame-amphetamines, maybe. Normal people say and do very strange things (as Richard Sanger and Jason Guriel ably captured in their reports on the annual gala).

More worrisome, for others, is the appearance of excessive cosiness and insiderism. They point to close ties between the trustees and the shortlisted books, and how the process seems to consistently draw jurors—and winners—from the same circles. I know: to even insinuate the Griffin prize is rigged is crazy, except there are odd moments that do give pause. Last year, a juror was about to announce the international winner at the podium when she haltingly admitted she didn’t know who it was. Scott Griffin had to hand her the envelope so she could read the name.

I have friends, such as Zach Wells, who say it’s silly for anyone to act shocked. The Griffin, he argues, is a private enterprise and was clearly set up from the get-go to produce the results it's produced. In 2007—the year Ken Babstock, Don McKay and Priscilla Uppal were on the short-listZach noted some uncomfortable coincidences:
The big problem with these prizes isn't that they always go to unworthy winners—although they often do—but that, even when the winner is a good pick, the decision is too often traceable to nepotistic networks. The Griffin Jury consists of Karen Solie (an old friend of Babstock's), Charles Simic (co-editor of the anthology New British Poetry, published and prefaced by Babstock at House of Anansi, and John Burnside, a contributor to said anthology. McKay is also connected to Solie, through Brick Books, Solie's publisher: McKay is a central member of Brick's editorial board. Priscilla Uppal seems to be the sacrificial lamb of the shortlist. It may or may not be significant that, on a list whose favourites are both pale-skinned fellows, she is neither. Call me a cynic, but what I've read of her poetry makes me doubt she was chosen for literary reasons. Back to Babstock, it has also been pointed out that Babstock is not only published by House of Anansi but is also employed by said press, and that House of Anansi is owned by Scott Griffin, founder of the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. In theory and possibly in fact as well, this should have zero impact on the decision, but added to the mix, it makes the integrity of this prestigious prize pretty easy to doubt, don't it?
But if the Griffin prize was really created to produce certain results, wouldn't it have been easier to design the prize along the lines of the MacArthur fellowship, which accepts no submissions and confers its awards according to the closed-door recommendations of a board? Had they gone that route, the Griffin overlords would not only always get the outcome they wanted, but would have inoculated themselves from criticism. Moreover, to believe accusations of a “fix” one has to overlook the inconvenient fact that past juries have served up plenty of surprises—last year’s short-list, for example, caught many off-guard.

But now readers abroad are starting to notice something amiss. In 2012, PN Review reacted sharply to the news of the winners:
The winners of the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize were announced in Toronto on 7 June. David Harsent, author of Night (Faber & Faber 2011), and Ken Babstock, author of Methodist Hatchet (House of Anansi 2011), each received $65,000 CDN. The shortlist was made-up of three Canadians and four international poets in separate categories. The judges for the prize, Heather McHugh, David O’Meara, and Fiona Sampson, read a staggering ‘481 books of poetry, received from 37 countries around the globe, including 19 translations’. In spite of the variety before them, the judges managed to include among the seven three authors who have previously been finalists for the twelve-year old prize (Babstock, Harsent, and another Canadian, Phil Hall). Judge David O’Meara might have excused himself from the process when discussion around the judicial table turned to Methodist Hatchet: he is thanked in that book’s acknowledgements. In fact, a little digging reveals that O’Meara is thanked in the acknowledgements of three of Babstock’s four collections. In the fourth, Babstock’s debut, Mean (1999), O’Meara is the dedicatee. All four of the books are published by House of Anansi, which was acquired by Scott Griffin, namesake and founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2002. In what is surely a coincidence, Babstock has served as the house’s poetry editor for a number of years. A practically-minded onlooker suggested, 'The Griffin Foundation might be better served writing cheques directly to House of Anansi's marketing department.'
PN Review is back again this year, suspicions newly aroused:
The 2014 International and Canadian shortlists for the Griffin Poetry Prize have been announced. They include American Brenda Hillman (wife of Griffin Trust Trustee Robert Hass), American Carl Phillips (Griffin Poetry Prize judge 2010), and sometime-Canadian Anne Carson (shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001, judge alongside Phillips in 2010). Judges Robert Bringhurst (Canada), Jo Shapcott (UK) and C.D. Wright (USA) each somehow read 539 books of poetry, from 40 countries, including 24 translations, between the annual deadline for submission to the prize (31 December) and the 8 April press release: approximately five and a half books per day. Winning poets in each category will receive CA$65,000, plus CA$10,000 will be awarded to each shortlisted poet, conditional upon said poet attending and participating in the annual readings event, which will take place in Toronto on Wednesday 4 June. According to the Griffin website, prize founder and entrepreneur Scott Griffin, owner of the House of Anansi Press—which has over fourteen years produced eight shortlisted books and three winners—no longer takes part in the selection of judges: ‘To preserve the integrity of the Griffin Poetry Prize.’ Griffin Trust Trustee Robin Robertson may not own Jonathan Cape Ltd, but he is poetry editor and has published books by both Bringhurst and Carson (including the UK edition of her shortlisted book, Red Doc>). We await further connections between the trust, the judges, the poets, and their publishers with anxious optimism.
The Griffin Trust tried to put it in context:
But not everyone saw it that way:


Zachariah Wells said...

I don't think there's a fix or ever has been. Occam's Razor should be enough to dissuade a reasonable person from believing in a conspiracy. I would note, however, that if you marry your cousin, your kids are far more likely to be cross-eyed.

[previous comment deleted because of grammar error]

Anonymous said...

It becomes less of a problem if you don't assume the prize is for the best poetry, straight up, but the best of a certain kind of poetry. It's like the Oscars: the winners aren't the best films, they are the best films made by a group of filmmakers of a certain type. Same for Grammys. It just so happens that mainstream Canadian poetry is a pretty narrow brook.