Michael Lista’s Got A Point

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When Never More There first came out, I was hopeful that I would luck out and win some award. I would never have deluded myself into thinking a Governor General’s Award was possible, but an award of some kind, maybe something local, was in the back of my mind. It’s hard to admit now and it sounds rather foolish to even think such a thing, but such are the aspirations of young poets. As time went on I quickly came to realize that an award or even the recognition of a nomination was not coming, but more importantly I came to the realization that it didn’t really matter whether or not such an honour would come: the poetry and the discussion surrounding it was far more important.

The supposed importance of literary prizes has grown in recent years and has contributed to a shift in importance in the literary community and this is the focus of a recent article by Michael Lista. In it he discusses the recent Vancouver poetry conference and a “common direction” he sees among the great variety of poets in Canada: the general opinion that there is too much emphasis on literary awards and fewer on quality reviews reaching the reading public. I, like many others, will tune in to see which poets have been nominated for a variety of awards and doing so serves as a way of familiarizing myself with the latest books of note. Less and less are we reading reviews of exciting new books in the papers, regardless of our attempts to do so, because the volume of reviews have declined. There are, of course, still publications that run reviews, but cutbacks across the country are having a noticeable effect on the discussion of poetry in this country.

Lista seems quite positive about the direction things may take in the future, especially since Canadian poets seem to have similar opinions regarding reviews and prizes. I think, more than prize recognition, reviews of new and old work need to increase in prominence in order that the conversation about Canadian poetry continue and retain vigor. Perhaps there is room for young poets to join in this discourse and add a new perspective.

The dearth of reviews is happening for a couple of reasons: newspapers are scaling back their books coverage, but more than that, the ever-growing body of young poets (who themselves expect reviews of their books) are afraid of writing them, for fear that filing the wrong review will come back to sting them. And so as the number of poets publishing books increases every year, and the number of reviews dwindles, a single meretricious thing has come to dominate the poetic conversation in this country: the literary prize. I say meretricious because for jurors, seeing good books received by silence is a maddening thing, and makes otherwise honest, reasonable, perspicacious readers — who as this conference demonstrated, are very much interested in poets and poetry outside of their aesthetic ken — act in partisan ways.

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