Sunday, January 08, 2012

Arc Poetry Annual 2012: prize poems & bookish brawls

Poet vs. Poet,” as we’ve dubbed this year’s Annual, seems an appropriate theme for me to find myself enmeshed in at this time. This is to be my last issue as editor of Arc after seven years in the post—seven demanding, fulfilling years that amount to my literary education. Before falling into this role—“fall” is the most accurate way I can think to describe how it happened—I did not think deeply about the competitive aspects of poetic life. I preferred to view the writing of poetry as a singular engagement with one’s world: a private effort undertaken in the hopes of honing a creation worthy of sharing with a reader (or a few), should such opportunity arise. (Anita Lahey, “The poet versus who or what?”)
I’m not entirely sure the difference between a journal that moved from two to three issues a year, or a journal with two issues a year that also issues an “annual” between, especially since the distance between issues seem to be increasing. With their 2012 annual issue, Arc Poetry Magazine, subtitled “Prize poems & bookish brawls,” also marks Anita Lahey’s final as editor after seven years, replaced by incoming editor Katia Grubisic, a Montreal poet and co-editor of Penned: Zoo Poems (Montreal QC: Signal/Vehicule Press, 2009). Alongside the announcements and publications of their 15th annual “Poem of the Year” competition and 10th annual “Diana Brebner Prize” (won by Jenny Haysom, by the by), the issue includes a “Gallery of Prize Emponyms,” various essays and interviews/conversations, “How Poems Work,” a selection of “Editors’ Choices,” and, of course, poems. Who can keep track of it all? In her “Steel toes and stilettos,” self-described “succeeding editor” Katia Grubisic writes:
This Arc considers poetry contests, competitors, laureates, and what those caprine trophies have morphed into today. Fittingly, this is the so-called Kanita issue, part cyborg, part gentle editorial transition. Big shoes to fill—33 years of steel toes and stilettos. More important is the path: knowing where we have come from, yes, as Machado wrote, shaping the path as we walk it. Of yellow brick or diverging in a yellow wood, small steps as it rises to meet us—here is the awe, the boldness, the fortuitous encounters. We want it to be good, we want you to read it, we want it to change our lives.
The Arc Poet vs. Poet Annual raises more questions than it answers, with interviews and essays that mull over contest ethics, slash through shark-infested waters and value the ineffable; reviews of those who wear our versey garlands; new poetry that strifes; and Arc’s own contest winners—come walk with us, we’ll show you where to land the blows.
Obviously, not lacking in confidence, this issue is one of competition, “Poet vs. Poet,” as well as one of transition, overlapping editorial concerns, perhaps, between the outgoing and incoming, and seeing just how compatible the new blood sits inside the already-existing body. Is this competition, or transfusion? As Aislinn Hunter writes in her essay, “On the impossibility of competition in poetry”:
As poets we understand competition: there are only so many pages in the literary magazine, so many books published, space for reviews, dollars for grants, so many spots on the shortlist—and only one winner (or two if the jury is hung). Certainly the idea of competition and its de facto presence in literary culture is widely evident. It may begin in the creative-writing classroom (oriented, despite its desire not to be, on grades), or in the form of back-page contests advertised in magazines; it might rear its head annually in Canada Council grant tussles, or be broadcast into our kitchens. Competition in the literary sphere is so ubiquitous that, in 2002, when Tim Bowling edited a series of interviews between poets in Where the Words Come From, he requested that each interviewer ask, amongst their own queries, “is competition healthy or unhealthy for a poet?”
The particular kind of competition Hunter discusses is certainly an aspect of literary culture, but I’m not sure it’s ubiquitous; Bowling suggesting the question doesn’t argue it so. Still, competition takes a wide array of forms, and one of the prevailing aspects of “competition,” whether self or with others, is the push for improvement through comparison, which can be enormously healthy, as opposed to the potential for self-abuse that comes with frustration over prize-monies and increased attention. The conversation is a worthy one, and the “Gallery of Prize Emponyms” highlights but a small selection of poetry-specific prizes across various parts of Canada (oddly, the Griffin Poetry Prize, is a curious absence), including Acorn-Plantos Award, Nick Blatchford Contest, Diana Brebner Prize, Bliss Carman Award, A.M. Klein Prize, Archibald Lampman Award, Pat Lowther Memorial Award, P.K. Page Founders’ Award, E.J. Pratt Poetry Award, Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award. Other awards that could easily have been added to the list include the BC Book Prizes,’s John Newlove Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and Concordia's Irving Layton Award, among others.

Still, with the amount of talk on poetry in this issue, some of which is quite compelling (the conversation between Monty Reid and Nadine McInnis, for example, as well as the piece by Jeramy Dodds), why does so little of the actual poetry in this issue actually strike?
House of Fame

After whom is the king of Israel come out? after whom dost thou pursue? after a dead dog, after a flea.
- 1 Samuel 24:14

How do we move from eros to
caritas? By being sartorially
correct, by wearing a penguin
suit to accept the prize? By

doing somersaults? John Keats died
of an open window, Rainer
Maria Rilke of a poisoned
thorn, John Milton of staring

too long. Virginia Woolf died of
a sea wreck, Jane Austen of a
bad egg-salad sandwich. Sylvia
Plath of a fallen soufflé. Like

kittens to milt, lapping it up,
like waves to brackish water, like
highlanders to their brose,
even educated fleas do it. (Mary Kathryn Arnold)
One feature of the issue I particularly enjoyed was the “Sonnet vs. sonnet” conversation between poets Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman, referencing and discussing sonnets generally, and their frustratingly-out-of-print collaborative chapbook, Wild Clover Honey and The Beehive: 28 Sonnets on the Sonnet (2004). Frustrating, because this small and brilliant publication, written as an argument/essay on sonnets in sonnet form, infamously launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, has possibly now been read about more than it has actually been read. As Peter Norman begins their conversation:
Peter Norman: Here’s how I remember the genesis of our battle: On a searing summer day in 2003, my wife and I were strolling in downtown Ottawa. We spotted you and rob mclennan enjoying a beer on the patio of a pub, so we pulled up a couple of chairs. Conversation turned to sonnets. Like Chris Jennings, whose polemic on the subject in Arc recently provoked discussion among us meter geeks, you were no longer sure the form had much value.

Stephen Brockwell: We were at D’Arcy McGee’s on Sparks Street. I think my sonnet objections were a ruse to seize your attention. I was trying to out-nerd you. I did—and still do—wonder about how such imported forms fit with our byte-sized cultural microverse. And I have to prod the earnest man at every opportunity because an earnest fella is lurking in me somewhere.

PN: So I guess you probably already knew I had a longstanding sonnet fetish. I liked writing sonnets. The restrictions acted like a sculptor’s tools, uncovering shapes inside the raw material.

SB: I think you know I agree with you on the sculptor’s tools. Hear, hear. To what end? What business does the hoity-toity sonnet have swiffering up our messy culture? (I need an emoticon here to wink.)

PN: Well, the question riled me at the time. I was a novice poet, having just launched my first chapbook. You were well established, a few books under your belt. I admired your writing and was excited by the ideas you’d expressed in conversation. (We’d recently discovered that we had both written, without any knowledge of each other’s doing so, poems about Pythagoras ordering his pupil killed for mathematical heresy. Mine was a sonnet; yours was not.) It would be daunting to face you in a war of wits.

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