Canada’s Poetry GG – Afterthoughts of a Juror
(or: You’ll Never Adjudicate in this Town Again)by Kim Goldberg June 6, 2012 ~
Two years ago, I spent the entire spring and summer sitting in my garden reading 171 new Canadian poetry books published in 2009-2010. I was one of three jurors chosen to select the 2010 winner and shortlist for Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry.
Being paid to read poetry for five months in a private garden surrounded by swallowtail butterflies and garter snakes sunning on rocks may seem like a dream job. But the dream faded by September in the jury room in Ottawa once I fully grokked the protocols and structure of the adjudication system itself, and the role I would be required to play in that process.
(Please note: The comments that follow are a general critique of the Canada Council’s protocols for adjudicating the Poetry GG. The problems are systemic and structural. They are not limited to one particular year.)
My previous experience adjudicating a major arts award had been a thoroughly positive one: a few years earlier I had been tapped to sit on a BC Arts Council jury to select the Creative Writing grants for the year. So when the Canada Council phoned in 2010 and invited me to be a juror for the Poetry GG, I didn’t hesitate.
THE BC ARTS COUNCIL MODEL
In the case of the BC Arts Council Creative Writing grants, after spending a month reading all 154 project proposals privately (each proposal included a 20-page manuscript sample), the five jurors then spent five full days together in a board room in Victoria to determine the approximately 35 grant recipients.
In the room, the Program Officer unobtrusively guided us through a well-organized protocol in which all five jurors discussed and debated each of the 154 proposals in turn over the five days, assigning (and revising) numeric values for each proposal. By the time we were done, the numeric values had generated a ranked list of all 154 proposals. The jury could rejig it to correct any obvious omissions. We’re the jury after all, and formulae shouldn’t supersede common sense. But I don’t recall much rejigging happening. The money was then awarded from the top down, until the pot was empty.
The entire experience was fun and, for me at least, creatively stimulating. The tone in the room was jovial (although not without debate). I made friendships that persist to this day. And, most importantly, I felt we had done the fairest and most honest job possible of selecting arts award recipients from a pool of excellent candidates.
(Sidebar: The most important thing I learned from my time on the BC Arts Council jury is that just because you don’t get a grant, doesn’t mean the jury didn’t like your project. They may have loved your project. They just loved 35 others a little bit more.)
In a single word (or five): I went away feeling clean. I cannot say the same of my experience on the Canada Council jury for the Poetry GG.
THE GOVERNER GENERAL’S POETRY AWARD MODEL
The three jurors for the Poetry GG (all poets with books of our own) are selected by the Canada Council, presumably on the basis of other juries we have served on, or awards we may have won, as well as our own publications. In my case, the Canada Council officer referenced my poetry books listed on the League of Canadian Poets website when she called to invite me onto the GG jury. I had also been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award two years earlier. And I suspect my prior service on the BC Arts Council jury was a factor.
My two fellow jurors also received a phone call “out of the blue” inviting them to sit on the Poetry GG jury. In other words, this wasn’t a gig any of us applied for.
In theory, the three jurors each had five months to read the 171 books, which were shipped to us continuously over that period of time. (We each received our own complete set of books, which were ours to keep.)
However, in actual fact, I was the only one on the final jury who had the full five months to read the books. My two colleagues were each last-minute replacements for the original jurors who withdrew late in the game. So the other two final jurors had a mere eight weeks and five weeks respectively to read and evaluate 171 books.
Conflict of Interest Rules
Due to controversies in previous years over perceived conflict of interest involving certain GG jurors and the winners, the conflict of interest rules were tightened up by the time my year came round. Among other things, a juror cannot remain on the jury if there is a book in competition that she has reviewed or blurbed, or in which she is listed in the acknowledgements as making any sort of contribution to the book (even if the contribution is unbeknownst to the juror).
However, the titles for each year’s GG competition are being submitted continuously by their publishers throughout the months that the jurors are reading. Even the Canada Council doesn’t know what the full list of books in competition will be until shortly before the three jurors fly to Ottawa for the single day of jury deliberations.
Consequently, a juror can be three or four months into her GG reading when a book lands on her doorstep that she has blurbed or is thanked in, and that’s it. She must excuse herself from the jury and walk away. And the Canada Council must scramble to find a replacement juror. At least these were the rules in 2010.
The ‘Long List’
Ten days prior to flying to Ottawa for our single day of jury deliberations, each juror is required to submit a list of up to ten titles that constitute our top picks. The Canada Council then compiles the three lists and emails the three jurors the single combined list containing all of our top picks, listed alphabetically by author.
To me, this is obviously a Long List. And as such, it is in everybody’s interest to release it publicly, and with as much fanfare as it deserves, and as much fanfare as every other literary Long List receives. Besides which, your tax dollars paid to generate this Long List. It is wrong to keep it secret. So, for all of the above reasons, after the 2010 Poetry GG Short List and winner had been officially announced by the Canada Council, I posted our jury’s Long List on Facebook.
The Canada Council was not amused. The Council claims this Long List is not a Long List but some kind of in-house work product and, as such, is covered under jury confidentiality rules. I do not anticipate further invitations for jury duty. But if I had it to do over, I would do the same (except I would post the Long List even more widely than I did).
If nothing else, our Long List revealed that there was, in fact, a much broader aesthetic sensibility among the jury than our Short List or winner would suggest. Which brings me to the nub of the problem:
Jury Deliberations – Timeframe
The three jurors meet in a Canada Council boardroom in Ottawa for a single day, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, with a one hour lunch break and a couple of shorter breaks. So, in approximately 6.5 hours of working time, we not only determine the five titles for the Short List and the one winner, we must also draft the jury statements about each book (two separate statements for the winning title) that will be widely used by media, authors and publishers. Try being scintillating, cogent and pithy – six times! – after your brains have been wrung dry of all judgment and your entrails are strewn across the board table.
We are flown to Ottawa the day before the jury meets, put up in a nearby hotel, and flown home the day after.
Obviously 6.5 hours is a ridiculously short time to make a decision on Canada’s most prestigious poetry award – and from a field of 171 candidates. It’s an insult to every author, publisher and juror participating in the GG competition.
Jury Deliberations – Process
In theory, we had already winnowed our field of 171 titles to just 22 – the titles on our Long List That Isn’t a Long List. So we were actually selecting the five finalists and winner from a field of 22 in that 6.5-hour period. And in fact, those 22 books were the ONLY books on the table when we entered the room – all face up with their carefully designed covers and titles vying furiously for our eye. (The remaining 149 contenders were around somewhere – maybe in boxes. I don’t recall.)
We started working our way through the 22 books one by one (alphabetically by author’s last name). The Canada Council Program Officer in the room held up each book (or slid it forward on the table). We discussed it briefly and decided if we wanted to keep it on the table, in contention for the Short List, or physically set it aside.
Although it was possible to resurrect a title from the set-aside pile of Long Listees, I felt considerable unspoken pressure not to do this – not to take any step backwards – because of the intense time constraints we were working under. I can only assume my colleagues felt likewise.
It was also possible (although this never occurred to me at the time, and was certainly never mentioned) for a juror to call back a book from the pile of 149 also-rans that were moldering in boxes somewhere if she felt upon reflection that there was a better, more vigorous title among them than on the Short List being generated in the room.
Because of the time constraints, there was subtle but considerable steerage to keep moving forward, never back – to keep narrowing the field, never widening, never reconsidering…
Jury Deliberations – The Short List
Somehow by mid-afternoon we generated a Short List of five finalists. There was one book on our Short List that was sharply contested in the room. But the other four titles basically came down to being the books that no one fought too hard against. Yes, good books all. But markedly better than the 166 left behind? I can’t really say that they were.
The most heavily experimental works (many of which I loved!) were all total non-starters in the room. They simply had no hope. You pick your battles.
Consequently, the GG Short List for any given year is formed more by various jurors’ debating skills and level of obstinance and caffeination than by a measured analysis (such as the BC Arts Council system of numerical ranking). The result of such a process as the GG uses will tend to be a Short List of well-crafted, comprehensible, uncontroversial books. The one non-conforming title on our 2010 Short List got there simply because the juror arguing for it (me) wore down the juror arguing against it. And the clock was ticking.
Jury Deliberations – Picking the GG Winner
Somewhere toward the end of the day, in the process of our final deliberations to determine the GG winner from our Short List of five titles, the Program Officer told us that we must have consensus on the winner. All three jurors must be able to get behind the winning book.
And so, to cut an already very long posting short, that criterion became the primary factor in selecting Canada’s 2010 winner of the Poetry GG (and I would suspect for most other years as well). It was the one book out of the five that no one in the room had any major problem with. (Hardly the stuff blurbs are made of.)
The high-minded ideals we had entered with had been pulverized by a process that is far too rushed, and with no mechanism (or time) to backtrack, review, or deploy common sense to halt a runaway train.
We ground out our requisite blurbs, walked around the corner to the nearest bar, got hammered, retired to our respective hotel rooms, and flew home the next day – our duty done.
For Future GG Juries (are you listening, Canada Council?) :
- One day in the jury room is not enough. Fix that first!
- The adjudication process needs to occur in stages. There needs to be a gap of time for reflection and reconsideration before the jury finalizes the Short List from which the winner will be selected. For it is at this point that jurors, if given some space to privately collect their thoughts and reflect on their five months of reading, will likely say: “Book A never even got on the table, but Book B is on the Short List? That’s crazy!” It may mean a skyped or teleconferenced jury for one or both stages.
- Some system of numerical ranking needs to be used. A book (or an entire poetic style) that is hated by one juror can nevertheless make the Short List in a system of numerical ranking. Under the current system, entire schools/streams of Canadian poetry can be shut out of all mention in the GGs if a single juror can’t abide it.
- Each of the three jurors should be allowed to place her top pick of all titles on the Short List. The two remaining spots on the Short List can be filled by a system of numerical ranking. This too will widen the aesthetic scope of the Short List and potentially enable experimental works to be better represented, thus creating a Short List that more accurately reflects the true diversity of current Canadian poetry and poetics.
- Publicly release the goddam Long List! And do it with pride, honoring the authors and publishers who are on it.
- Fix the ridiculous conflict of interest rules. You can’t have two-thirds of the jury bailing in the final weeks before adjudication. If a juror has a conflict on a particular book, then allow her to simply be silent on that title. This is the way BC Arts Council handles conflict of interest. The juror announces it in the room and does not weigh in on that candidate.