Just the Stats: Diversity in Canadian Poetry Prizes (1981 – 2015) [Updated]

Screenshot 2015-03-01 11.26.16Following  the announcement that VIDA will include a “Women of Color VIDA Count” as part of their annual data, Canadian poet Colin Fulton is working on a damning piece of research that reveals the racial uniformity of poetry prize-winners in Canada. We’ll let you guess who comes out on top.

In such a culturally diverse country, it’s disappointing that such a bias still exists. Fulton’s research also shows the effect of such a bias: the majority of the judges of Canada’s most prestigious prizes are also white.

As long as prizes beget prestige, and prestige turns writers into gatekeepers, the bias is likely to continue, unconsciously or not.  Fulton’s research is still ongoing. We’ll update you as it progresses.

(March 2, 2015) We’ve updated the post with a preface by Fulton.

 

The image presented by this simple and cursory list – that prize culture in Canadian Poetry is explicitly white supremacist – should be unsurprising. It’s only been a week since I started to compile the opaque histories of poetic ‘excellence’ and its evaluation in this country, but carefully typing out white winner, white shortlist, white judge over and over again while trying to resist that confirmation becoming automatic makes the research slow-going. The suffocating ephemerality of this ‘excellence,’ decaying or lost in unmaintained lit-journal websites and cached press releases, is just as obvious as its whiteness. At the same time the names are very present in contemporary Canadian poetry. It’s difficult to name a ‘successful’ Canadian poet who hasn’t had some kind of contact with prize culture.

Yesterday I posted the beginnings of the list to my Facebook page and since then it has been shared, reposted, spread through Twitter, etc., in a manner reminiscent of work done by CWILA with gender and reviewing in the Canadian poetry context. Responses to the list from a variety of different audience (mostly white, like me) have seemed copy-pasted from that moment too. (The judge says: “Well most of the people submitting were white, so it’s no surprise the winners were white! We’re not racist, submissions are read blind!” The cynic says: “Well prize culture is inherently problematic anyway! I already knew about this. Get rid of awards and you get rid of the issue.” The reformer says: “Well all we need to do is attribute more value to diversity and tone down this false rhetoric of universality and absolute judgement, as allies.”)

I’m not interested in combatting pre-readings, and honestly part of the project was to draw them out. But some clarifications might help. First, not all of the prizes I’ve gotten around to looking at are open to submission, and not all of them make judges and the method of judge selection public. Second, the limitations (and ridiculousness) of the list’s ‘white/non-white’ categorization, the elision of names therein, is again part of the questions the project is trying to raise. Third, the image of prize culture’s racial purity should not be disentangled from wider issues concerning the way prizes are ‘necessary’ to finance austerity-struck publications, the way the university workshop system exists as a feeder into prize culture, and so on. All this aside, the bottom line is that these venues for poetry, especially longstanding awards that have NEVER had a non-white winner, nominee or judge, would be left unchanged if they blatantly stated “whites only” on the eligibility page. Would anyone notice if they did?

The list first and foremost articulates a game called “white people giving other white people money,” sometimes called ‘the Canadian poetry prize,’ which is undeniably a benchmark of the production of literary value and career-building. Not much more commentary than this is needed: it isn’t about poetry contests, and it’s not about moving towards an image of poetry more palatably diverse to a white audience – it’s about who gets to exist and who doesn’t, about who they exist for and who decides.

-CF

Griffin Prize (Canadian winners)

2015 – Judges: All White, Winner TBD
2014 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2013 – Shortlist: 2/3 White, Winner: White, Judges: 2/3 White
2012 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2011 – Shortlist: 2/3 White, Winner: Non-White, Judges: All White
2010 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: 2/3 White
2009 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2008 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2007 – Shortlist: 2/3 White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2006 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2005 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2004 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2003 – Shortlist: 2/3 White, Winner: White, Judges: All White
2002 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: 2/3 White
2001 – Shortlist: All White, Winner: White, Judges: All White

Matrix Litpop Award (Poetry)

2014 – White Winner, White Judge, White Shortlist
2013 – White Winner, White Judge
2012 – White Winner, White Judge, White Shortlist
2011 – White Winner, White Judge, White Shortlist
2010 – White Winner, White Judge
2008 – White Winner

Robert Kroetsch Award

2015 – Winner TBA, White Judge (White Shortlist)
2014 – White Winner, White Judge
2013 – White Winner, White Judge
2012 – White Winner, Non-White Judge
2011 – White Winner, White Judge
2010 – White Winner, White Judge
2009 – White Winner, White Judge
2008 – White Winner, White Judge
2007 – White Winner, White Judge

Robin Blaser Award

4th Winner: TBD
4th Judge: White
3rd Winner: White
3rd Judge: White
2nd Winner: White
2nd Judges: White

bpNichol Chapbook Award

2014 – White Winner, White Judges
2013 – White Winners, White Judges (^)
2012 – White Winner, White Judges
2011 – White Winner, White Judges (^), White Honorable Mention

AM Klein Poetry Prize

2014 – Winner: White
2013 – Winner: White
2012 – Winner: White
2011 – Winner: White
2010 – Winner: White
2009 – Winner: White
2008 – Winner: White
2007 – Winner: White
2006 – Winner: White
2005 – Winner: White
2004 – Winner: White
2003 – Winner: White
2002 – Winner: White
2001 – Winner: White

Governor General Awards (Poetry)

2014: 4/5 White Shortlist, White Winner
2013: 3/4 White Shortlist, Non-White Winner
2012: White Shortlist, White Winner
2011: 3/4 White Shortlist, White Winner
2010: White Shortlist, White Winner
2009: 3/4 White Shortlist, White Winner
2008: 1/2 White Shortlist, White Winner
2007: White Shortlist, White Winner
2006: 3/4 White Shortlist, White Winner
2005: 3/4 White Shortlist, White Winner
2004: White Shortlist, White Winner
2003: White Shortlist, White Winner
2002: White Shortlist, Non-White Winner
2001: White Shortlist, Non-White Winner
2000: White Shortlist, White Winner
1999: White Shortlist, White Winner
1998: 1/2 White Shortlist, White Winner
1997: White Shortlist, Non-White Winner
1996 to 1981, 14/16 White Winners

Lemon Hound Poetry Prize

2014 – White Winner, White Judge

CBC Canada Reads (Poetry)

2014 – White Winner, 2/3 White Judges
2013 – White Winner, White Judges
2012 – Non-White Winner, White Judges
2011 – White Winner
2010 – (unknown)
2009 – White Winner
2008 – White Winner
2007 – White Winner

Montreal International Poetry Prize

2013 – White Winner, White Judge
2011 – White Winner, White Judge

Bronwen Wallace Award (Poetry)

2013 – Winner: White, Finalists: White
2011 – Winner: White, Finalists: 1/2 White
2009 – Winner: White, Finalists: White
2006 – Winner: White, Finalists: White
2004 – Winner: White, Finalists: White
2002 – Winner: White, Finalists: 1/2 White
2000 – Winner: Non-White, Finalists: White
1998 – Winner: White, Finalists: White
1996 – Winner: White, Finalists: White
1994 – Winner: White, Finalists: White

Malahat Review Prizes

LONG POEM

2013 – Winners both White
2011 – Winners both White
2009 – Winners both White
2007 – Winners both White
2005 – White Winner; other no info
2003 – Winners both White
2001 – Winners both White
1999 – 1/2 Winners White
1997 – Winners both White
1995 to 1988 – Winners all White

FAR HORIZONS

2014 – Non-White Winner, White Judge
2012 – White Winner, White Judge
2010 – White Winner, White Judge
2008 – White Winner, White Judge
2006 – White Winner, White Judge

OPEN SEASON (POETRY)

2014 – White Winner, White Judge
2013 – White Winner, White Judge
2012 – White Winner, White Judge
2011 – White Winner, White Judge
2010 – White Winner, White Judges

Trillium Awards (Poetry)

2014 – Non-White Winner, 1/3 Finalists White
2013 – White Winner, White Finalists
2012 – White Winner, White Finalists
2011 – White Winner, White Finalists
2010 – White Winner
2009 – White Winner
2008 – White Winner
2007 – White Winner
2006 – White Winner
2005 – White Winner
2004 – White Winner
2003 – White Winner

* (^) – the same judge used the following year

[Note: winners and shortlists/finalists within a given year are counted separately.]

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13 Comments

The Malahat Review Volunteers, as first readers for the contests, examine only the words submitted. Would this data suggest they read ‘white’, unconsciously selecting those works for the judges? Does it make it irrelevant? Does race matter in a blind review process?

If your volunteers are mostly white, then yes, it is a problem. If what they are always choosing is mostly is from white writers, then yes, it is a problem.

Please expand on what the problem is in this context. Should more people of colour submit to contests? Should more volunteers learn to challenge their implicit racialized participation in poetry contests? I think we have to nuance these contexts.

Good points, Stephen E. Leckie. We would need to see the data for submissions. If, for example, 95% of the submissions were from white men, it’s hard to be surprised when a white man wins…

I am sorry to see that once again the stats can prove anything report technique is being quoted as fact. Yes the majority, even the vast majority of winners are Caucasians. Within the Caucasian group there are many shades of the color white. By using the term white a certain preordained prejudice is implied in this study.

By saying monoculture is a real concern does stretch the point of culture only being defined by color. For instance what economic or sub cultural groups did these “White” winners represent. What was their relationship with Canadian publishers? What other factors separate them other than skin color.

Personally I, a poet, who does not take part in contests, has light skin with dabs of brown spots and is old enough to have fought for equality of all peoples over the seventy years of my life, find these studies to be tarnished with tunnel vision. if one thing I have realized in life its is that statistics are the devils tool to divide people (in this poets) and groups to push a point that is in its very harmful form of prejudicial thinking does nothing to build unity within all cultural groups.

Best to you,

Dennis Thome

You have the Trillium but not the other regional prizes. Would be curious about Dorthy Livesay award and other provincial awards.

I agree with what others have posted. Please define what you mean by “white” and what you mean by “monoculture” – by pointing out the “whitewashing” of these awards and selection committees, you have failed to take into consideration the complexities inherent in these definitions. What’s more, you’re labelling a good many people “white” who may not personally identify with this label. Not to mention, in the context you’ve presented it in, “white” feels like a negative label. It’s amazing to me how the humanities’ benignly-conceived obsession with over-definition and categorization can somehow lead to these kinds of near-sighted, judgemental errors.

Firstly, out of curiosity: Author(s) are you non-white? (No specifics, those don’t matter).

Also, I’m having fun with this argument so if anyone gets offended I’m totally sorry but I tend to play devil’s advocate and I’d love to discuss anything with greater depth. So, ignore me entirely or say: sup dude, you’re totally wrong about this thing (and for a writing student you missed a few commas and the genitive declension of that noun…). OK: it begins.

So I am going to respond in this context: that the concept of racism in the western world is post-equality movement (a/the movement for racial equality has begun), yet without a positive or negative completion to either this movement or a revolution in societal structure (positive and negative).

As a graduate in writing (and anthropology) from the University of Victoria I will start with a generalization: most students in writing are some kind of white. Definitely not all, there’s an asian fiction student who won the Malahat in fiction (a year or two ago?) and she’s a fabulous writer, but more than 50% (in my opinion, and in my experience).

So, one of the issues with this article that I see is that while so many winners and judges are white as opposed to non-white in Canadian Poetry awards, there is no information on the cultural ‘why’. With the exception of Stephen’s comment about unconciously reading submissions as ‘white’ and the author(s)’s comment about the judge suggesting it’s not racist because submissions are blind. Now, all sorts of ‘why’ exist in trying to understand even one tiny part of a society (such as Canadian Poetry).

I think it is interesting that so many of these winners and judges are white, and usually (as I understand it) judges are all chosen because they’re already established poets. What makes white people so much more likely to win a poetry award? Why are there more often more white students in Writing than non-white people?

The only thing that I think really make sense, is that writing is by culture a more acceptable career for people from a white background than from people of a non-white background.

For instance, I am dating an East Indian woman who’s incredibly intelligent and always wanted to create art in some way, but the pressure to choose a career is focused towards what will be economically successful not what she may or may not want. Now she’s with an internship that makes almost double what I make during a short internship than I will during my entire working season in archaeology (almost the same length of time, but I would work twice as many hours in a week, generally), and she hasn’t even finished her degree.

Likewise, I have a Swiss friend who, when we met, was astounded that one could study this thing called ‘writing’ because Switzerland universities don’t offer classes in how to write, only in literature. When I asked why she figured it was just that being a ‘writer’ for them is not a career it’s a sort of hobby/calling.

Perhaps, the cultural why is also bottlenecked entirely to the English Speaking world?

Archaeology (and most definitely Poetry) are not practical choices for a career that will earn me a strong economic position. While this is a single anecdotal example, one could almost suggest that the ‘whitewashing’ of Canadian Poetry awards is as much from concious or unconcious racism as it is from a cultural position that allows white people to make non-practical career choices when attending university… the cultural why…

Argument aside. This is a lovely article because it presents the data in order to create a dialogue (that’s how I read the title anyway: Just the Data).

Stephen’s suggestion is just as worrying as is Beverly’s. If people read words (let alone blind or non-blind) submissions with a racial bias then all religious texts, oral histories, scientific papers from Chemistry to a grade 6 science project on slugs, or government newsletters and breast cancer fridge magnets are now also racist. Or only racist when someone reads them, so let’s not read anything either…

But, biologically, humans have only one race (by this anthropologist’s education): Homo sapiens. It is culture and society that create, perpetrate, and prosecute racism.

But, Beverly’s comment suggests that if one were to have an equal pink to green to Tokyo Japanese to Scottish Canadian to a-certain-writer-of-a-certain-comment-who-spent-ten-years-in-Wolsely-community-Winnipeg-instead-of-the-same-ten-years-in-River-Heights-community-Winnipeg than one is actually creating racist equality rather than and/or in-addition-to racial equality.

And, Author(s), you nailed it by suggesting that holding white/non-white catagorization is ridiculous, because it is a segregation (yet, we have scholarships for non-white people — though, I suspect, there are numbers for winners of racially ‘open’ scholarships which are probably not all that different from the list above — or homosexual people or people who support a particular political faction.

So, how would you suggest literary awards in Canada become less white-washed and more racially equal? How does Canada become a good, fair, responsible country?

(wow, this is far longer a response than I meant, I’m sorry)

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