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Canada Council defends GG poetry shortlist

The Canada Council for the Arts has responded to allegations of a conflict of interest with this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry shortlist.

Small Toronto publisher BookThug surprised many with three entries on the shortlist, but the announcement caught the eye of Halifax poet Zachariah Wells for another reason. Wells made a connection between GG judge Steve McAffery and BookThug, which has published several of McAffery’s collections, including the upcoming reprint of his 1984 fiction title, Panopticon.

Although Wells does not suggest any wrongdoing on the part of McAffery or downplay the quality of the nominated titles, he recommends the shortlist be rejected on the “basis of unreasonable juror bias.” Wells’s complaint caught the attention of The Province columnist Peter Derbyshire, who dug a bit deeper, and contacted the Canada Council. He received this response:

The Council does not see a conflict of interest in authors assessing books by other authors that are produced by their publishing house. Peer assessors are professionals and dedicated to making the best decision possible. If authors were not able to sit on a peer assessment committee to discuss books produced by their publisher, it would be impossible for the Council to have qualified representation on these committees. As noted by Mr. Wells, Mr. McCaffery has a stellar reputation in the poetry community. The Council benefited from the expertise of all three members of the jury in this selection process.

This is not the first time the GG for poetry has come under scrutiny. In 2008, Wells also pointed out that the $25,000 prize winner, Jacob Scheier, had ties to two of that year’s jurors: Pier Giorgio Di Cicco and Di Brandt were thanked in the acknowledgments of Scheier’s winning collection, More to Keep Us Warm (ECW Press), and Brandt co-translated one of his poems. According to a November 2008 Q&Q story, the Canada Council had “no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to what constitutes conflict of interest.” Now, Derbyshire says all judges are required to fill out conflict of interest disclosure forms before accepting the task (his blog post includes the Canada Council’s endowments and prizes conflict of interest policy). He disagrees with Wells that the shortlist should be killed, but brings up the issue of transparency, and whether juror affiliations should be made public.

Here is the complete Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry shortlist:

  • Michael Boughn, Cosmographia: A Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic (BookThug)
  • Kate Eichhorn, Fieldnotes, A Forensic (BookThug)
  • Phil Hall, Killdeer (BookThug)
  • Garry Thomas Morse, Discovery Passages (Talonbooks)
  • Susan Musgrave, Origami Dove (McClelland & Stewart)