canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Against a League of Cowering Persons: Biased Gender Jurisprudence in the League of Canadian Poets

by Shane Neilson

The League of Canadian Poets created the Pat Lowther Award in 1981 after the eponymous poet’s gruesome domestic murder. This award has subsequently feted a female poet with $1,000 and the booby prize of being a triumphant competitor in a pool drained of half its water. Men are not permitted to compete for a simple reason: they are not women. Segregating in this manner disqualifies the Lowther as an award and instead places it in the realm of an exclusive club prize, and a rather gruesome one at that. To make matters worse, the Lowther is divorced from merit altogether, for the League on its web site does not mention that it should be given to the best book of poems written by a woman. It need only be given to a woman.

Yet the Lowther award need not be a grotesquerie, a gender-asterisked award. It could have meaning if there existed a counterbalance, a state achievable by either opening up the Lowther to men or by creating a corresponding award granted solely to men.

The existence of the Lowther must be linked to the other regular award offered by the League, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, because of their striking homologies. The Lampert is meant to be given to the poet who wrote the best debut book of poetry published in the past year of consideration, and it has the potential to rectify the LCP’s gyno-bias but instead has come to perpetuate the reign of vulvas. Of the 22 Lampert awardings since 1981, 15 have gone exclusively to female poets. Three awards resulted in ties shared by six women: making that 18 of a total of 22 award ceremonies won by women. What of the other four Lamperts? One was shared by a man and a woman, and the remaining three were won by men.

If this were England, the bookies would weight their odds ovarian once the shortlist was announced. The statistical breakdown looks like this: 18/22 Lamperts are won by women only, meaning a rough 5:1 ratio in favour of women. In other words, the Lampert award functions as a doppelganger for the Lowther award, spreading the gynecological good news around. And the men? The League offers them only one halfhearted kick at recognition upon the publication of their first book. The rest of their career is officially ignored.

(Figures are from the Lampert listing as taken from the LCP web site:

Winners of the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award
1981 Elizabeth Allan, The Shored Up House
1982 Abraham Boyarsky, Schielber and Edna Alford, A Sleep Full of Dreams
1983 Diana Hartog, Manitee Light
1984 Sandra Birdsell, Night Travellers and Jean McKay, Gone to Grass
1985 Paulette Jiles, Celestial Navigation
1986 Joan Fern Shaw, Raspberry Vinegar
1987 Rosemary Sullivan, The Space a Name Makes
1988 Di Brandt, Questions I Asked My Mother
1989 Sarah Klassen, Journey to Yalta
1990 Steven Heighton, Stalin’s Carnival
1991 Diana Brebner, Radiant Life Forms
1992 Joanne Arnott, Wiles of Girlhood
1993 Elisabeth Harvor, Fortress of Chairs and Roberta Rees, Eyes Like Pigeons
1994 Barbara Klar, The Night You Called Me a Shadow and Illya Tourtidis, Mad Magellan’s Tale
1995 Keith Maillard, Dementia Americana
1996 Maureen Hynes, Rough Skin
1997 Marilyn Dumont, A Really Good Brown Girl
1998 Mark Sinnett, The Landing
1999 Stephanie Bolster, White Stone: The Alice Poems
2000 Shawna Lemay, All the God-Sized Fruit
2001 Anne Simpson, Light Falls Through You

2002 Aislinn Hunter, Into The Early Hours

At this point one has to grapple with the question of whether women are writing better poetry than men in this country. Asking this question is fundamentally ridiculous- of course not, equality-minded Canadians say- but the inquiry is begged by such statistics. When I read the small journals produced across this country, the answer is obvious: no. The verse burden of quality is carried equally. And of course not, although according to Lampert juries, the LCP consistently maintains that girls are better than boys.

Recognizing this indefensible disparity, I attempted to address the matter with an LCP official. I offered to correct the situation with a sum of cash meant to establish a male-only poetry award. I was met with the following answer:

I wonder about the wisdom of offering a men only award. I think it would be highly divisive amongst the members of the League…anyway, during my [time here] I really don't want to go there. There are so many more productive things we can do together as a League that brings (sic) us together, rather than separates (sic) us.

This League official then offered me the opportunity to sponsor a "Lifetime Achievement Award," one that would be open to subscription by both women and men. How inclusive. Based on the track record of the LCP I declined, but I reiterated my financial commitment to a male-only award. I haven’t heard back.

Interestingly, the Writers’ Trust of Canada has recently initiated an award for male authors in mid-career - the "Findley" – to counterbalance their longstanding award for female authors in mid-career, the "Engel." Their consensus was that an award offered only to women was exclusionary and unfair, so an effort was made to honour men in a similar way. For some reason, the LCP takes a different position, believing a similar proposal is "highly divisive."

I wrote a senior poet about this problem. His response?

I think the League would be well served to create a third award of some kind to level the playing field, but this will not happen in the foreseeable future---largely due to cost… I doubt I will live long enough to see [League] rules changed to allow books by men eligible. That would actually be the best solution. However, the Feminist Caucus of the League would never allow it to happen. I wonder what Pat Lowther herself would think of this debate that never really subsides. It is a dishonour to her memory, perpetrated by both women and men. If I were her, I would refuse the League the use of her name… I think the League should establish another award for both men and women, but they won't, I suspect, until there is sure funding for it.

Only the Fem Cauc, a harridan hegemony, could be proud of a crematory award. Over the years, many men have tried to address the power of the F.C. with the League, only to get shot down by Fem Caucers with pat accusations of sour grapes. Well, I’m neither a member of the League, nor do I have a book published. In other words, no baggage, and perfectly positioned to appreciate that an organization claiming to represent all of its members yet simultaneously excluding half of them is exactly what the F.C. would call chauvanist. In the world of the League of Canadian Poets, males can’t just win awards. They can’t fund new ones, either. If only the senior poet knew the truth: funding is available. My funding.

I’m sorry to report that the reasons behind the League’s refusal of sponsorship only grow more dismal. In my correspondence with the League official, I discovered that the League was recently approached by a sponsor willing to fund an award intended solely for poets of "colour." This sponsor was turned down, after much hand-wringing, not because of the proposed award’s exclusionary nature, but instead because stable, long-term funding wasn’t available. The official stated:

The League is often approached with ideas for awards, most recently for an award for poets of colour. We are reluctant to take on new awards generally but particularly those that do not have permanent funding in place. It doesn't help the image of the League to have an award offered once or twice only to be cancelled for lack of funding, so we are insisting that complete funding be in place before an award is offered. For this and other reasons we turned down the Award for poets of colour…

This is a reasonable line of argument, for an award offered only for a year or two has suspect legitimacy. Yet in my case, I was rebuffed not because of a lack of commitment to stable funding, but instead because of a fear of divisiveness.

Something is wrong with our national poetry organization’s way of thinking. Refusals like this one are symptomatic of an ailing organization willing to prevent many of its members from having their talents and artistic commitments honoured. The male membership of the League would no doubt welcome the opportunity to actually compete for an award that may provide their work with more attention. I don’t think they’d care much about divisiveness beyond the usual controversies over who won what year, etc. Only the gender zealots would contribute to divisiveness, as they always do.

Decades ago simple acceptance of a male-dominated regime became unthinkable to many women, who fomented revolt in order to obtain an equal standing. Awards such as the Lowther are a logical outgrowth of such disparity. There was a need to fete women because enough of that wasn’t being done and because with awards comes a certain legitimacy. After almost fifty years of feminist revolution, I propose that such awards should now either be a historical anachronism or have a countervailing force. The revolution at the LCP has been so successful that the balance has swung the other way- the League has arrested in an early developmental stage. A culture has sprung up that remembers the bitter equality battles of antiquity and cannot let them go, for these battles largely define who they are. Growing up into a regime of gender balance instead of one-sided gender promotion is impossible for the revolutionaries, because they are in constant need of a revolution in order to maintain their sense of self. Imagine if the situation were reversed! At this point in the Canadian poetry gender wars, women are far ahead and presiding over a climate of debate that can’t even consider allowing men to play.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor at The Danforth Review.







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