Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Competition and Canonization

With the possible exception of slam poetry events, I have never favored poetry competitions. I simply don’t believe poetry should be a sporting event. During those kinds of contest, the person who has won has usually done so by figuring out how to win, which has less to do with poetry than figuring out what the judge(s) want. Sometimes the winner is awarded a “sympathy” vote as a means to encourage someone who may have potential or dedication. In any case, competition produces only one thing, sometimes in abundance, which is simply “losers.” How many brag they came in second? 

Even when an author or poet is attempting to get an award as a result of impressing a single judge, the only other outcome besides earning an award on merit alone is expecting a judge’s discriminating viewpoint or narrow criteria. I’ve always considered cooperation a better device than competition when it comes to building some kind of literary presence in a flagging cultural environment.

I’ve heard the term “all -inclusiveness” bandied about only to degenerate into internecine hierarchies which tend to get little done to get authors and poets published, or get them publicity outside certain insular circles.

Ultimately, all writers and poets, in spite of the protective and insecure ramparts of narcissism that enables them to feel safe, want it remembered that their work had some positive impact upon those around them. They may like the reassurance that 100 years from now their work will be subjected to discovery on some dusty library shelf or quaint corner bookstore; that their work will stand alone once more in some distant future. And “stand alone” is right -- alone and standing in someone’s temporal imagination.

I wouldn’t want to be the subject of that fate, not after all the work I’ve done. I would rather have been a part of something, to have had my work and the work of my contemporaries and those who came before me and those who’ll come after me part of something more tangible, more accessible, and more lasting. Something that was the product not of competition but of cooperation. Something like a local canon.

The Canon has begun to be subjected to globalization. The fiction of more international authors has been showing up, for example, in the pages of The New Yorker. Latin American authors like Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar have entered canonical consideration, as with the current excitement regarding the works of Roberto Bolaño, and Paco Ignacio Taibo for the more left leaning. As we become a more bilingual country, Spanish literary works become more relevant. In another area, science fiction has compiled a canon of works that is being slowly recognized by academia, and Black literature has always maintained a canon of literary works which struggles to find its role in the American canon of literature. It is the cross currents among these canonical works that we begin to understand better the story of the lives of people within the context of our social and cultural history.

The same role can be assigned to local or even regional canons of literature. Surely there is relevancy from these deep inner workings of American poets and authors who, while not achieving the same kind of success or the same kind of academic scrutiny, have proven their influence and contribution to those considered to have stood tall and alone in academic America’s literary landscape.

In a real sense, globalization has brought us a new spectacle. In the form of new literary works from diverse sources, our culture is displaying a greater effervescence. Like the head on a fresh cola or brew, each interlocking bubble is an entire canon, supportive of each other and expanding into a crackling of new knowledge and experience into a spray of that which refreshes. Pardon the metaphor but it cuts to the chase.

In the grand scheme of things, should the dynamic just described characterize the real world, then we ought to get in on the party. What we are and have been is one, or more, of those bubbles. We can contribute to the new effervescence by first becoming conscious of our local canon and supporting its consecration by academia, through constantly evolving public awareness, but also by mandate.

Institutions of public education are part of our government and we can use government to change and improve the situation. We can ask our state legislators to pass, and our governors to sign, laws that require local literature be taught in public schools of all levels. Perhaps in conjunction with a national effort that provides the extra jobs, local literature can be made more accessible to those who’ve created it over the years. Maybe it begins with us. Perhaps it’s waiting for the right time of our own making. Perhaps we should advocate a national effort at infrastructural rediscovery, beginning with our own literature and its place in our history.


  1. Well, racing poems has been a disappointment for me. Because my poem never wins.

    I see it far out in front of the others as they head into the finish line.

    But the judges call it different.

    Sometimes, I have prepared a poem with substance, nutritional in its message, hearty with many lines...
    only to loose out to a mere appertif of a poem...not even well thought, just small, like a cheese ball...little time to consider it...
    a quick bubbling up in the bath tub if you ask me
    ;-) Of course, racing songs is even less satsifying...all the chords, moving the levers on the sound board, nervous pees) and hair checks in the bathroom mirrors and all those notes and G-cleffs spouting on the stage like a floral bloom, only to be taken down for the next arrangement...

    be better to set all the poets facing in a circle and let em feel one another out... just a jib or a jab or verbage,like fighters at the weigh in; and then the skirmish commences with all sorts of verbal volleys and oratories and then before you know it, its a symphony of dissonant musings, none the better heard than the other and by those standing closest to the reciter.

    I say if you do a contest, it has to be naked. With folks inclined to dance around brandishing random props to embellish their ditty, a sabor, a herring, a pocket full of posies.... a small shrub, baby pictures and
    accrobatic moves...a back flip haiku.... a rolling sonnet with a hand stand on alternate lines...

    and always a rare and endangered minimalist...the unembellished nude who stands
    slightly to left of center stage and does not utter a peep until just before the end of the allotted time... only to serve up a single word unadorned on a silver platter...
    ........something ripe with double entendre.......and political controversy....
    or better still...two words, one at the beginning then emmense silence and then the second word, the answering beat.................Trees?..........................forest!...................sexually..........vegan.
    and so on. ;-)
    peace in the hood!

  2. Tom, as usual you speak the words as I would, having never won such a contest and confounded by judges and my own ineptness. I prefer not to judge or compete unless called upon to be party to the party. It's really bad for my blood pressure.

    Poetry contests are good for encouraging poets new to the venue to come out and give their stuff a shot, with the hope of winning a few bucks or some praise. It's just one way of expanding the community.

    Steven, the proposal for exposing high school students to local literature tied in with local history is an excellent idea. You are surely correct in stating that knowing the local literature is a first step to building a community with substantial literary roots.

    Getting local literature in the curriculum in public or private high scools will be a daunting task. Perhaps suggesting local literature to the Homeschooling community would be the place to start. The curriculum for homeschoolers is not as rigid, and there are thousands of homeschoolers in Delaware.