Friday, September 12, 2014

The UC poetry prize 2014: David Ades, 'Dazzled' and 15,000 dollars

I about to commit an act of public opionating. Guilty as charged yer Honour.

So the UC International poetry prize has been awarded, and we see what a poem worth 15,000 dollars looks like.

Whatever you think of the winning poem, ‘Dazzled' or the winning poet, David Ades, whichever poem won, the judges were on a hiding to nothing. It’s inevitable the winning poem should be scrutinized and the equally inevitable question asked: why is it worth 15,000 dollars?

The judges had to wade through 1050 entries, one of which was mine. I enter poetry competitions in the same way I pay my five dollars for a stake in the staff lottery ticket.  And it is a lottery, though the chances are numerically better than the national lottery.  In a competition open to all types of poetry and to any subject matter, anyone entering who is capable of achieving a level of literary competence has a chance of winning. As much as winning a ‘poetry comp’ would be good for my bank balance, it would say about as much about the poems I write as winning the lottery. And if I had a CV, or felt the need for one, it would look good to the kind of people who are impressed by these things: who are people I don’t want to impress anyway.

But doesn’t anyone else question those 15,000 dollars?  It seems to me out of all proportion to what a poem can be worth in a culture which basically ignores poetry unless there is a scandal or a lot of money involved. And the two are often related. 

 Just under a hundred years ago The Waste Land won Eliot 2,000. But at least that one poem changed the landscape permanently and is still rattling around demanding and repaying attention a century later. Is anyone seriously suggesting that “Dazzled” is 2014’s answer to ‘The Waste Land’?

How can one poem be worth that much? Using figures from the Australian Bureau of statistics for the average weekly wage for a full time worker in 2014,  it would take an average wage earner ten weeks of full time work to earn this much money. Is somebody seriously suggesting one poem is worth ten weeks of full time work?

Put it another way. In Australia the ABR pays 250 for a poem, the APJ pays 100.  Does anyone believe this one poem is better than 60 poems published in the Australian Book Review or 150 in the APJ?

How many books would I have to sell to earn that much in royalties?  Does anyone in Australia sell enough copies of a poetry book to earn that much in royalties in a year?

And if you think fiddling with the maths is supercilious, it’s not. That’s the only value that is on offer. It's the only reason it makes the papers. 

And I think this trend for “Poetry competitions” with huge cash prizes is invidious and self-defeating. Does it encourage a readership for poetry? No. Poetry becomes visible because someone threw a lot of money at one poem. Does it promote poetry in the wider community? Only in so much as it sends out a message saying “You too can win a great deal of money by writing a poem”.  

The phrase “cultural compensation” is lurking around here asking to be let in. 

In my fantasy acceptance speech, in which the words obscene and cultural compensation were due to feature, I imagined announcing deleting how ever much the ten volume hardback Latham Pepys would cost me second hand, and then donating the rest to the publisher of my books.

Think of what 15,000 dollars would do for a small press in Australia. You could probably set up a journal for 15,000 and give writers space and readers opportunities.

 In terms of what it’s doing for poetry in Australia, it seems a spectacular waste of money.

And I want someone to tell me why ‘Dazzled' is a good poem. That’s a serious question. Not what 
it’s worth in monetary terms, but why it’s worth my time as a reader?

According to the paper: The prize's head judge, British poet and novelist Philip Gross, praised Adès's poem as "irresistible" and "a generous and subtle celebration of the way a poem can infiltrate itself, coming to fruition slowly, among the swarming details of a life observed with appetite". 

A life observed with subtlety? Count the clichés.  It starts with one. ‘A song’ catches the wind “like a sail, billowing”, (it’s  a poem about a poem, not a song about a song,  but never mind.) and then it just keeps going: cold seeps, snow crunches, there are little clouds of breath. The trees are like skeletons, the snow on mausoleums is like a white coverlet, under which they are sleeping, there are fragments of conversations, imaginative leaps, cars slip and skid on ice. No noun or verb can be trusted in public without a package deal of overly familiar adjectives and adverbs. There is nothing detailed about this at all.

The language is floppy and imprecise: “on a page normally reserved for paintings or photographs or other more visual arts”, …it’s a generic walking in somewheresville in the snow selfie. 

End of public opinionating.

Normal service will soon be resumed after I’ve done some more reading about Joseph Campbell. Who could have done with 15,000 dollars.

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