Rules of Thumb for an Aspiring Critic

“I checked the Arc website and identified a “no previous publication” bullet on their contest information page.”

1. Your target will inevitably be yourself

     Eleven years ago I sent an unsolicited review of four chapbooks by an Ottawa poet to an editor at Arc magazineThe editor carefully marked up the hard copy and mailed it back, encouraging me to resubmit it as a brief, 500-word review. The experience taught me:

1. Pick your targets (the poet under review was a great target at the time, if too easy now).
2. Ally yourself with a good editor.
3. Listen to the editor.

     Magic is in them thar hills of the little magazines: a disorganized, repetitive draft was reorganized into a tough little piece. Making use of this tutelage, over the years I made several more submissions to Arc, creating a streak of appearances that extended until the last issue. 

      Consider this essay my farewell to Arc on a matter of principle; my war on prize culture has resulted in my first self-inflicted wound. Here’s the why of my Arc goodbye.

2. The truth is the winner

     In 2012, Arc published a special issue on contests. Inside was an advertisement announcing that Arc had increased its main contest purse to $5000. This meant that, in the ecology of the Canadian little magazines, the contest environment would select in Arc’s favour. Its current editor might not be aware of this, but Arc is the magazine which published in 1998 an issue titled, “We all begin in a little magazine,” after the eponymous story by Norman Levine in which the writing life of the obscure, unrecognized writer is celebrated. John Barton’s gracious introduction to the issue reprints two sentences from Levine’s story:

We used to send our stories, optimistically, to the New Yorker and the Atlantic. But that was like taking a ticket in a lottery. It was the little magazines who published us, who gave us encouragement and kept us going.

    Yes, the little magazines are indeed for the little guy. But now the lottery ticket is a submission to the Arc Poem Of The Year (POTY) contest. In the special contest issue, the incoming editor wrote (and I submit to the court Exhibit A):

The Arc Poet vs. Poet Annual raises more questions than it answers, with interviews and essays that mull over contest ethics, slash through shark-infested waters and value the ineffable; reviews of those who wear our versey garlands; new poetry that strifes; and Arc’s own contest winners – come walk with us, we’ll show you where to land the blows.

    Ethics. Show you where to land the blows. Arc’s own contest winners. And such convoluted punctuation… I never dreamed, even on nights when suffering from the occasional fever, of what would happen next.

    What happened next was the arrival of the next issue of Arc in my mailbox. The cover declared Jacob McArthur Mooney the winner of the 2012 Poem of the Year contest for “The Fever Dreamer.” Taken by surprise, I checked the Arc website and identified a “no previous publication” bullet on their contest information page. I confirmed this because Mooney’s poem appeared on Vox PopulismMooney’s self-promotional blog.

      I wrote Arc, advising the editor of Mooney’s prepublication. I suggested the contest would be perceived as compromised, especially considering the fact that it was run with a bunch of in-house jurors. I urged the editor to strip the first place winner (Mooney) of his ill-gotten gains and adjust up their other finishers.

      After a significant delay, I finally heard back. An internal investigation occurred in which the judges denied prior awareness of Mooney’s prepublication. The editor contacted Mooney, who admitted that the poem had been published on Vox Populism but that it had been taken down before he submitted it to the contest. The poem was therefore declared pre-published by its author, but this didn’t alarm the editor; instead it reinforced a belief that the “policies at Arc have not been breached.” The editor then pasted a paragraph (shaped with the advice of a lawyer) that reads as nonsensical to me now as it did then (I now submit to the court Exhibit B):

Arc Poetry Magazine considers work to have been previously published if it has been publicly presented and distributed in print or electronically following an editorial process; Arc does not consider to be previously published: electronically self-disseminated work, excerpts of otherwise unpublished work, video or audio recordings, or circulation or reproductions of critical or creative writing for promotional purposes or without the creator’s knowledge or consent.
  –Jacob McArthur Mooney

      The above is not a policy, it is an abdication of policy. Mooney’s blog was popular during the course of its run, a place where poetry editors often commented on controversies of the day (sometimes initiated and certainly propagated by the blog proprietor). The editor of Arc went on to admit that they regularly read Mooney’s blog. I figured Mooney owning up to prepublication would have been enough to settle the issue right there. I was wrong.

       Gobsmacked, I attacked the legal sentence-paragraph, asking how public presentation of a poem before its submission to a contest was any different if there was editorial process or not, the main problem being the public life of the poem. I had fun with the heavily punctuated “versey garland” structure of this single sentence, which makes Arc look like it will bend over backward to admit all sorts of previously-published poems. Is a woman a little bit pregnant? No.

      I eventually received a bizarre reply from the editor which spoke of the necessity of the transparency of contests in order for them to work … and yet the paragraph would stand! In the name of transparency I called on Arc to post on its blog that Mooney’s poem was pre-published. Again I was told no. Irony, alas, is not transparent.

3. Prize Culture Is As Prize Culture Does. Follow the Money.

      PoBiz contestery has long suffered from problems. Any judging system can be perverted, be it single or group judging, anonymous or not, celebrity or not, purportedly blind – or not. The internet has made willful blindness more difficult for magazines: poets of lesser talent tend to post their poems on the internet before they send them out to magazines and contests, because they are unprofessionally in a rush and because they figure they have little chance of success anyway. The idea is that few will see the poem in the first place, so it doesn’t matter if the poem is sent later to a contest.

     The no-e-publication contest ethic has been adopted by other Canadian poetry contests, such as the CBC Literary Competition, which is famously strict in this regard, as well as a new contest begun by the Walrus. This ethic wasn’t meant, in a fiduciary sense, to apply to terrible poets. Poetry magazine editors like the one at Arc are engaged in a huge game of chicken: editors don’t care about prior e-publication because there likely won’t be a problem with e-bad poems. The bad poets aren’t supposed to win, but if e-happy poets can’t send in their poems, editors fear a loss of contest revenue that keeps the big purse, and the magazine, alive.

      Meanwhile, Prize Culture (in poetry especially) is a Ponzi scheme. As Canadian poets rush headlong into prize culture, perversions and subversions of the system multiply. For example:

  1. The Griffin award has been snickered at internationally as a House of Anansi nepotistic scheme.
  2. In 2008, the GG had its Di Brandt debacleand in 2011, its Steve McCaffery scale- tipping.
  3. Kevin Connolly was a Trillium juror in 2011, and he flipped burgers at the launch of a shortlisted         Trillium Poetry Award poet’s book. You want fries with your nomination?
  4. The next year, Nick Thran won the Trillium Poetry Award but a rule states that the poet must have       lived in Ontario 3 of the past 5 years and I suspect that’s not the case with Thran, who’s resided in       New York and Fredericton the bulk of that time.

The list goes on. Now the expectation is not for contests like Arc’s (or the Griffin and GG) to be blind, but for the contestants themselves to be blind to the contests’ lack of integrity. The submission and adjudication/administration processes for prizes are so broken, they’re shameless enough to justify their brokenness in legal jargon replete with colons and semicolons that wave their sinuous hands in front of the duped public’s face.

4. Criticize the publications you write for. Become a better target.

       The last time my name appeared in Arc magazine was in an announcement I won a prize for criticism. The purse was $100. I had written the “best” brief review for the year 2011. I’ve taken my name off their reviewing books in protest, but I hope contest submitters begin to review for Arc in my place. Such a thing wouldn’t be a lottery; it would be good for everyone. Whistleblowing on Mr. Ponzi is a useless pastime in the current CanPo climate, but with the presence of more reviewers willing to wear a whistle, Prize Culture may meet its Reformation.

I wish I could still be a part of Arc, but it’s not the little magazine I began in anymore.

Shane Neilson