Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Dangerfield Prize

I'm naming this post after something completely chimerical, as real at present as Nessiteras rhombopteryx (the Loch Ness monster) or other triumphs of cryptozoology. But the Dangerfield Prize, and prizes like it, may have more going for them than cryptids like Nessie.

Last month I mentioned the scholarship recently established for a student graduating from first Canadian poet laureate George Bowering's old high school in Oliver, British Columbia, who "must have a demonstrated interest in writing and be a bit of a pain in the ass."

This scholarship, as I said at the time, opens up all sorts of new imaginative vistas for awards. I'm forced to think about awards in the fall, when I have to decide whether to nominate ten people (plus any number of single works in journals or other small press publications) for the Pushcart Prize. If I decide to participate, as I've done since 2002, my ten nominees will get a letter from Pushcart asking them to send their own selection from their 2007 small press-published work for consideration for the next year's anthology. If I also nominate single pieces from magazines and anthologies, the editors of those publications will get slightly different (but similar) letters.

If any of my nominees actually wins, they'll become contributing editors as well and get to send in their own lists of nominations in future years.

So why do I have to think about whether to go through this drill? Why isn't it more fun? Because since I've been doing it, only one of my nominees has actually won a Pushcart. The sheer number of nominations pouring in to Pushcart's P.O. box in Wainscott, NY, is enormous and (do the math: each year's winners become nominators) growing like kudzu every year. So any individual nominee stands a vanishingly small chance of winning.

On top of this, there's more than a small aesthetic difference between my taste and that of the annually-chosen poetry editors. Bill Henderson, who founded Pushcart because of his own frustrations with the literary establishment, is, I suspect, a sterling guy who's pursued his mission with nothing short of heroism. Unfortunately, though, we don't happen to be on the same page (for the most part) about what constitutes an outstanding work of poetry in a given year.

That, I think, is to be expected: these are his awards, his bailiwick, and his taste (and that of his chosen editors) rules the day. But as a result I have to wonder: shall I really trouble, say, Rae Armantrout with another nomination, when she's never won? Why should she bother to go through the fairly onerous drill, only to lose yet again?

Even worse, if I do nominate her again, and she puts herself through those paces, doesn't she begin to associate me with the absurdity of it all? Have I really done her a good turn, or have I wasted her time? Questions like these have made me puzzle over my nominations year after year, never seriously considering some extremely worthy candidates because I know they stand zero chance, and apologizing in advance to those I do nominate for what may be a particularly thankless errand.

All this, plus the fact that there is almost universal frustration with awards of all kinds, has made me wonder: what's stopping any of us from taking a page from Bowering's book, or Henderson's, and launching our own awards?

After all, there is actually no prize with a Pushcart Prize, other than publication. The scholarship given in Bowering's name (though probably not endowed from his personal kitty, though I don't have the inside poop) is obviously something most of us can't dream of setting up. But even if the prize loot were extremely modest indeed, or nonexistent -- other than some sort of fuss made by announcement and (for example) publication of the winning work(s) somewhere -- wouldn't it, at the very least, make some deserving writer's day, and be an absolute hoot?

And, if the standards exercised were rigorous enough -- or witty
and cryptozoologically wild enough -- couldn't it become more than that? Would it be ridiculous to hope that (in some small way) it could actually help to shape the aesthetic environment of the times?

That's why I'm musing on a still very-much-imaginary Dangerfield Prize, and why I hope others will indulge in similar musings of their own.


Reb said...

As an a magazine editor, I nominate poems for these types of anthologies because it's something "extra" I can do (in addition to publishing the work in my own magazine). I can't pay contributors, but for a few, I can nominate their work for something else like Pushcart, Best New Poets, Best of the Net, etc. I try to select pieces that I believe will have a chance, but aside from Best of the Net, to date my selections haven't enjoyed much success. You know what they say, it's an honor just to be nominated . . . heh or at least that's what I tell them.

Joseph Duemer said...

John Allman used to nominate me every year for a Pushcart & then we decided -- though I don't think we ever actually talked about it -- that it wasn't worth the trouble, for many of the same reasons you mention here.

Rachel Loden said...

Hi Reb & Joseph,

Yes -- and I guess the question is when does it stop being an honor and start being an annoyance?

And would it be possible to be more playful about the whole thing?

On another level, of course, prizes don't matter a fig. Most times, they're not actually about literature.

Anonymous said...

the hell with discussion
start your own prize. i think it is a brilliant idea. going to work on it right now

Jordan said...

It's a mitzvah.

Rachel Loden said...

Jordan, yes --

godspeed anonymous!