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Is Poetry Contest an Oxymoronic Term?:
An Enquiry into the Alberta Poetry Year Book Series, 1930-1955.

Paper Presented to the History of the Book in Canadaís
Open Conference for Volume III (1918-2000)
by Peggy Kelly, University of Alberta


In 1921, the Canadian Authors Association (CAA) was founded by Stephen Leacock, B.K. Sandwell, J.M. Gibbon, and Pelham Edgar. According to theAssociation’s historian, Lyn Harrington, Leacock, an established writer, was “incensed” by the federal government’s proposed Copyright Bill, which gave “Canadian printers the right to reproduce any book by a Canadian, with or without the author’s permission” (19). The four founders were very successful at recruiting members, partly because they were all well connected in the Anglo-Canadian literary field and partly because the association filled a need. (1) While American writers had the Authors League of America, there was no national association for Canadian writers. Madge Macbeth proclaimed to the CAA’s 1924 Convention in Quebec City that “Authors must have a common meeting ground” (Harrington 86). The members of the CAA moved quickly. In the same year of the association’s formation, the Canadian Bookman, which started three years earlier in 1919 under B.K. Sandwell’s editorship, became the CAA’s official journal, under the new name of Canadian Author and Bookman. Also in 1921, the CAA instituted the Canadian Book Week. As a site of nationalists’ and internationalists’ disputes over art versus commerce, Canadian Book Week was surrounded by controversy from its inception. Concerns about the quality of the publications listed in the Book Week’s promotional material were raised by CAA members in the first year of its life. Canadian writers and intellectuals criticized the Canadian Book Week as a commodification of literature and a way to whip up nationalism. President J.M. Gibbon’s answer to these concerns reflects the CAA’s desire to increase readership of Canadian literary productions, regardless of genre or aesthetic considerations: “The Association is not a private literary club, nor an Academy to weigh the virtues and demerits of a country’s literature,” Gibbon says. “A frontier story of action and adventure may be just as valuable in winning readers as a treatise on Milton or Flaubert to a college professor” (Harrington 64). In addition to Canadian Book Week and the Canadian Author and Bookman, in 1921, the CAA established a committee to lobby the government about the proposed Copyright Bill, but to no avail. The unamended Canadian Copyright Act went into effect on January 1, 1924. (2) Since the early years of the CAA, its professional development role, its efforts to educate Canadians about Canadian writing, and its concern over the contractual issues underlying the copyright wars have been pointed out to justify the commercial label borne by this writers’ association.

In the first decade of the CAA’s life, the association’s branches began publishing Poetry Year Books, short annual anthologies of poetry chosen from submissions to a national poetry contest. The Toronto branch of the CAA published a Poetry Year Book in 1932; the Manitoba branch published one in 1933, titled Manitoba Poetry Chapbook, and the Ottawa branch published Profile: A Chapbook of Canadian Verse in 1946. The Montreal branch published a series of annual Poetry Year Books continuously from 1925 to 1950, no small feat, but a considerably shorter publication run than the Alberta Poetry Year Book series, which ran for sixty years, from 1930 to 1990. In this paper, I focus on the first twenty-five years of the Alberta Poetry Year Book series. First, I will give you an overview of the series and then I will discuss its position in the English-Canadian literary field. Early editions of the Alberta Poetry Year Book series were small at forty pages or so, but later editions reached lengths of over one hundred pages. The number of contest entries also increased over time, as did the monetary prizes. In 1935, 250 entries were received by the editors and judges. In 1940, this number had doubled; in 1948, it had increased again to 820, and by 1985, over 1300 entries were received from across the country. Early prizes ranged from ten to twenty-five dollars, depending on the category, and publication funds were raised from entry fees, which changed from year to year. Examples of entry fees are fifty cents for each entry, or one dollar for each poet. Revenue also came from sales of the anthologies, at one dollar each. By 1955, Calgary Power Ltd. was funding the prizes, and the foreword to the 1954 edition thanks the provincial government for “assistance and encouragement” (“Foreward” [sic] n.p.). In 1986, the Film and Literary Arts Branch of the Alberta Department of Community Development gave the Year Book editor, Cora Taylor, $3000 for the anthology’s production. That year, the anthology reported a deficit of eighty dollars. However, finances varied from year to year. In 1971, for instance, when June Fritch was the editor, the Alberta Poetry Year Book series had a net profit of $376. In other words, these publications were not big money-makers. The poetry contests were organized by genre and the classes for entries varied annually, but the sonnet and the short lyric were consistent categories. Some contests called for humorous verse, or for poetry written by juveniles. The 1948/49 edition had an “Experimental Class.” The classes for entries gave direction to poets and attracted those working in the genres stipulated. Thus, the contents of the anthologies, which are mostly traditional in form and subject, were presupposed by the contest announcements.

Over its sixty year history, the Alberta Poetry Year Book series had only five editors, four of whom were women. June Fritch held the post of editor for 27 years, and Alberta Scouten for 21 years before her. On the other hand, there were many contest judges: 56 over the 25-years I examined. That’s anywhere from one to five a year, and 78% of judges were male. I did a tabulation study of the contents of the Year Books, based on gender, and I discovered that, overall, women make up 74% of the poets whose work was selected for publication (see Summary of Statistics in appendix). The contests for the Toronto branch’s Poetry Year Books were blind vetted. I’m still searching for evidence that the Edmonton branch followed a similar procedure, but, in a national organization, it’s reasonable to suspect they did. The number of pages allotted to women’s poetry in the Alberta Poetry Year Book series was, on average, 73%. From this data, we can conclude that literary talent is not related to gender. When judges are not aware of a writer’s sex, women writers win publication and awards in proportion to the number of their submissions. This egalitarian arrangement does not hold in most poetry anthologies; in fact, when blind vetting is not the practice, the editor’s sex affects the choices made, and as Carole Gerson has shown, 18th and 19th century Canadian women writers have suffered from this gender bias by being gradually eliminated from English-Canadian literary anthologies.

What do we make of this stark contrast between the gender of these two groups, the judges and the competitors? I argue that those people most desirable for the role of judge were those who had the cultural capital contingent on officially recognized knowledge, that is, academics and established writers. Such people held culturally-defined and historically-contingent authority in their field of expertise. In fact, judges were drawn from these two groups. For example, E.J. Pratt judged the entries in 1938. Besides teaching literature at Victoria College in Toronto, publishing his own poetry, and contributing to anthologies like New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors, Pratt was the first editor, in 1936, of the CAA’s new literary organ, Canadian Poetry Magazine. Getting Pratt to judge their poetry contest in 1938 was a one-time coup for the Alberta Poetry Year Book editors because he brought valuable cultural capital with him. As feminist historians have argued, positions of cultural authority are less often held by women due to the precepts of patriarchy - a biologically based division of labour and a gender bias based on essentialism. It’s not surprising, therefore, that fewer women in positions of authority in the Canadian literary field were available to the editors of the Alberta Poetry Year Book across its sixty year span. I expected, however, to find more women acting as judges during World War II, when Canadian men were busy losing their lives on the battlefields of Europe and Canadian women took on their roles in business, government, and industry at home. However, this was not the case. For the six Alberta Poetry Year Books published between 1939 and 1946, all the judges were male. Furthermore, between 1930 and 1955, twelve women served as judges, three of whom, Annie Osborn in 1936, Mollie Caird in 1948, and Rosemary Hood in 1953, took on the role with their husbands. Others, like Alison White in the 1955 edition, were relegated to a feminized secondary role; in White’s case, this role was to judge the Juvenile entries separately, while the two male judges worked on all the other classes of entries.

The prefaces and forewords occasionally written by judges reveal that some judges regretted the lack of experimentation and others regretted the lack of craft in the poems they read. As an example, I’d like to briefly examine Annie Osborn’s role as judge. In 1936, Osborn led the largest contingent of judges of the whole Year Book series, five, including herself, two other female judges, Sara E. Carsley and Olive M. Fisher, and two male judges, A.R. Osborn and T.E.A. Priestley. Annie Osborn, an academic who published, in 1940, a scholarly political science text titled Rousseau and Burke: A Study of the Idea of Liberty in Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, was herself a poet and contestant in other editions of the Alberta Poetry Year Book series. She wrote the Preface to the seventh edition of the series, published in 1936/1937. In the first paragraph of her Preface, Osborn situates herself in the high art area of the literary field by stating, “The pleasure of the discovery of something of literary worth requites the toil of reading much crude material” (3). Osborn read 119 poems and was “disappoint[ed] to find so small a range of subjects chosen, so grave a lack of poetic conception underlying the work, so few indications of the transcription of actual feelings or experiences....I doubt,” she continues, “if there are more than five classifications for subjects. Nature, the West, Remembrance Day, with its allied topic Peace...and personal grief and resignation are the broad headings, with one or two happy exceptions which have received special consideration” (4-5). Other judges also noted the preponderance of traditional topics in the poems judged. In 1931, for instance, D’Arcy Marsh wrote that most of the poetry submitted “bore marks of an older European tradition, and, to the judges, the influence of the Romantic Revival was quite apparent” (4). In the early years surveyed, elements of the Victorian tradition Marsh refers to include an emphasis on music as an essential element in poetry. In the 1935 edition, for example, judge Frank Gilbert Roe, a frequent contributor to the Alberta Poetry Year Books, advises his fellow poets to think of poetry as spoken language and as musical. He even offers specific advice, such as never use plurals in poetry (3-4). Roe was also a historian; he published The North American Buffalo: A Critical Study of the Species in Its Wild State in 1951, and, in 1955, The Indian and the Horse, which is based on his ranch experience in Alberta, near Red Deer. Alexander H. Sutherland, who judged poetry three times, besides contributing to the contests, moved from a traditional position in 1934 when his preface called for music in poetry, to a more modernist position in 1945, when his preface called for more free verse. This twenty-five-year period was one of transition from traditional literary criteria to modernist ones, and the judges’ reports show this transition.

What fascinates me about the history of the Alberta Poetry Year Book series is the way that the serious-popular continuum gets mapped onto the Victorian-modernist struggle in Canadian literary history. Although it’s logical to argue that each genre, Victorian and modernist, produces examples ranging along the serious-popular continuum, the modernist hegemony in our present educational and critical arena situates all Victorian writing at the popular, feminized, devalued end of this continuum, because it’s considered formulaic and out-dated. However, the pages of the Alberta Poetry Year Book show that, in the thirties and forties of the last century, the modernist hegemony had not yet established itself; the struggle between Victorian forms and modernist forms is obvious in the issues. (3) But that’s a topic for another paper. Today I want to conclude by briefly examining the oxymoronic nature of the CAA’s poetry contests. Paying to enter a writing contest and paying to buy the publication in which your poetry appears, as competing poets were required to do by the Alberta Poetry Year Book editors, constitutes vanity publishing. However, most poetry publications, especially chapbooks, have constituted vanity publishing throughout literary history. In Canada, Frank Scott paid $200 to Macmillan Canada, in 1935, to publish New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors (1936). Such financial self-support has not kept Scott or his colleagues in New Provinces outside the Canadian literary canon. However, none of the contest winners in the Alberta Poetry Year Book are profiled in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, a reference text which has a major role in the construction of the canon. These are not canonized writers, but they are mostly female. The fact that canonized male Canadian writers were less likely to submit their work to the Alberta Poetry Year Book contests speaks to the feminization of the popular, to concerns over the commodification of high art, and to the power relations in the field. The editors of the Alberta Poetry Year Book series had lofty goals: to encourage Canadians to write poetry and to develop a national literature. The poetry contests and their monetary prizes were meant to contribute to the professionalization of the literary vocation, and this professionalization was seen to be a necessary step in the development of a national literature. (4) In other words, the editors of the Alberta Poetry Year Book positioned themselves on the serious, literary end of the continuum between literary and popular writing, in spite of outsiders’ positioning of the CAA at the lightweight, popular end. In fact, the poetic forms found in the Alberta Poetry Year Books of 1930-1955 counter the popular-literature characterization of the CAA. As the judges for the 1948/49 edition, Mollie and George B. Caird acknowledged, “Among the conventional forms it was interesting to find an ode, a piece of blank verse, a rondeau, a sestina, and an attempt at alcaics. In spite of some technical faults, these were all creditable poems...” (n.p.). My own reading shows that the subjects chosen by poets ranged widely from Lillian Collier Gray’s modernist poem titled “Of a Small Boy’s Future,” in which the narrator hopes to keep her son safe from the mindlessness of factory work (1947), to A.L. Marks’s metapoetic poem, “Cubism,” which parodies free verse (1942/43). The poets in the Alberta Poetry Year Book series were concerned with poetry, as well as with the social problems surrounding them. The devaluation of their work is based, in my view, on an entrenched gender bias. The overwhelmingly female nature of this publication, in a literary field dominated by patriarchal values, inevitably led to its devaluation, and the assumptions of the English-Canadian literary field concerning the oxymoron “poetry contest” served to exaggerate an existing bias about who writes “real” poetry.

 

Notes

1. Stephen Leacock, humour writer and Economics professor, McGill University; B.K. Sandwell, professional journalist and editor; J.M. Gibbon, novelist, historian, and administrator for Canadian Pacific Railway; Pelham Edgar, professor, Dept. of English, University of Toronto.

2. In 1988, Canadian copyright law was revised in favour of writers, yet writers continue to face copyright problems, especially in relation to new media. The disadvantages outlined briefly in this paper were major concerns for Canadian writers in the 1920s.

3. I don’t want to leave the impression that I agree with the myth of the thirty-year lag in Canadian modernism. Modernist poetry was being written and published in the 1910s by Canadians, such as Frank Oliver Call and Louise Morey Bowman. See David Arnason’s essay, “Canadian Poetry” the Interregnum,” in CVII: A Quarterly of Canadian Poetry Criticism 1.1 (Spring 1975): 28-32.

4. See Leo Cox’s Preface to the 1928-29 Poetry Year Book, published by the Montreal Branch of the CAA, and the unsigned Foreword to Profile: A Chapbook of Canadian Verse, published by the CAA, Ottawa branch, in April 1946.

 

Appendix

Alberta Poetry Year Book Series
Summary of Statistics
Years Sex of Judges Total Writers Total Women Writers Women as % Total Writers Total Pages Pages by Women Women’s Pages as % Total
1930 -1955 Male

44

Female
12

1378 1027 74% 1190 866.5 73%

Peggy Kelly
pkelly@uottawa.ca