It's national poetry month again, and everywhere there are contests, competitions, juries, deadlines, new releases.The world hums with the traffic of author visits, there are posters in the subway and faceoffs on the radio. There are national, provincial and municipal laureates, youth laureates and, if you like cowboy poetry, lariat laureates, all hoping to lasso a $40,000 Griffin Prize, too. (There are two!)
I have no problem with competition in the arts. I remember that many of the great comedies and tragedies of ancient Greece were written in competition, as was Shelley's much-quoted poem Ozymandias. "Whatever makes the muse muse" is what I say.
But I don't compete unless I'm paid. I just hate to lose. Temptation, though, is everywhere. On an almost daily basis I receive e-mail missives notifying me of multiple poetry contests I might enter, provided, of course, I pay the small application fee. Or if I don't want to pay I can make my way to the local slam and pit myself against the wild people. But even if I stay out of contests wherever possible, there's still the judging. Last year I judged the Scarborough Arts Council's poetry contest. I had poetry by the pound. My fingers were raw with shuffling sheets. Sonnets, rhymes, eulogies.
Then I got an urgent call from the Federation of Canadian Naturalists magazine. They had 30 nature poems that needed emergency adjudication. Every year I meet with two other poets to pick the winner of the Frankly Bob Award, poetry written by homeless people. This year, unfortunately, there are four times as many entries as last year. And these are not poems to skip through lightly.
But it's not all competition. Lately, our normally fractious poets have found unity in a single issue: peace. Suddenly, there are Poets Against The War anthologies everywhere. The original one, put together by Canadian boy poet Todd Swift, an e-book, was the fastest-selling volume of poetry in the universe. And I'm in it, face-to-face with my dearest detractors. Page-to-page with poets who shun me in public places. Back-to-back with poets I run from.
All brought together by one man, George Bush. The local anthology is one of at least four Poets For Peace collections that have served to some degree as flashpoints for public opinion and actually had an effect on government policy, especially in Canada.
Now, I don't mean to say all poets everywhere are anti-war. I hear there is a splinter group -- Poets Against Poets Against the War (originally just called Poets Against Poets). And there's a Web site originating somewhere in the States called Poets For The War. I checked out some of the work there. It's actually not bad. It's horrible. Robert Priest's latest poetry collection is called Blue Pyramids.