Sunday, August 18, 2019

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Quality Control and Sandbox Awards

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A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book of essays by Allan Safarik. He’s a Canadian poet of notable skill and longevity, and a former Golden Gloves boxing champion. He’s also a nice man, with the sort of complicated intelligence that led him to move from Vancouver to rural Saskatchewan a decade and some ago, and—accurately and not incidentally—to title his book of essays, Notes From the Outside: Episodes from an Unconventional Life.

I’ve been acquainted with Safarik and his poetry since we were both at Simon Fraser University a zillion years ago, but I got to know him only in the mid-1980s over a week we spent teaching together. We were at a writing school in Saskatchewan’s Qu'appelle Valley, which is east of Regina and one of the truly wonderful places in Canada not enough people know about. The writing school itself was lodged in a barely-recycled tuberculosis sanitarium, and the regime of our week consisted of writing all morning, talking about writing all afternoon, playing after-dinner baseball until we couldn’t see the ball, and then driving into nearby LeBrett, which had a bar that seated about 15 people and didn’t seem to ever stop serving beer.

In that LeBrett bar very late one night, Safarik confided that he wasn’t really a former Golden Gloves boxing champion. It was, he said, something he’d noised around Simon Fraser because he’d heard that I was about to challenge him to a fight over some petty post-adolescent—and long since forgotten by both of us—slight. In those days, I used to pose as a tough guy from Northern B.C., which is something I fervently wasn’t until I got to university and discovered that no one was willing to call my bluff. Safarik, now that I think of it, was almost the only one who called it, and he did it so subtly that no confrontation resulted. That’s because I steered clear of him for well over a decade afterward, just in case he wanted to fight.

So, you can see from the above that I like and admire Allan Safarik more than a little, and I can testify that I continue to think of him with a respect and affection that isn’t grudging in the slightest sense. He’s a generous and astute man, and among the four or five poets of his generation of West Coasters worth reading. That week in the Qu’appelle Valley, I think, was a crucial watershed in his life, but not because he and I played some baseball together and became friends. Shortly afterward, he packed up his B.C. life and moved to Dundurn, Saskatchewan to live with a woman named Dolores Reimer. She was one of the organizers of the writing school we were teaching at, and a decent writer on her own merits. Safarik has been in Saskatchewan ever since, and Notes From the Outside, at least in part, can be taken as his explanation of why he left the nominal “inside” of Vancouver’s literary politics for a life in a dying town in rural Saskatchewan.

On the character of its author and subject matter, Notes From the Outside is interesting. Across the essays, Safarik explains where he came from (a not-wealthy commercial fishing family in the Vancouver suburbs that absolutely should not have produced a poet); elucidates his longstanding relationship with Dorothy Livesay; and writes anecdotally about Al Purdy, Anne Szumigalski, Pat Lowther, Joe Rosenblatt and other eccentric luminaries of Canadian poetry. Accidentally or by design, the essays draw up a portrait of a generation of poets who built their career expectations watching an older generation of literary pioneers in a country so eager to have an indigenous literature that it would have accepted chimpanzees with typewriters if they’d worn t-shirts that had the word “Canadian Poet” across the front.

Safarik is easily as good a poet as his mentor Livesay, and he’s got skills equal to those of a half-dozen more of the pioneers. What’s diminished is the cultural value of what poets do, and to such a degree that Safarik has become what his book title claims: an outsider within his own national literary culture, which now operates with its lips glued so firmly to the ass of the multinational corporate marketplace it can’t see places like Dundurn, Saskatchewan anymore. This is somewhat shameful, since Allan Safarik did more than his share to create that literary culture with his organizing work inside the West Coast literary community, mainly through the magazine Blackfish, which he co-edited with Brian Brett, another talented poet who has suffered a similar fate even though he’s a better poet than most of his mentors.

But I’m here to talk about Notes from the Outside, not lament the fate of talented but idiosyncratic poets of Canadian culture’s second generation. And there are problems with this book. Nearly all of it is written in such bad prose that it’s hard to get to its goodies.

There are several possible explanations. The easiest one is that some poets just can’t write prose. My own mentor, Robin Blaser, for instance, wrote such hermetically closed prose that it was virtually impossible to follow one sentence into the next without a leap of epistemological faith. It’s no accident that Blaser’s essays—recently collected by Miriam Nichols under the title The Fire and published by the University of California Press—have become the focus of a post-structuralist academic cult on the West Coast. The cultists fill Blaser’s syntactical gaps, leaps and gaffes with their own partisan literary ideology, and some actually make a decent living doing it. Who’s to object, given the ambiguity of the texts they base their industry on? I note, meanwhile, that they seem unable to read Blaser’s poetry without relying almost entirely on an undisclosed code and the discursive equivalents of “ahh”s and “gahhh”s. (If you want a non-industrial reading of Blaser's poetry, there's a comprehensive and thoroughly readable one in Stan Persky's The Short Version (New Star, 2005).)

Safarik’s prose, however, isn’t closed and it isn’t coded. It’s just unmusical and so off-hand syntactically that it is hard not to conclude that he simply wasn’t taking it seriously—i.e. wasn’t composing himself or his words to articulate. Syntax gets regularly butchered, unreferenced pronouns run around like rabid dogs, and the conceptual fine grain frequently disappears from sight altogether. Most of the essays read like those amateur autobiographies that farmers or loggers sometimes write, and which occasionally get published by heritage committees of one sort or another. The sentences are written in a hurry just to get the goddamned facts on the record, and screw all that poufter nonsense poetry is about: music, pacing, silence. I guess because Safarik is an accomplished poet, it somehow feels worse when he writes the same way.

Take this passage, from the essay “Twenty-four hours to Saskatchewan”, which begins as a sidewise explanation of why Safarik left the West Coast and morphs into a gratuitous “Bigots are Everywhere!” diatribe. “Preoccupied with the vagaries of a life on the run,” Safarik writes, “I found myself overwhelmed with urgent paper work. Needing the services of a professional witness, I thumbed the phone book and after several calls found a notary pubic who could attend to my emergency. …Packing my car (heading for Saskatchewan) I left for his office. …”

When I read this I couldn’t help wondering if I’d ever seen a literary essay in which three consecutive sentences begin with subordinate clauses—let alone the first three sentences of the essay. Was Safarik trying to make an obtuse point with this awkwardness, perhaps that what we suppose we are doing isn’t what we’re actually doing?

No such luck. This is just inattention to sentence mechanics. And it gets worse. The essay, which began in the singular voice, becomes, 600 words in, a collective. The car has a flat, and “Putting on the pathetic spare tire on a dangerous incline,” Safarik writes, “urged me to speed to Princeton to find a gas station before 10:00 pm.” No explanation of what makes a car tire “pathetic”, nothing about what constitutes a “dangerous incline” or the metaphysics of how a car tire can urge a person to do anything (car tires don’t talk), and nothing about what the 10:00 pm deadline pertains to. The next thing we see is Safarik and a heretofore unidentified companion being “assailed” by an auto mechanic telling a racist joke. “We stood there with our mouths open in shock. He sensed our discomfort in an instant and covered it by telling us a few sexist jokes making it obvious that if Dolores had not been travelling with me I would have been out of luck.” He never does explain that Dolores is his then-girlfriend/now-wife Dolores Reimer.

I’m sure you get what I’m suggesting here: this is clichéd and awkward prose so carelessly constructed that it is difficult to draw meaning from it; without narrative markers or shape and often not a little painful to the ear. Except for a couple of short essays where Safarik’s gifts as a poet kick in—most notably the sweetly mysterious “The Gesture of Goodwill”—most of the book groans and clanks from point to point with all the élan of a computer printer manual or government report.

So what happened? I may have an explanation. It isn’t one that I enjoy offering, and not just because it will make a man I like look bad. But this really isn’t about Safarik, who can be let off the hook because he’s likely one of those poets who doesn't write prose easily. This goes all the way to how we’re protecting and promoting our regional and indigenous culture in this country, and points to the possibility that the instruments we've developed to accomplish this may be in such disrepair that they're causing more harm than good. Beyond that, it raises specific issues about our cultural book publishing system, and, tertiarily, with this book as a specific instrument of public communication.

In 2003, it turns out, Safarik received something called the John V. Hicks Manuscript Award for Literary Non-Fiction for the manuscript that eventually was published by Hagios Press in 2006 as Notes From The Outside. The book was then nominated for two Saskatchewan Book Awards that same year. Whaaattt? In case you’re not drawing the lines between the dots, I’m signaling that there’s a problem with standards here.

In our nation-wide effort to nurture and protect regional culture, our cultural bureaucrats have created what I call “sandbox awards” to keep up both production and morale amongst local and regional sub-communities of the larger Canadian cultural system. Interestingly, among the more effective devices of this sort are the ones like the John V. Hicks Manuscript Award, which likely offers established or budding writers money to buy some time to write. Several Canadian provinces have something similar, and in many cases they do what they’re supposed to do: buy a writer the time to work on a promising but flawed manuscript. I've seen, for instance, manuscripts that turned out to be novels by Barbara Gowdy, Lawrence Hill and Anne Ireland in a single Ontario Arts Council competition akin to the Hicks Award. What that means is that sandbox awards and other kinds of incubation can work, if the standards are set high enough, and they’re adhered to.

Safarik’s manuscript almost certainly earned the award by Safarik's track record as a poet, and by its specific subject matter, which is of interest nationally as well as within Saskatchewan literary circles—and thus is a supportable nexus of cultural concern. But Safarik was then supposed to use the award to clarify the facts and refine the prose—after which his publisher was supposed to global edit, line edit and copy edit the manuscript prior to publication.

I can’t see that any of these things were done with Notes from the Outside, and I could, if cornered, provide about twenty mind-numbing pages of textual evidence that demonstrates that no serious editing was done at all, or if it was, that it was done very badly, or with standards so low that it discredits the enterprise.

The legitimizing tenet of regional and indigenous culture, it seems to me, is that in a globalized culture, indigenous cultural activity can—and damned well should—be carried on with the same sophistication and skill as in the imperial centres like New York and London. Because information sources and models are now globalized, the only substantive difference between rural Saskatchewan and New York City is that in Saskatchewan, you don’t have to drag your artistic ass to all the ruinous cocktail parties or shell out for the bling.

Now that I think of it, it was while I was in a dance hall in the Qu’appelle Valley that summer with Safarik when I had this insight. We were listening to a highly skilled rock n’ roll band when I recognized, specifically and deliciously, that there were probably 40,000 guitarists in North America who could play better than Eric Clapton. I was listening to one of them, after all. I was so sure about this that I didn’t bother to get the guitarist’s name. Because there were literally thousands like him playing venues all over the continent, I didn't need to. Marshall McLuhan’s revolution may not have brought us electronically-connected global democracy or social justice, but it was sure as hell bringing better music, writing, and art to the hinterlands than they used to get.

What I'm saying here is that there's no good reason why Safarik's book went so badly wrong, because good writing (and publishing) can come out of Saskatchewan as easily as from Toronto or Vancouver or New York City.  But Notes From the Outside, as I said, isn't the subject matter here, and I certainly don’t mean to single out Saskatchewan’s cultural subsidy programs, which have long been the most enlightened and generous in the country. Maybe this happened because an old, tired editor fell asleep on the job, or a younger, inexperienced editor was intimidated at the thought of wrangling better prose from a mature writer who had a blind spot on what he was doing wrong. Or maybe the wrong version of the manuscript went to press, and in the welter of incoming technologies, pressures to get books out and chronic underfunding, no one noticed. Or—a much scarier maybe—no one thought it mattered.

 

So maybe it’s the becoming the case that these sandbox awards are merely raising authorial and editorial self-esteem levels to the point where there’s no perceived need to be anything more than a lazy and careless amateur. And maybe, instead of enabling Saskatchewan’s writers and presses to produce books as good as those coming out of New York and London or whereever, they’re making the sandbox seem like the real world, rewarding amateurism and perpetuating 3rd rate provincialisms.

One of the long-standing but rarely acknowledged abuses of the Canada Council’s block grant publishing program, I’ve long been aware, is that it tacitly encourages small presses to behave like amateurs. It does this by systematically underfunding the overhead needed to provide competent editing, which gets more expensive with fiction because there are more words involved, and more expensive still with non-fiction where there are facts to be checked along with the increased word volumes. The result is a national oversupply of 48 page books of poetry no one is ever going to read, and larger works of prose that haven’t been edited competently, if at all. At this point in our cultural history and with the wealth of alternate media available to our artists, I think its fair to suggest that we should be producing fewer and better books, but the subsidy system, based as it is on the market production model, won’t allow that.

The worst possibility is that no one is to blame for Notes from the Outside, and that it’s a consequence—unfortunate but inevitable—of living in a country that no longer wants to pay the costs incurred in having strong regional and indigenous cultures capable of counteracting the flattening power of globalization and the 800 pound gorillas it seems to breed like rabbits: Chapters/Indigo and its 75 percent share of the book trade; American market culture; fundamentalisms of all sort; the substitution of rancorous pay-back multiculturalisms for the meritocracy that ought to be the foundation of our democracy; and the takeover of major Canadian publishing by multinational media conglomerates. I sure as hell hope that isn’t the case.

I suspect that it’s time for everyone to start interrogating our cultural subsidies instead of simply defending what remains on a line-item accounting basis, which is what we’ve done now since the Canada/US Free Trade Agreement came down in 1988. If we’re going to interrogate them, we’d best do it not with an eye to streamlining them to compete in the heartless moral vacuum of the marketplace, but to reboot our quality control standards. And we’d better do it before mistakes like Notes from the Outside become the only indigenous culture we have left.

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2765 w. April 24, 2008

 

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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