First off, I appreciated Michael Lista’s article. It hit a nerve, and that’s what a good article of its kind should do. The critics whose writing I seek out (and quote most often on this site) are united not by a particular aesthetic, but by their possession of a sharp stick, and their desire to seek out the untouchable bears of CanLit and give them a good poke. I’m thinking here of Jason Guriel, Carmine Starnino, Sina Queyras, Christian Bök, Zach Wells, and, of late, Jacob McArthur Mooney and Michael Lista (if you haven’t read critical writing from these people, get clicking those links!). Lista gets the double award of also shaking things up with his poetry, as my post on his first book, “Bloom”, and the debate that followed, clearly demonstrates. People who’ve jumped on Lista for his article are missing the bigger point – he’s brought to the forefront an issue that we clearly needed to be discussing more than we were, and we should all be grateful for that.
On the issue of magazine funding itself, I think it’s important that any discussion of the issue occurs within an accurate context. Lista lays out the impacts of the changes in his article: the number of Canadian lit mags funded has dropped from eleven to six under the new rules. In other words, only five magazines were clearly monetarily affected. Most magazines weren’t funded by the feds before the changes, and if they fold it won’t be because of the changes. That said, there is a chance that some of those unfortunate five will go, and others who would have theoretically been funded in future years will miss out on that opportunity. Still, it’s no Armageddon for CanLit magazines, and pretending that it is in order to sharpen an argument instead only weakens it.
|You know you want one.|
I come at this from the (increasingly uncommon?) perspective of a writer who never enrolled in a Creative Writing program. Unlike those who have gone through such programs, I didn’t have a peer group to share my writing with, or mentors to evaluate and critique my writing. I also didn’t have anyone to champion my work in literary circles. Instead, I had the small literary magazines that have been made ineligible for funding.
Between 2003 and 2010, I submitted 305 different poems to magazines, most multiple times (though never simultaneously, rule-stickler that I am), so that in total more than 1500 copies of my poems landed in the inboxes of various Canadian magazines. This process, though wildly imperfect, served as my training ground. I had a peer group of sorts in editing rooms across the country, and all the critiquing that a boy could ask for (even if all I often saw of it was a photocopied rejection slip). Over time I gained champions as well – wonderful magazines that spurred me on by regularly publishing my work.
My fear is that if the publishing path I followed - in which a CV is slowly built through publications in magazines of ever-increasing profile - becomes increasingly difficult to navigate (less magazines, smaller editorial staffs, more limited editorial mandates, etc.), new writers will feel that they have no choice but to enrol in a program in order to find an audience, a community, and mentors.
In many ways, this process is already happening. More and more programs are being established, and more and more of the attention of the writing world is being focused around them. Last week on the Harriet blog, Kwame Dawes wrote about “The University as the Poet’s Community”, writing not on whether or not the poet’s community was in the university (this was assumed), but on how to make the university feel more like home. On the UBC Creative Writing program’s blog, The Grapevine (a fantastic blog for local events, by the way), a call was recently posted from a community writing group looking for writers who “Ideally... hold at least a BA or MFA in creative writing”. Even community writing groups are feeling the shift!
To be clear here, I have nothing against CW programs – I think they are a great option to have as a writer. But I do think they should be just that, an option, and not something new writers feel obligated to do. They are more exclusive and more expensive than the "magazine path", and often involve relocation to attend in person – all of these can serve as barriers to participation.
In the end what I’m saying isn’t a direct rebuke of the Canadian Periodical Fund. I’m against the changes, and disagree that losing magazines would be good for our writers and readers (who rely on the existence of quality writers, after all). But the changes are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Instead, I think the CPF (and the suggestion that a culling of magazines would be beneficial) has served to highlight the real possibility that, going forward, lit mags will play a diminished role in the development of new Canadian writers (if they aren’t already). Will this happen? Will Creative Writing programs (or something else entirely?) fill the void? Is that desirable? Avoidable? These are the questions I think we should be asking, and whose answers should underpin magazine funding policies in that blessed Utopian future where we spend money on the arts instead of on empty prisons and engine-less fighter planes...