Thursday, June 23, 2005

Why I'm a member of the LCP

The League of Canadian Poets (otherwise known as the LCP) -- for those readers who are unfamiliar with this organization -- is in no wise connected to the National Hockey League, nor the CFL, NFL, nor any other sporting organization. In the LCP, there are no playoffs, coaches, or teams. There are committees, and identifiable cliques (the closest thing I suppose in the poetry world to a team), but every member has free agent status.

I myself am a card carrying member (yes, indeed, I have a card, and sometimes I even carry it in my wallet), and have been since 1995, although I let my membership lapse from 1997 until last year, when I realized once again I had interests there and successfully applied to be drafted back in.

The main attraction of the League for poets of the Great White North is that it is the body through which funding from the Canada Council of the Arts (our Federal Government arts organization) and other provincial organizations for paid readings, poets in the schools and the like, is directed. In the words of its website, it is the national association of professional publishing and performing poets in Canada.

There are dues to pay: to be a full member, it's $175 Canadian per year. To be drafted as a full member, you must have published a book of poetry of a minimum 48 pages (enough to merit an ISBN number), and pass assessment by the membership committee, which is elected by the general membership. At this latest Annual General Meeting, we voted to eventually liberalize that requirement, so that the 48 pages published anywhere, in magazines, chapbooks, etc. is an acceptable criterion (someone is looking into the language for that right now)

Ironies abound, of course. For instance, because of Neo-con freezes & cutbacks, etc, the budget for readings is extremely small -- about $85,000 in reading and travel fees for nearly 600 members across Canada. Enough, in other words, to pay Mario Lemieux for a shift or two when he played for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Or one traffic cop for a year. Members are limited to 2 or 3 paid full Canada Council readings per year, if they can get the venues to apply on time., which can take some doing. I in my 4 years of active membership have actually have only managed to arrange 1 half reading, in Ottawa, which together with travel expenses came up to about $160 -- enough to almost cover my dues for that year. Part of what muddles me up here is a variable work schedule that frequently conflicts with literary evenings.

There are other benefits though: the Annual General Meeting is really a kind of poetry festival as well as policy forum, with panel discussions, open mikes, book launches, etc.; many of our best poets (Margaret Atwood, George Elliott Clarke, Stephanie Bolster, Anne Simpson, Erin Moure, Steven Michael Berzensky, Lillian Allen, etc.) are members; you get to hobnob, make friends, find out who's publishing where and what. The League has an excellent website (including a Poetry Markets for Canadians, an indispensible service, free for members), and a newsletter that fills you in on competitions, events and the like. Again, it is the professional poet's organization in Canada -- so there is some element of status in that.

The League however has had a rather checkered past -- there was a time, back in the early '80s, when for many it became unbearably stuffy, causing certain poets (Cris Faiers, Shaunt Basmajian and others) to form a rival organization open to all and sundry called the Association of Canadian Poets. This was also the time of Ann Diamond's Terrorist Letters, a series of hilarious and brilliantly scathing missives she sent to the League head office threating to bomb them unless they changed their attitude to poetry. (Shows a sea-change in the spirit of the times: in those days terrorism was not such a serious possibility...) In response, rather than just call her up, see if she was OK and share a laugh or two, League poeticrats actually dialed the RCMP, who actually pointed out to them that it was a literary text, not worth acting on. (NB I've since learned there's some error in these remarks about Ann Diamond: Actually, she wrote me to say, "There was no bomb threat, that I can remember. All I threatened to do was run for president of the league and perform "hairspray demonstrations" at their AGM. This was in 1988?? long before shoe bombers and 911, but paranoia was widespread among Canadian poets.... " Clearly, a confabulation on my part! she went on to tell me that the core purpose of the exercise was to make the rather pedestrian point that the organization was rather Ontario-centric at the time, cutting off her poet in the schools funding as soon as she moved to Quebec.)

Things about this organization that still make me wince, cringe or otherwise annoy:

1) The fact that it's called the League of Canadian Poets. Although the word "League" has classical antecedents, I find it hard to boot out of my mind the image of poets wearing hockey jerseys and making mad rushes up and down the ice. If the term seems rinky-dink (pun entirely intended) to me, how does it seem to our Members of Parliament and corporate/government funding sources, for whom poetry is already a pretty twinky business? It's ironic that the rival organization, which has little more than sentiment behind it, has the more official-sounding name.

2) The fact that it's called the League of Canadian Poets. The implied pretention that this is indeed an umbrella organization for all poets in the domain of Canada. Actually, it's the League of English-Canadian poets. Every so often a member raises the question (with a heavy English accent) pourquoi pas avoir les poets francophones dans la organization? Actually the francophone poets have their own organization, festivals, and community of interests. Many are sovereigntists (those who oppose them call them separatists) who would cringe to have their professional organization under the umbrella of the LCP, or any other national organization for that matter. That would be a little too reflective of a not-so-nice historical reality of Canada. Poets here on both sides of the English/French fence actually don't have much affection for that historical reality. Many of us English Canadians feel deep down that if we were Quebecois we too would very likely be sovereigntists, since that's definitely the more romantic option. On top of that we English-Canadian poets have trouble determining whether French Quebec is a part of Canada or not, since they have such trouble determining that for themselves. To make matters even more obscure, we tend to forget that a whole world of Quebecois literature even exists, since most of us can't read it. So the League of Canadian poets remains decidedly English, while sending representatives to the Festival International de la Poesie de Trois Rivieres and the like.

3) The feminist caucus meeting + reading at the AGM + Pat Lowther award for best book by a Canadian woman. Sorry to be unpolitically correct, but all this amounts to an affirmative action program that has long outrun its course. Right now a sizable majority of poets are women, as are editors, league executive, etc. Poetry and literature have been feminized all over the world. This year, weirdly enough, all but one of six nominees for the Gerald Lampert award (best first book) were men. That also seemed peculiar, as I know of at least one worthy book by a woman that was overlooked. Is the Gerald Lampert Award being used as an affirmative action program in reverse? As I was saying to one of our other few male members, maybe we men should form our own masculinist caucus. We have the cocks -- why not form a caucus? (Excuse the pun... I suppose in the interests of PC we males should keep such jokes to ourselves.)

4) The relative lack of youth, and verve of youth, as alluded to before.

Right now, though, I find the league to be a friendly, unpretentious organization, with many talented, well-meaning people who are openly critical of any sort of stuffiness or conservatism. Although it still is rather WASP-heavy, there is a definite interest in attracting cultural minorities to its fold. It is also interested in giving recognition to alternative forms of poetry due recognition, funding, prizes, etc. Perhaps changes in membership criterion will bring in younger poets. I think more $$$ for readings and other programs would do more towards that. Arts grants policies still favour the two official languages. If more money were channeled towards writing and translation from "unofficial languages", the League might eventually reflect the multicultural fabric that is Canada. Who knows? Some day (not any day soon, though), I could see myself taking part in the executive -- as Quebec/Nunavut rep? -- since I believe this organization serves a vital need. Even though I find protracted policy discussions a deadly bore, and lack a head for figures (except figures of speech). But considering the latest financial crunch -- the League without warning almost dived into bankruptcy this year, leading to laying off of staff and cries of alarm -- I don't think I'd be too alone in that regard.


Jocko Benoit said...

Were you involved in that tussle a few years back on the League listserve after one non-League writer offered to put up an award for male poets? He was turned down becasue, acording to the League, they could only accept initiate an award is there was a stable surce of funding. He argued in a published article that he thought the whole thing smelt of discrimination.

I remember a few of us made note of the things you mention in this piece and we were e-spanked.

Brian Campbell said...

I didn't know about that tussle, but it doesn't surprise me. E-spanking... did you at least enjoy it, in a kind of s-m way?

As far as I'm concerned, may all the the nattering not overshadow why I'm in this in the first place... (a kind of poet's prayer for any involved in officialdom.)