Revoking the Poetic License

Jack Hanson on Michael Lista's "The Shock Absorber" 



IN WHAT IS perhaps the most antagonistic peace offering ever penned, Christopher Hitchens once sought to end a quarrel with his brother Peter by way of a paean to fratricide. “The term,” he wrote, “comes to us by way of numberless myths, legends, court intrigues, and dynastic tussles, all of them tending to show that sibling rivalry can be the keenest and bitterest of them all.” And, in extending the term beyond the familial and into the political (Trotskyists on Stalinists, etc.), he gave a good moniker to what he had so often engaged in in his writing: the taking up of arms against one’s own, most notably against the liberal establishment’s easy acceptance of Bill Clinton. 

Michael Lista, co-editor of Partisan, is an admirer of Hitchens, and this week he continues the tradition of refusing to keep problems in the family.

In a lengthy piece published by Canadaland, the journalist and poet launches an attack on the Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada’s most lucrative, visible, and lauded literary award. Through careful research and direct contact with key players (including Scott Griffin himself), Lista makes a compelling case linking the $9 million Griffin Trust (from which the annual $65k/per poet is drawn) to a $15 billion arms deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He returns again and again to the heartbreaking irony of a prize celebrating writers while its founder sells arms to a regime which openly persecutes them (most notably the journalist Raif Badawi, who in 2013 was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for his writing a blog calling for the rise of liberalism).

But the most striking thing about this piece is not the business dealings of Mr. Griffin—how has this never been brought up?—but the blasé attitude of the writers who responded to Lista’s investigation. Margaret Atwood gets the most space in the piece, being at once the most famous writer in Canada and one of those most closely-connected to the Prize and its benefactor. Her responses are deeply troubling in their almost callous dismissal of the contradictions, not to mention moral complicity with a despotic regime, inherent in blindly supporting the Griffin Prize. She wrote to Lista:

"if…you want to kick poetry in the slats at a time when the humanities and the arts in general are under fire from the very same people who made the Saudi deal possible, then full steam ahead. Jump up and down on Scott Griffin. Harper will applaud your efforts."

This sounds as if Atwood thinks Griffin’s company's subcontract on the Saudi deal is a matter of poetic license. And it really is a bit rich, coming from the writer who recently wrote in the Guardian: “Freedom to write, freedom to publish, freedom of speech: all are still being fought for in many countries in the world. Their martyrs are numerous.” Apparently the fight doesn’t extend to business partners and subcontractors.

So far the reaction to the piece has been positive. Initial responses include many like my own, namely, how is this the first time anyone’s asking where this money comes from? And this is to a degree predictable. There is a long tradition of writer’s taking swipes at prizes, which are so often if not dirty, not exactly clean, either. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut calls’ the Nobel Prize “dynamite money.” More pointedly, William Gass wrote an editorial bemoaning the whitewashing, establishment mediocrity that was (and maybe still is) the Pulitzer Prize. But Lista’s piece is something different. The real trouble of the Griffin Prize isn’t its pandering to the establishment or its nepotism (though it has both in spades), but—and this bears repeating—its moral complicity in the government which reigns over the eighth-least free country in the world.

No one is perfect, and no one has to be. But in a literary climate so focused on ethical improvement, will this one be allowed to slide on the basis of its annual infusion of publicity and cash? How will the Griffin Trust and its supporters respond?

JACK HANSON is a contributing editor to Partisan.  

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