Writer in Residence

The absurdity of literary prizes part 2 of 2

By Dane Swan


“ I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it.”

For my most recent book, I had a reviewer who skewered me for quoting Shakespeare, and then citing it in my end notes. Because, everyone who reads my poetry should already have a foundation of literature that includes Shakespeare. This was the same reviewer that blasted me for using cliche, instead of realizing that a collection that uses things like run on sentences as poetic device might use cliche as poetic device.


Hell, I literally stated so in one of the poems!


“Some may call this cliche, or the mark of a martyr who never planned to die...”


Sorry, I'm getting off track. I read another review of a poetry collection, where the poet had the audacity to rhyme in their poetry. Seriously, a poet getting a poor review for rhyming!


Of course reviewers come to a work with biases. As do judges. But, what are we doing here? What is the point of all of this? I just want to write.


The art of analyzing literature in any real way is long lost. There's no point stressing over politics. I'm a writer. Whether acknowledged or not, my writing comes from a literary tradition. My work is written for particular audiences. As authors, are we supposed to sacrifice reaching our audience to please judges? Should literary award judging panels better reflect the diversity of the applicants, if they legitimately care about the validity of their awards? Is there a better way to acknowledge, promote and award work of merit without all the drama?  Does any of it matter?


The most freeing moment in my career as an author came when I threw away the idea of ever winning a literary award. Around the same time, I stopped worrying about reviews. It may sound odd, but I found writing with the faint possibility of winning an award, and writing the best work possible conflicted with one another. I was 'dumbing' down my work. Seriously, read Bending the Continuum, then read A Mingus Lullaby, and when it's published, read my third collection. I'm slowly letting go of my concerns and fears. You can see it in the progression of my work. That's what really matters. Literature shouldn't carry access baggage. It should be a fearless expression, tied to the traditions, cultures and roots that inspire the author.


Dylan didn't ask himself, “Will I win a literary prize?” When he wrote:


I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin'

Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world

Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'

Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter

Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley


And neither should such trivial thoughts be a part of your writing.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."