On Fallout: an Interview with Michael Lista About "the Shock Absorber"

By James Lindsay

Please note the views and opinions expressed by writers in the Open Book writer-in-residence program are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of Open Book, its staff or contributors

When poet and critic Michael Lista’s “The Shock Absorber” essay on the ties between the Griffin Poetry Prize and a Saudi arms deal appeared on Canadaland last year, reaction in the Canadian poetry community was mixed. While there was some condemnation of Scott Griffin, there was also indifference as well as anger directed at the author himself. But for a brief moment, Canadian Poetry was forced to publicly discuss the morality of its largest prize. Since the essay’s publication, Lista has been quiet on the fallout, so, six months on, I wanted to give him the opportunity to reflect on the fall out of “The Shock Absorber.”


James Lindsay:

Before "The Shock Absorber" was published, where you expecting a certain kind of public reaction?


Michael Lista:

Kind of. I suspect that readers and journalists would be interested and alarmed (they mostly were). As I wrote in the piece, my bet was that poets and more literary types would take their cue from Margaret Atwood, and though they like to pose as "the antennae of the race," would actually chicken out, equivocate, and stay mum. I didn't expect a former Griffin winner to say that he wanted to "throat punch" me on Facebook because of the investigation, but hey: I like surprises.



Why the anger? It's not like anyone called you out for saying anything factually incorrect. And why the apathy? Poets are, in general, thought of as a left leaning bunch, usually engaged with issues like this.



I wrote "The Shock Absorber" as a Banff Literary Journalism fellow, under the guidance of great journalists — Ian Brown, Victor Dwyer and Charlotte Gill. I worked with the Globe and Mail research department. The piece went through and passed a fact check. The wacko who wanted to fight because of it wasn't upset that I'd lied; he was upset that I told the truth.

You'd think lefty poets would be into an issue like their community's complicity in a $15 billion Saudi arms deal, no? You're wrong. Poets were all saying in response to the piece: the world is complicated, and we need to look at the big picture. Which is weird, because the big moral convulsions in the CanPo world over the last half decade or so have been the result of a kind of surfeit of outrage available to poets; I’m thinking of Guri(el) Gate, when a good slice of the CanPo world was sure Jason Guriel, when he called Alice Oswald’s writing solutions "easy," was actually calling her a slut. Or when poets dilated on Carmine Starnino’s line that one of the appeals of a publication like the now-defunct Lemon Hound was that it gave poets the cover of a pack. It was an obvious play on the name of the blog, but poets, with their finely tuned moral spidey sense, registered offense. How that same group of people, when presented with evidence that their largest prize and domestic publisher is operated by someone who sells weapons parts, including to the despotic House of Saud, could argue for us all taking a step back, giving the benefit of the doubt, and seeing the world for the more nuanced and complicated place it is, strikes me as irony of the blackest sort.

I think I know why though. Three reasons: 1) They didn’t like that it was coming from me. 2) Poets are too poor and afraid to bite the hand that “barely feeds any of them,” as Clint Burnham put it. 3) As a recent piece in the Times (an excerpt from a larger Nature article) points out, public moral outrage is more often than not strictly performative. It’s “costly signaling,” like a peacock’s tail. It signals guild or clan affiliation, and it’s socially self-serving. And so because the moral challenge this time was coming from someone of the wrong clan, challenging a prize they aspire to and the community as a whole, there was no reason to demonstrate outrage at the fact that The Griffin Prize’s founder had a subcontract on a $15B arms deal with the Saudi monarchy.

The Canadian literati, though, are on the wrong side of history on this one. Brave journalists like Steven Chase of the Globe and Mail are hammering away at the deal, which is illegal. A group of law students and their prof, a former MP, have filed a federal judicial review challenging the legality of the deal. Griffin himself sold his controlling share in his own company, General Kinetics, and resigned as a director and as chairman, even after he told me he didn’t see a problem. Which is funny, because the Canadian literati — including Margaret Atwood — were going to give him a pass. And I just want to point out that lots of people, like Margaret Atwood and others, said I was making a mistake by pointing a spotlight on a specific subcontractor that had ties with the literary community, instead of the Conservative government that minted the deal (though I did that too). Well here we are after a Liberal majority has been elected, and Trudeau has defended the deal, and promised not to repeal it. Stephane Dion, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, defended the deal by saying: “What’s done is done,” a phrase that entered the English language when Lady MacBeth uttered it to justify murder. Sunny ways indeed. Thank god Canadian poets aren’t the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”



Since there's already such little money to be made in writing poetry, why the fear? Statistically, most poets will never even qualify for the prize and it's unlikely any criticism would hurt their chance at future grants or other prizes.



It’s not so much fear as optimism bias and illusory superiority. Most people think they’re better than average, which is statistically impossible. The same is true of poets. Why has the Republican Party been so good at getting middle- and lower- class Americans to vote for the entitlement-slashing GOP, against their own self-interest? Because they don’t want to pay all those taxes when they eventually become the millionaires they always knew they’d be (but won’t). The same is true of Canadian poets. Though only 14 out of the 500 or so living Canadian poets have ever won the Griffin Prize, in the generation it’s been around, no Canadian poet wants to talk themselves out of the prize they know they’re brilliant enough to eventually win (but won’t).

But there’s something in our national character that prevents them taking a stand too. Canadians are loath to go against the grain. As Northrup Frye said: we’re just Americans who rejected the revolution. We’re loyalists. We school like fish for the status quo.



What about the argument that art and commerce have always been uneasy bedfellows; that all money is blood money? Is there not a tradition of artists working with seedy elites? If so, why stop now? And is this a Canadian problem? For example I'm always surprised when I open a book published by Graywolf Press to see that they receive funding from Target and Wells Fargo. Nobody makes a bid deal out of it and they're an American press.



Not just that all money is blood money, but that all money is equally blood money. I saw lots of poets making that argument, that selling the House of Saud $15B worth of weapons—to oppress their own people, their own writers, their own poets, never mind the Bahrain democracy protesters, or the poor Yemeni—wasn’t any worse than shopping at Target, or opening an RRSP. These are the same people who are simultaneously arguing that we need to burn critics in effigy for using the word “easy” in a book review. It’s not my circle to square. All I have to say is: good luck sleeping at night.



You're clearly still angry about this. Given that your literary criticism had already made you somewhat of a polarizing figure in Canadian poetry before the "The Shock Absorber," is there a part of you that wishes you could have done this without all the baggage? Do you think that would have made a difference?



I’m more deflated than angry to be honest. Maybe a little grossed out by the “community,” too. I was kind of hoping Canadian poets were going to be braver and better than they were. Do I wish I hadn’t been a critic before I wrote the Griffin piece? No: that would have been impossible. Being a critic, cutting against the grain of received wisdom, airing an unpopular opinion, thinking about the world for yourself, etc, is exactly what prepared me to write “The Shock Absorber.” It took working as a critic for a few years to be able to do it. That being said, I think you’re right that if I hadn’t disagreed with Jan Zwicky about free speech, or questioned the genius of Don McKay, or panned Tim Lilburn, Canadian poets may have been more receptive to the argument of “The Shock Absorber.” Imagine Anne Carson’s byline instead of mine under that piece. I bet it would have gone over a lot better. All that means is that Canadian poets judge their journalism on its professional utility instead of on its veracity.

Michael Lista’s recent essays have appeared in Slate and The Atlantic. His book of essays Strike Anywhere is appearing in the spring.

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: Toronto.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.