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Report: Wither Goeth Culture?
By Richard Olafson
St Paul’s, Minnesota,
where my grandfather first arrived early in the last century from
Iceland, is today a mecca of cultural activity. If poetry has
a Jeruselum it is St. Paul’s. I remember speaking to Scott
Walker, the founder of Greywolf Press, several years ago at a
book fair in Seattle. He had just moved from Port Townsend to
St. Paul’s. Scott founded Greywolf in Port Townsend when
Sam Hamill loaned him an old Chandler-Price printing press and
let him use his garage/workshop out back. It was there he set
by hand, taking almost a year to do so, Tess Gallagher’s
first book of poetry. From that beginning in the early eighties,
Greywolf has grown to be one of the most exemplary literary publishers
in the world, mostly recently noted for the publication of Elizabeth
Alexander’s Inauguration Poem. Scott told me that his reason
for moving to St. Paul’s from the idyllic setting of Port
Townsend, was to allow the press to grow by accessing three levels
of government assistance for Greywolf's publishing effort: municipal,
state and federal. It is through generous subsidies to the arts
that St Paul’s has thrived as a cultural capital, both economically
and as a livable city. It must be that Icelandic common sense.
St. Paul’s is
home to three major publishers, all of whom are my personal favourites:
Coffee House Press, Milkweed, and Greywolf. It is also the home
of the Literary Loft, one of the largest literary centres in America,
but that is another story. All these presses receive support from
various levels of government. However, the government support
available to publishers in America stresses cultural value above
all. Publishers receiving support must be non-profit organizations
publishing poetry, experimental fiction, criticism and international
literature in translation – anything that might not be produced
by a large mainstream publisher. It would make no sense for the
National Endowment for the Arts to subsidize Doubleday. But it
does support the kind of books that Coffee House Press or Copper
Canyon publish. These arts grants are based on clear priorities
of cultural values, rather than a business-related subsidies of
a commercial venture. These cultural priorities have created a
thriving literary culture in several American communities.
As many of you may
know, Melanie Rutledge has completed her stint as Head of Writing
and Publishing at the Canada Council and has moved on to her next
job, closer to the present Harper government. She has accepted
a position as publishing consultant with the Everson Group, a
consulting firm based in Ottawa. Jim Everson began his career
as a personal advisor to Brian Mulroney during his tenure as Prime
Minister. Everson is now a major consulting firm to the Harper
government, with an extensive portfolio extending into virtually
every area of Canadian life, such as agriculture, fishing, medicare,
and so on. Melanie Rutledge now works in a much more political
position, with no pretense of arm's length affiliation. When Rutledge
became Head of Writing and Publishing, one of her first acts was
to deny Caitlin Press a grant on the flimsiest of technical pretexts.
This robbed Northern British Columbia of a primary publisher and
left a vacuum there that has yet to be filled. The jury was instructed
as to a technical word count on a book of First Nations photographs,
bringing Caitlin’s eligibility into question. Although the
wordage was above the required 10,000 words, the explanatory descriptions
of the photographs were ruled inadmissable. This was a staff-driven
decision, contrary to the spirit of the arm's length founding
principles of the Canada Council. Cynthia Wilson, the proprietor
of Caitlin, passed away shortly after this decision. Broken Jaw
Press, another poetry press, was the next to go.
In 2006, Ekstasis Editions
was awarded a grant by the Canada Council jury and received a
letter to that effect. However, the Block Grant Officer held the
grant and demanded Audited financial statements. Many would not
realize what, in fact, an audit entails. An audit is a very expensive,
onerous and time-consuming procedure, that is both very difficult
and a waste of time for a small poetry press. It is a huge waste
of resources and makes little sense in the advancement of culture.
However, Ekstasis did agree to do it at the cost of about $15,000.
The accountant chosen was one of the top firms specializing in
audits, who worked all summer on the audit. Because of staff holidays
the firm was unable to finish the audit according to the time
schedule the Canada Council had imposed. When Ekstasis asked for
a two-week extension of the stated deadline, the request was ignored
and the grant was summarily pulled. This caused enormous financial
losses, from which Ekstasis Editions is only beginning to recover.
When she pulled the grant, without warning, after over $70,000
had been spent, based on the grant, Melanie Rutledge, said, “I
feel very comfortable with this decision." She could almost
be heard dancing a jig in her office.
Of late there has been
a general erosion of certain values and ideals which have sustained
arts funding in this country for 50 years. Certainly arm's length
funding and peer assessment is threatened. This year, for a second
time Ekstasis Editions has been denied a grant because “the
Ekstasis Editions publishing program does not exhibit the minimum
level of required to receive continued funding..." This year
Ekstasis has published works by PK Page, Pete Trower, Jim Christy,
Lesley Choyce, Stephen Scobie, and several other important books.
This is an insult to both Ekstasis and our authors published last
year. I do not believe that a jury would say that about these
authors or would have reached that decision so direly affecting
the very survival of a longstanding literary press without some
preliminary coaching from the Block Grant Officer.
Tom Flanagan, a Leo
Strauss/Paul Wolfowitz disciple and Stephen Harper’s mentor,
has said that in order to make changes in government, do so by
small incremental steps. A number of small çhanges in cultural
policy have occurred beginning perhaps in reaction to the sponsorship
scandal. The bureaucracy also took great pains to please the incoming
Stephen Harper government. Several of the changes are small changes
in wording and policy, but small policy changes always affect
future directions, as the flapping of the wings of a butterfly
might cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. These
small policy changes include matters such a new emphasis, veering
from artistic merit. In some documents the words “aesthetic
excellence” have been replaced by “institutional value”.
In addition, without public discourse an internal document called
the “Healthy Organizations Initiative” has been implemented,
giving the granting agency's officers the power to overturn jury
decisions (and threatening arm's length principles). The placing
of greater importance on corporate rather than literary publishing,
all reflect the values of the Conservative Party.
Politics is ideological and political priorities are determined
by a set of fixed ideas. The major difference between a right
wing government and a more liberal government, is that those on
the right tend to be more arbitrary, and those of a more liberal
persuasion are more flexible. America is currently experiencing
a resurgence of hope because of the greater flexibility of the
Obama administration, although there are still some rigid ideological
frameworks established by the Bush gang. As an Icelander I am
both aware of the value of culture, and, after many generations
of living above the Arctic Circle, am able to weather many storms.
Perhaps, like Scott Walker, I should move to St. Paul’s,
my grandfather’s first home in North America. South of the
border, though their arts programs are under constant threat from
the conservative element, they understand the value of the supporting
non-commercial and non-profit publishing. Melanie Rutledge’s
agenda was to get rid of a few of the fringe presses, and move
the Canada Council in a more corporate direction. A healthy cultural
atmosphere exists when ideas are fluid. Culture is both political
and ideological. The question is: what kind of world do we want?
What kind of culture do we want?
is the publisher of Ekstasis Editions and the publisher and editor
of the Pacific Rim Review of Books.