Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Canada Council 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?

Richard Olafson is the publisher of Ekstasis Editions and the publisher and editor of the Pacific Rim Review of Books.