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Prizes for Poets

The Mitchell literary prize is ramping up to receive poems eligible for a $20,000 first prize. Doug Sikkema, managing editor of Comment magazine, talks to Peter Stockland about partnering with Image Journal to host the prize, and why faith-based poetry must become central to Canadian letters.

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Prizes for Poets November 27, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland with Doug Sikkema
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Peter Stockland: So, the Mitchell Prize, which drew so many great entries in 2017 as part of Faith in Canada 150, is open for submissions again. Can you give us a status update?

Doug Sikkema: We got the website up at end of October to coincide with exactly being one year out from the last Mitchell Prize gala. We’re going to do the official launch, where we name the judges and actually open up to submissions, on January 8. The deadline will be the end of June. The great news is, we're partnering with Image Journal now, so that's a big difference. Lisa Cockrel is the new Image program director taking charge with Mitchell on their side.

Peter Stockland: What's the nature of the partnership? What will Image bring?

Doug Sikkema: The last Mitchell Prize was a really good fit with celebrating faith in Canada, specifically focusing on the arts. After Faith in Canada 150 ended, we agreed the literary world is a bit outside Cardus' existing research programs. One of the institutions that we'd leaned on heavily with the inaugural prize was Image Journal. They helped us figure out the language we needed for a prize that was going to be open to all faiths, that was for Canadians, and we used their expertise to organize it. 

This time, it seemed like a really natural fit to partner with them. It’s good for both of us because Image has the platform for creative writers. They have networks of poets and short-story writers. Yet even though they have a big network in the U.S., their presence and network in Canada is still growing. For them, this is opportune to because this prize is just going to be poetry in Canada. So, we're working side by side and leveraging each other's strengths.

PS: Will the prize be open on both sides of the border? Or is the call for just Canadian poets right now?

DS: The call is still going to be just for Canadian poets this time. We're discussing expanding it in the future.  There is no necessary reason we have to keep it this way for the next prize, which is in another two years.

PS: This year you've decided to forgo short stories. What's the reasoning behind that? 

DS: It was a pragmatic decision to focus our energy. We don't have to have six judges. We can have three. We thought: Let's do less, and do it better. We had great quantity for our first prize, but we’ll try to up that for this one. We spent a lot of time marketing and directing to different communities of writers, which makes it hard to tell exactly how effective we were at getting the message out. We're hoping that with this zoomed in focus on one genre, we can really work to reach poets for this one. It’s nothing against short stories because in two years the focus will shift back to short fiction. 

PS: So the plan will be to alternate between poetry and short stories? 

DS: That's the plan right now. We can’t see the future perfectly.

PS: How large is the prize?

DS: Even though we've limited it to poetry, we're not reducing the prize value. It’s still going to be $25,000 in total for prize money. The first prize will be $20,000. Second place will be $5,000. 

PS: Will Image publish the prize-winning entry?

DS: They're committed to considering it for publication, though they’ll put it through their usual editorial process. But one of the judges will be from Image so they’ll have been part of the selection already.

PS: They're not going to look at the first prize winner and say: "Hey! What's this? Naughty limericks? Image Magazine doesn’t publish naughty limericks.”

DS: Exactly. They won’t be saying, “Hmmmm, limericks by Peter Stockland… There’s way too much cursing in here.”

PS: Well, it's a limerick. What would they expect? What's the expectation for the number of entries?

DS: It's anybody's guess. Last time, we got about 300 submissions split 50-50 between short stories and poetry. These are poetry suites, so about 250 to 500 lines of poetry. We were told that's really good for a new prize. We're aiming for over 200 this time. That would be great. But quantity is not the only metric. We hope the best poets in Canada, or maybe some rising stars, emerge from this process.

PS: Is there still a need to have an explicitly faith-based, faith-oriented prize like this? If so, what is that need? 

DS: The need around the Faith in Canada 150 was to celebrate the role faith plays in Canadian life. I would say that the need is, obviously two years out, still there. 

When we started the prize, we were motivated by David Adams Richards' book God Is where he talks as a literary insider about the way almost anything is acceptable except having serious religious conviction. It’s the one thing everybody can sort of laugh at, and push to the margins within the literary world. He was calling, it was a number of years ago, for writers and also publishers and magazines, and the gate-keepers of what captures our attention or imagination, to open themselves up to that and say: "Well we can't have any divide between the literary elite and what the majority of Canadians go about everyday believing." Because, Adams Richards says, faith is not a marginal way of being in the world. It's actually the predominant one, especially among immigrant communities, and among most Canadians who live by a set of principles and beliefs. Faith informs their walk. Our literature and our poetry have to manifest that.

Image Journal has done a lot in the U.S. to bring to the table the truth that some of the best writing, and the best literature in the Western tradition, in fact in most traditions is, one that's infused with belief and with faith.

PS: When you say faith, that's not just a euphemism for exclusively Christian, is it? The winner of the last Mitchell Prize for Poetry was a young Muslim woman, correct?

DS: It's all blind-judged so that we don't know the names. We don't know the gender, the age, whatever, of whoever submits. And the poetry winner was a Muslim woman from Toronto. The day after she won, she was on Toronto CBC, and she got this platform to talk about what it's like to be a Muslim in multicultural, progressive Toronto, right? She gave voice to a lot of the fear and the anger directed at her because she is somebody religious, in her case Muslim.

It’s really important for the project that it's not a covert way of just celebrating Christian writers, but showing that, again, people of belief have differences. We don't want to ignore those differences. But there's also something they have in common in a secular world that does view them, maybe not with outright hostility all the time but with suspicion, with doubt, and maybe with a little bit of ridicule. If we can actually show that we're on the same page, we can give those people voices. That's great.

PS: So, the contest opens January 8, 2019. It closes in June. And then the gala for the prizewinner is…

DS: October 2019, the same as two years ago. We’re ready to welcome Canada’s poets.


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