CROSS-CANADA REVIEW PROJECT:
SELF-REFLECTION BY QUIXOTE
by SHANE NEILSON
As someone who has watched the state of reviewing – should I add “culture” to that word, to make myself sound more authoritative, academic? More all-seeing and knowing? Smarter? Nahhhh – decline over the past twenty years, less in terms of quality, for it was always done well rarely, but moreso in terms of frequency, I’ve grown increasingly alarmed at the behavior of our poets. As a group, they demand that reviews be written reflecting the full diversity of authorship, but the catch that I’ve found is that only the rare soul is willing to do the work. Complicating this simple finding is that there is very little money to pay that rare soul, which makes refusal eminently understandable – but leaving us with no remedy to the original problem, a decline in the frequency of reviews. ’ I suspect the decline could be attributable on some level to the effects of neoliberalism, which I won’t expand on; but at my core, I see a simple solution that I’ve always believed in and practiced myself, even when unwell and unable to earn real money, and it is: just say yes every once in a while, or pitch a review about a book one loves to a magazine editor and see what happens. There is a kind of thinking I’m increasingly detecting in CanLit but more generally elsewhere of what I’ll call the enforced and hegemonic no-win, and in order to escape it, I revert to the spiritual idea that I’ll just try to do some small little good on my own despite the risk of being criticized for it, and maybe that will inspire some others to follow.
Sometimes that small little good becomes too ambitious for my own good, and it grows to the proportions that you’ll see unfold in the RAVE section of HA&L in the coming weeks. But with the word “proportions,” I need to explain myself. The Cross-Canada Reviews Project was conceived of as a guerilla tactic to increase reviews capacity nationwide as well as encourage Canadian small presses to take out advertising budgets in Canadian magazines – goals that are interdependent. By selecting books from cities across Canada, and in certain necessary demographic instances actual full provinces, and then having those books matched to reviewers in other cities in Canada, I thought I could maybe get a conversation going, or at least set a precedent that other magazines might follow in their way. And now I can explain the word “proportion.” Admittedly, the number of pieces in the project that I’ll soon describe in full is not large. I managed to secure seven reviewers for six regions/cities, and based on that math, you’ll immediately apprehend that I did not manage to cover the entire country. This failure reflects my own capacities and connections: the places I couldn’t involve represent locales where I have fewer literary friends. I had to rely on the people I knew to agree, since there was no money for this stuff in the first place; and in order to feel good about asking them to do the work, I deliberately slotted their books into the larger scheme, something they didn’t know about at any point until the big reveal on the website. (I did, of course, broadcast a solicitation for participation on social media on several occasions, and got a small response with that – not enough, certainly, to result in a country-wide coverage.) Because this project was conceived of by me, I’m happy we covered disabled poets quite well.
The usual criticisms can be levied: that the reviewed books are pretty white, and that Canlit functions on privilege, the most pervasive of which is having other means of income in order to do unpaid labour. I agree with these criticisms, of course, but hope by admitting to them that I will cultivate some volunteers going forward whom are racialized and whom might bring a more diverse range of authors into a future iteration of this project. There’s no money, of course, for the work, which is a real impediment to asking racialized people to do the labour in the first place. Yet, remember, the good I’m trying to do: to start something that hopefully will go in a positive direction.
Let me justify the use of the word “proportion” earlier. Do you know how much work it is to be a reviews editor? For this project, I had to ask many, many people to participate and only a very good few said yes. Then I had to arrange for books to be sent to the reviewers, set deadlines, chase, and edit the pieces that were sent to me. So far so expected, right? Yet with a project this size, and as complex as it is, we arrive at additional difficulties. Sometimes reviewers cannot complete an assignment due to illness or some other reason, and then I have to scramble to find a different reviewer from the region I made the assignment, as well as find a way to get books to the new reviewer. This is not easy. Sometimes reviewers are not comfortable ultimately commenting on a particular text, which means I need to, again, scramble to find a reviewer in the same specific region and get the book to them. Needless to say, all of this work is unpaid too.
After about a year of this work, I’m defiantly proud to say that the Cross-Canada Reviews Project will retain its name as a monument to a failure of comprehensiveness, this being perhaps an ironic mirroring of the compromised and contested nature of the national construct itself. Unlike many, I like failing in useful ways so that others can pitch in so as to make the next attempt a success. I confess to using the word “fail” impishly, since I’d much prefer to have people volunteer to send me beautifully written pieces about all kinds of poets and poetry; it’s not my fault that they don’t, and it’s not my fault that, generally speaking, poets prefer to receive rather than give attention. Nor is it my fault that this work is unpaid. It’s not even my fault that I care and am foolish enough to show my work in this introduction in the unlikely, but passionately hoped for event, that other magazines do better, that they use their possibly greater resources and connection networks and do a Cross-Canada project of their own. The goal was to simply use geography as some kind of sorter for a Quixotean reviews project. In the execution, I came to learn of some aforementioned process-based difficulties that weirdly map to the strangeness of the nation itself. But so many books have been reviewed as a result by poets who have been part of a unique initiative that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done before! May it be done again, better, by those with more resources or more luck. I did it on a shoestring budget and the immense love I have for poetry (less so for poets); I did it with friends and interested acquaintances.
We need to do more of this for one another, for all the diverse us-es. So now go do that, and let me know if you might want to participate in a future project with HA&L. Also let HA&L know if you’d care to advertise with the magazine. Only two presses are currently advertising with HA&L and you’ll note that we very much assign their books for review since the magazine needs advertising dollars to stay alive. We will assign your books by diverse authors preferentially.
Shane Neilson is a disabled poet, physician, and critic. He lives in Oakville, Ontario. He completed his PhD in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in 2018. A previous book, Dysphoria (PQL, 2017) was awarded the Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry in 2018. He is currently completing a postdoctoral position at McMaster as part of the $50,000 ‘Talent’ grant awarded by SSHRC in 2018. Other good things to happen to Shane include receiving the Governor General’s Gold Medal for his dissertation work in disability studies and the Regional Dean’s Award for Excellence in Medical Education which was also bestowed for Shane’s championing of disability in McMaster’s medical faculty. He is the festival director of the AbleHamilton Poetry Festival which just successfully completed its second run. He is also the Poetry Advisor for the Canadian Medical Association Journal where he actively works to include poems by disabled writers. His poems appeared in Poetry Magazine in April of this year. Work from his latest book, New Brunswick, has appeared on Verse Daily.