In winter 2015, the four students of Engl. 4426, Contemporary Atlantic Canadian Poets, at STU, had the opportunity to shadow jury the J.M. Abrahams Awards (formerly the Atlantic Canadian Poetry Prize).
Each week, we read one of the 11 poetry books submitted for consideration. Since the books represented a wide variety of topics and poetic approaches - from the traditional lyric, to contemporary sonnets, to scripts - we had our work cut out for us. To structure the discussion, we considered three categories suggested by the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia which administers the award: artistic merit, cultural or social merit, and originality. We felt the winner needed to be a strong contender in each category, while the shortlisted books needed to excel in one or more of them.
As the end of term drew closer, our foursome began dwindling the books for shortlist by presenting at the STU Research and Ideas Fair. We explained to our peers the process of shadow jurying and tried (and maybe failed) to argue out a rough shortlist and possible winner. The following week, we brought our opinions back to the classroom with Dr. McConnell as our moderator. Here are our results:
Winner: Sylvia Hamilton, And I Alone Escaped to Tell You
Shortlist: Shoshanna Wingate, Radio Weather; Susan Paddon, Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths
An honourable mention is deserved for Shalan Joudry (Generations re-merging) whom we all unknowingly and unanimously ranked as 5th.
It is also worth mentioning that the final shortlist spot was hotly debated between Wingate and J.J. Steinfeld's Identity, Dreams, and Memory Sounds. For a better idea of each of the books considered for the award, you can find our class reviews on Wording Around - these will give you a better idea of our struggle and debate over shortlist contenders. Paddon and Hamilton also have ACPA entries.
Now, here are the results of the official jury:
Winner: Susan Paddon, Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths
Shortlist: Sylvia Hamilton, And I Alone Escaped to Tell You; Brian Barlett, Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar
The results of the two juries are clearly different. Here are a few of my observations after we compared our class results to the official ones.
Overall, our group felt that Hamilton excelled at all three categories: And I Alone Escaped to Tell You is Hamilton's debut book (originality), it speaks to the atrocities faced by her Black ancestors (cultural/social merit), and it is comprised of poems in the form of letters, prose, sonnets, script, and single stanzas (artistic merit). Of course, each of the other poets on our list accomplished these categories in their own way, however we felt And I Alone Escaped to Tell You truly embodied the definitions of all three.
Susan Paddon was an interesting result. In reference to the picture of the whiteboard below, our initial results are those in black. This reveals that Paddon was in the top four for us all, but the brackets some of us added to our lists indicates that we were undecided where to rank her, and were willing to let her drop if need be. However, we were also okay with allowing Paddon to be talked up; because (a) her work was more sophisticated than that of Joudrey, one of her closest competitors, (b) her project was slightly more creative and unique than Steinfeld, and (c) the overall scope and success of her project astounding, Paddon's book solidified its spot in the top three.
With Hamilton and Paddon decided on, our biggest question was whether to keep Steinfeld or Wingate in the final shortlist spot. These two poets were consistently in our top four, but for different reasons: Wingate's debut book Radio Weather is a collection of poetry of various themes, styles, and use of language, whereas Steinfeld's Identity, Dreams, and Memory Sounds follows the consistent, cultural awareness topic of the Holocaust. Essentially, the drastic difference between the two is what kept the eraser close to the whiteboard. Although we changed our minds, heard each others' opinions, questioned our own, and tried our best to understand the complex nuances of our ranking system, we finally came to decide that Wingate's great awareness of language and poetic devices gave her poetry the edge it needed to make it into the final spot in the blue bubble.
That’s how the members of English 4426 came to consensus on our winner and shortlist, and we stand by it.
When Dr. McConnell revealed the official winner and shortlist, we were surprised to see only two of our choices in the top three (Hamilton and Paddon), and that the two we fought about most weren't even shortlisted (Wingate and Steinfeld). There were no tears shed over the loss of our debate, but the shadow of shadow jurying soon came upon us, and every once in a while during a poetry storm on the east coast, the shadow comes back. What would have happened if one of more of us had been on the official jury? Would our choice have won, or were our finalists just the result of the end of a tired semester? Furthermore, would the poets we chose ever know how much we enjoyed their work, despite not being officially chosen?
We are not discrediting the official judges' choices or the poets' victories; instead, we want to celebrate ours alongside them for giving Atlantic Canadian poetry the recognition it deserves and for making us delve into the work in a way we never would have otherwise.
And here's the shadowiest aspect of shadow jurying: we learned that the winner is not actually inherently the winner; it is the jury's choice. A different jury may well choose a different winner, and depending on how attached you are your choices, the shadow of jurying will always loom over you. There is no escaping it.