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And So It Begins

Introducing the Walrus Poetry Prize
The Walrus Poetry Prize

Distrust the person who tells you poetry isn’t competitive. It is. Your poems are in competition whether you like it or not — with the poems your peers are writing; with the other poems you yourself have written; with all the poems that have ever been written; with a pint and a chat at the pub down the street with the person who knows you best; with the Jays’ game; with Toddlers and Tiaras (maybe the stiffest competitor of all); with Call of Duty Modern Warfare III. Your poems are competing for the attention of the most over-entertained audience in human history. So you might as well write like it.

Competition is good for art. The poet who writes with the full bloodthirsty hoard of her competitors in mind will avoid the poet’s cardinal sin: taking her reader for granted. Why should someone read your poem over, say, Thomas Wyatt’s, or Emily Dickinson’s? Why should someone read your poem when she could be playing laser-pointer fetch with her cat, or swimming at Sugar Beach with someone beautiful? The answer is she shouldn’t, unless the poem can make a solid case for itself.

We started giving each other prizes for our poetry sometime in the sixth century BC, during the Athenian Dionysia. The winning poet would receive a goat.  This was the symbol of Dionysus. The Walrus Poetry Prize has in at least two ways improved upon this model. We still give out the symbol of Dionysus — today that’s cash. The payout is $5,000 for the juried winner, and $1,000 for the Readers’ Choice winner.

Competitors luckily don’t have to compete with Sophocles or Aeschylus. But they do have to compete with each other, and this is a good thing. It’s also a good thing, we think, that the poems will be judged blindly. The appreciation of an entry can neither be buoyed nor sunk by the reputation of its author. And at the two stages of evaluation — when I whittle down the entries into a short list, and when the great Karen Solie choses from that short list a winner — the decisions will be made by individuals, not committees. Committees work by consensus and compromise, two of the most notoriously unreliable rubrics by which to judge works of art.

The ideal poetry contest is one where a bunch of incredible poems are pitted against, say, listening to Lil Wayne’s new album, hiking the Elora Gorge with the person you love most, and getting into a Twitter fight (that prize does exist actually; it’s called posterity). The poems that will do well in the Walrus Poetry Prize will display an awareness that all poetry is already in the toughest competition imaginable — one for the unlikely admiration of another human being. The Walrus Foundation and the Hal Jackman foundation are proud to introduce the Walrus Poetry Prize. The competition is now open.

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