*Since 1985, the Whiting has given out 69 awards to poets (this includes poets/nonfiction, and poets/other genres too).
*61% were male, 39% were female
*11% were awarded to African American poets
*3% were awarded to Asian American poets
*1% were awarded to Native American poets
What this tells me about the Whiting, objectively, is that it certainly skews male. They’ve also done a good job of awarding it to African American poets, although only 2 of the 11 were to female African American poets, the most recent being Tracy K. Smith and 14 years prior to Thylias Moss. They’ve done not a great job at awarding it to Asian American poets, only 2 people, the most recent being Suji Kwock Kim in 2006, the other to Li Young Lee in 1998, 8 years before. And obviously, other ethnic minorities are nearly nonexistent, short of one Native American, I believe, Sherwin Bitsui.
These numbers (which may not be completely accurate) shouldnt surprise anyone; this is how the contest/award system works in the US. Especially problematic are the awards that are by nomination only. I agree with victoria when she writes: “I would like it to be on an application based system, of course. And I am always, of course, for full transparency in terms of the process and the judges. But that’s my personality too. I like honesty and openness.” Amen.
Victoria interestingly addresses an issue discussed previously on this blog: the role of ethnic judges in contests/awards. She writes: “Another observation I made was that Suji Kwock Kim, Tyehimba Jess, and Sherwin Bitsui won in one year together in 2006, which made me believe that an ethnic minority of some kind was related in the judging. My lucky guess might be Yusef Komunyakka.” The fact that African American poets are the most represented minority group in the history of this award does suggest that a powerful African American poet has been involved in the judging over the years–yusef? elizabeth? natasha? Perhaps there has never been a Latino/a judge? one can only guess since we dont know who the nominators/judges are.
Victoria states: “My intuitition is that minorities will try to help other minorities and non-minorities gravitate towards each other in general, as people and their work. But this sounds so archaic to me. I hope I am wrong[…]” Unfortunately, this is neither archaic nor wrong. People read (and thus nominate/judge) along ethnic, gender, aesthetic, national, or social lines.
Disagree? Well, look closely at this years ATTENTION SPAN. for those who dont know, ATTENTION SPAN is produced by Third Factory and each year the editor asks readers to list and comment on books that had grabbed their attention that year.
Peruse the contributions. It becomes very obvious how our ‘attentions’ are structured by race, gender, and aesthetic. Now what if this list represented all the nominations for, let’s say, the ATTENTION SPAN AWARD–the judge/s would not have a whole lot of non-white choices.
in some ways, all these awards will remain whiteing awards until we diversify our nomination/contributor pool, our judging pool, and our own reading attentions.