the Attention Span of the Whiteing Awards

victoria chang broke down the distribution of the recently announced whiting awards:

*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.

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9 thoughts on “the Attention Span of the Whiteing Awards

  1. Ugh, we’ve had this discussion recently, haven’t we? Last time it was re: (1) this year’s National Poetry Series, (2) Juan Felipe as the judge for the Whitman, (3) Elizabeth Alexander as the judge for the Laughlin the year I won, and (4) activism as an option that not all writers of color who come into these (esteemed) positions take.

    I have always disliked that the Whiting has neither an application process or any kind of openness about its panel of judges. What is the point of keeping it closed like that?

  2. ugh we sure have. & prob will continue to. i dunno why they keep it closed? anyone out there have ideas?

  3. this is probably a silly idea, but i’m running a slight fever and not censoring myself very well right now…

    what if contests were run in “american idol” fashion where the winners were determined by popular vote? since humans evolved essentially as pack animals with the most emphasis placed on social hierarchy and power dynamics, and judges all have these inherent social biases, why not get rid of the expert judges altogether? then contestants would basically be running a kind of political popularity campaign, stumping for votes from different demographics and constituencies.

    sometimes i wonder what the world would be like if humans were less like wolf packs and more like pandas, who spend most of their lives solo, wandering the forest 50 miles away from any other panda. then poetry contests probably wouldn’t matter much, but then again, probably no other pandas would ever read your poetry. or would they?

  4. Black, White & Read All Over, is a panel dealing with this and other issues in the literary scene. I moderated it at AWP in either Austin or Atlanta a few years back. PEN America was the host entity. They’ve held the panel in several places over the years and continue the discussion. Latino poets & writers, at that time, had a moderate percentage over Indigenous poets & writers in the Whiting Award honoring.

    The Whiting is named by nominations, mostly by former awardees and other distinguished writers, who then make the nomination to the juror panel, who decide who is honored. I believe, that the Whiting, like many many award committees, does not openly name the panelists acting as jurors, so that they are not inundated with requests from friends/colleagues and social/professional pressure.

    James Thomas Stevens
    Sherwin Bitsui
    Joan Kane

    are all fantastic and I’ve been very pleased to see a third named this round. Wish it was every year, myself.


    AA HedgeCoke

  5. roz, your fever must be really high 😉 actually, pandas compose the highest percentage of my readership. hmm…i’d be curious about a contest run that way…tho that comes with its own problems of course.


  6. hey allison,

    great to hear from you! wow that sounds like a great panel–are there notes to the discussion that we can access? recording? what were the conclusions? solutions? will there be a similar panel in denver?

    if that’s how the whiting works–it seems even more problematic that many of the nominators are past winners, since so few of them are minority/indigenous writers. how diverse is the nomination pool? again, i think transparency in this area is really important.

    and altho the reasoning behind not publicly naming juror panels makes sense, i would hope that these jurors would resist THAT kind of pressure in the spirit of transparency. or else it just seems–at least to me–that the gender & ethnic bias of the award results is simply a result of a relatively homogenous juror panel.

    stevens, kane, & bitsui are indeed fantastic!


  7. I believe there is an archival CD of the panel(s), at PEN America, yes. I haven’t seen it listed for Denver, but we should definitely check.

  8. Hey C, I tend to wonder whether a sense of public accountability is even an issue to a private foundation, you know? Also, I’ve looked at recent lists of Whiting recipients, and see diversity among its non-poets. So again, back to whether it’s poetry being marginalized or if it’s gender/ethnicity.

    Anyway, I wanted to also say something about Attention Span. Being one of this year’s participants, I did notice how my list was fulla color and non-Euro code switch, whereas others not so much. I don’t know anymore how to affect/change this; no matter how much kick ass work is produced by poets of color, published and well-distributed, no matter how many reviews we write, no matter what texts we teach … you know? BTW Attention Span isn’t by invitation. I’d asked if I could participate, and Steve Evans said yes. I think you should do it next year!

    (In the meantime, Suheir Hammad’s books have been at the top of the SPD bestselling poetry list for months now, and Rachel McKibbens’s is climbing the list, but this isn’t getting the Attention Span participants’ attention.)

  9. yeah i’m sure public accountability is not an issue for private foundations. it’s not like any pressure anyone puts on them will affect their funds. yeah, i think it’s just the poets, or certain groups of poets, who become marginalized.

    oh i didnt know anyone could submit to Attention Span. cool will def do next year. i dont really think there’s much left to do…personally, the Attention Span list is my favorite list of the sort…the poets who submit are some of the smartest and most interesting i know of. i love their choices…but one cant notice what is quite obvious about people’s attention spans.

    the spd list is a whole other beast!


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