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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Skryfsake | Writing matters > Afrikaans

Statement on the Ingrid Jonker Prize 2010


Rustum Kozain - 2010-09-10

Following criticism about the suspension of this year’s Ingrid Jonker Prize, herewith a statement on behalf of the committee that administers the award.

The work of the committee

The Ingrid Jonker Prize committee is made up of volunteers; no committee member receives any remuneration for serving on the committee. There are no written regulations that govern or guide the selection, “appointment” and number of committee members. Customarily, a poet is approached by the committee if there is a “vacant position”. If such a person is prepared to volunteer, they are welcomed to the committee. Thus I was invited and joined the committee in 2008.

Similarly by custom, the committee is made up, ideally, of five members. It had a full complement until late 2009, when one member resigned; in March 2010, the former acting chair, Louis Esterhuizen, also resigned, after having given notice two years prior of his intention to resign. (He had himself previously become chair by default when other members withdrew from the committee and he was left as the last one standing.)

The committee itself does not decide on the winner of the award, but chooses and invites a panel of judges who are poets. The judges receive no remuneration, but volunteer to adjudicate.

My understanding is that up until 2007, the adjudication was done by two people. In that year there was a hung decision and a third judge was then approached to cast a deciding vote. To avoid a repeat of such a situation, committee members now each nominate three poets as judges in the relevant language to decide on a winner from volumes submitted by publishers.

The committee discusses and chooses, mainly via e-mail, three judges from the nominated pool. Part of the work of the committee is to invite publishers to send in debut volumes, which the committee then sends on to the judges. Over the past few years the solicitation and sending of books have been done by Louis Esterhuizen, in his capacity as a book dealer.

The judges individually and independently of one another decide who they believe the winner should be by scoring a mark out of three for each candidate and writing a short report motivating their decisions. The committee tallies the marks and declares a winner. This mechanism is not formalised as written rules or guidelines, but continues as orally transmitted custom and tradition.

Someone from the committee then usually volunteers to draft a commendation as a press release announcing the winner. The draft is sent around among committee members for editing and approval, translated into English or Afrikaans, and then sent off to major newspapers.

The prize money comes from the interest earned from a small capital amount (R32 000) in the Ingrid Jonker Prize fund, held at ABSA, Stellenbosch. Two committee members have to sign the winner’s cheque. At present I am aware that two past members of the committee still have signing rights: Louis Esterhuizen and Zandra Bezuidenhout. Danie Marais and I are the other two with signing rights.

A record of committee discussions and decisions exists in emails as most of the committee “meetings” have been virtual. Where we have met for face-to-face meetings, no minutes exist.

For the time that I have been serving while Louis Esterhuizen was chair, he, thanklessly, did all of the work soliciting submissions, approaching potential judges and sending them the books.

I provide this detailed explication on how the committee works in order to provide information for the benefit of some critics and readers who may be unaware of its operation.

The need for regulations

The customary rule of the Ingrid Jonker Prize is that it is awarded to a debut collection of poetry, alternating each year between an Afrikaans and an English volume. This is the crystal clear rule that some critics have highlighted.

However, there have been three occasions over the past few years which have made it clear that better, more precise and publicised rules would be to the benefit of the award process, the committee, the judges, and candidates for the award. The first such occasion concerned a debut volume in one language where the author already had a significant poetry oeuvre in the other language. This was then raised for discussion among the committee members: Could or should this author be eligible on the basis of that volume which was, by some reasonable definition, a debut? One line of argument among the committee was that, given the absence of rules, the volume should come under consideration. In other words, there were no rules excluding such a book. The counter-argument among the committee was that it would not be consistent with the spirit of the Ingrid Jonker Prize, which, broadly speaking, should be to the celebration and further encouragement of new talent. The committee voted and the latter argument won (not unanimously).

The larger point here is that in the absence of written, formalised and publicised rules, ad hoc rules detract from any sense of fairness that the process behind the Ingrid Jonker Prize may have. If there are formal rules, and if these rules are publicised, publishers of potential candidates will know whether to submit or not, and disappointment and resentment can be avoided. It would befit the prestige of the Ingrid Jonker Prize to have stable, written rules, rather than the ad hoc way in which a book may or may not be excluded.

A second issue was when the committee was tempted to consider awarding a shared prize. Even though judges’ marks declared a clear winner, judges themselves were unsure (in their reports) of larger, not exclusively literary, concerns. In short, judges were unsure which of the two books better paid homage to the spirit of Jonker’s poetry. While the committee did not intervene to guide the decision, the temptation existed to do so. By virtue of the fact that the committee considered, even if briefly, whether to discuss it, shows that it entertained engaging in the decision. This can be avoided by formalised rules which clarify the issue for both judges and committee, especially the independence of the judging process.

A third occasion was when a potential judge was willing to adjudicate only if an award could also not be made. In other words, the judge did not want to be associated with an award made by default and merely for the sake of having an award. Rather, the judge was concerned, in principle, with whether there was a right to refuse making an award. Again, one can see the need for written and publicised regulations.

There are other scenarios where the benefit of written rules is clear. What do we do when a South African publishes a debut in another country? What do we do when a non-resident, someone from another country on a student visa in South Africa, for instance, publishes a debut in South Africa? Should a poet of merit who, in the difficult market of poetry publishing, decides to self-publish, be excluded? What about poetry “published” by CD, and with musical accompaniment. If a young poet debuts in this format, should it be excluded? What about a writer, of age and with an extensive prose oeuvre, publishing a first book of poetry?

Irrespective of the answers to these questions, the fact remains that in the absence of written and publicised rules, there is uncertainty. Would it not be better and fair to have rules that everyone is aware of, rather than have potential submissions excluded ad hoc?

2010

I volunteered as chair on condition that we hold over the awarding of the prize. I had this condition because by March 2010, when Louis Esterhuizen resigned, I had a clear sense of how the administration of the award, for which the committee volunteers, would impinge on my freelance work and on my own writing projects. There was debate and disagreement about this, but I would not have volunteered to be chair of the committee had the proviso been rejected.

The impasse which some critics now see is indeed due to the structural problems inherent in the informal nature of the administration of the award: there is nothing by which the committee can be held accountable (except by excoriating attack in the press). As chair I may be criticised for not publishing a press release which explains the decision in detail timeously, but Versindaba, at which the award is announced (and has normally been done for the past several years), takes place on 17 and 18 September. And while I was expecting criticism, the vituperation with which some critics have attacked the committee and me was unexpected. (I hope that further responses, criticism and debate will carry at least a sheen of civility.)

The criticism that it is unfair on candidates that the pool of competition for English debuts is now increased ignores other elements that may be unfair in the process of making the award, highlighted above. It is also disingenuous. Normally, one imagines that where a pool is larger, the competition would be stronger. And where the competition is stronger, a winner emerges even stronger than had the field been weaker. Is it better – for both South African poetry and the person who is the winner - to have a winner from a smaller and therefore weaker field, or from a larger, stronger field? Some critics have been concerned about damage now done to the prestige of the award. This leaves the question of how in one instance a stronger competition detracts from that prestige, while one would imagine that a winner out of a strong field adds prestige.

The issue of poetry, prize money and prestige is a difficult issue. On the one hand, there is the idea that money somehow introduces a venal strain to what is a prestigious poetry award. In addition, the prestige of the award is thought of as independent of the purse (currently R2 000). But all round, poets complain about their craft being treated like the stepchild of South African letters. Publication opportunities decrease, review pages for poetry disappear, market and readership shrink. It is not an encouraging environment for poets, let alone for new or young poets. Is it not possible, and desirable, that a bigger purse may add to the prestige? Is it not possible that a bigger purse may add to the encouragement of a new poet by gifting that poet with, say, at least enough money to pay rent and bills for a month, during which they can gain both material and cultural benefit: time to work on new poetry, for instance?

I hope the above explanation clears up matters with the critics and the wider public. On behalf of the committee, I welcome suggestions about all matters concerning the administration of the Ingrid Jonker Prize.

Critics have highlighted the problems inherent in the informal nature of the award administration. And so perhaps this is an opportunity to consider ways in which to develop a structural mechanism that can guarantee a committee’s accountability. What would be the way to do that? A foundation? Are there any legal experts with an interest who can volunteer time to develop this? But what about the added administration then? Would we still have volunteers prepared to do the work?

The vituperation which accompanied much of the criticism is unfortunate and unexpected, yet understandable in retrospect. The fact is that the committee was fully within its “rights” to make the decision now criticised. The unhappiness regarding the holding over of the Ingrid Jonker Prize this year nevertheless underlines the need for transparency and a formalised agreement on the functioning of the committee and the vision, mission and regulation of the prize. The committee hereby undertakes to submit a bilingual draft proposal for such a regulatory constitution to the media by middle November and suggestions are welcome. Members of the public will have until the end of January to comment and criticise the proposed constitution. By the end of March 2011 the new constitution and the rules regulating the award will be published in print and on various internet forums. The next Ingrid Jonker Prize for Afrikaans poetry will be awarded at Versindaba in September 2011.

Rustum Kozain
Ingrid Jonker Prize committee