Cameron Anstee questions, Carleton University, April 2007
My name is Cameron Anstee. I'm an English major at Carleton (and, incidentally, an editor at In/Words). I'm currently in a fourth-year seminar about little magazines and modernist poetry in Canada. I'm in a group which is doing a presentation on the role of little magazines and presses in Ottawa today. You and all of your assorted projects (above/ground, chaudiere, your website/blog, and hundreds of others I can't list right now :) ) fit and exceed the model we're trying to focus on. Our basic idea is that technological advances (both in terms of physically printing things, as well as the internet and all that goes along with it) have changed how poets interact with other poets and the world at large. We're hoping that if we send along some questions, that you would be able to share some insight into your experience with poetry and the world of publishing in Ottawa.
Anyways, here are some questions. If you're not too busy (and we understand that you're busy) we would greatly appreciate any thoughts you have. We all respect the immense amount of work you do for poetry in Ottawa and Canada, as well simply for poetry itself and would love to hear what you have to say.
Q: What influence has the internet had on your personal interaction with poetry and the poetry community in Ottawa? Do you see it as generally a positive influence or a negative one?
A: Well, first off, have you read Ken Norris' The Little Magazine in Canada 1925-1980 (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1984)? Not the easiest thing to find, unless you're wandering through a library (I got mine directly from Ken's basement in Maine a few years ago), but a pretty neat resource, if this is actually what you're looking at. It might be a bit out of date, but it provides some pretty cool historical information and context; at one point, Montreal collector and librarian David McKnight (who has since moved down to the US) was going to work on a subsequent volume, but I don't know where that project is currently.
As far as Ottawa goes, part of it has simply been a way to showcase work being done here to people outside of the city; I get tired of being passed over as a city. We have as much interesting stuff happening here as Montreal or Calgary, but somehow get passed over because we're "not cool enough," or the perception that nothing is happening, or even the fact that perhaps we're not loud enough about our accomplishments. It's why I did that list of Ottawa writers a few years ago on my blog, listing every literary writer I could think of; it's why I started ottawater, or the ottawa poetry newsletter (part of the entertainment of the latter is simply the fact that it isn’t dependant on my own point of view but various; this isn’t all about me). It's why I do so much reviewing of local folk, run readings, run a book fair, and even started Chaudiere Books. There's so much talent here being ignored that needs not only support, but encouragement and development, and other corners seem to get more attention. I get rather tired of watching folk have to leave town to get further ahead.
There's currently a wonderful interaction I'm finding with Amanda Earl, John MacDonald, Charles Earl, Pearl Pirie and (sometimes) Max Middle, who post responses, reviews and photos of various events, which give a real sense of what is happening for those who might not have been there. I don’t really see anything happening to the same degree anywhere in the country (I might just not be aware of it), although there certainly are individuals doing interesting things, including Saskatchewan writer Brenda Schmidt, who posted a neat little response to the launch of Hagios Press' thirtieth anniversary reissue of Andrew Suknaski's Wood Mountain Poems. My friend Stephen Brockwell isn’t a fan of anything blog-related (but doesn’t mind us working together for our Poetics.ca website), but I see it in part as an extension of the 1960s-80s zine activity; there's good and there's bad, with different sites happening for different purposes, and you just have to have the patience to work your way through them. And the potential is just so much larger.
I can't imagine it being seen as anything negative; folk thought the telephone was the tool of the devil when it was first introduced. In part they were right, it is a tool, and little more. It depends how you use it. Canada is still based predominantly (it seems) in print when it comes to anything writing/book related (I would never want that to change; would rather read a physical book than an e-book printout any day), but realize too how borders do stop books. It's great that Jacket magazine in Australia includes Lisa Robertson, Douglas Barbour, Peter and Meredith Quartermain and Robin Blaser, as well as features on various American, British and Australian writers, but they probably don’t know about that many more Canadians from there; how or why should they? Penguin publishes poets in every country (it seems) they have offices in except for Canada. Our poets don’t really travel across the border in the same kind of way that others do; we get books by City Lights or Faber & Faber in our bookstores, but does that necessarily mean that other countries get House of Anansi or McClelland & Stewart poetry titles? Even that is a kind of editing; I would rather more of the Coach House or Talon authors get further out of the borders, which some do, but it's still pretty difficult. The benefit of the internet is that it can completely bleed across any of these arbitrarily physical borders. I've discovered the works of various poets from Canada, the United States and further, just through the internet, whether Cole Swensen, Joshua Marie Wilkinson or Rachel Zucker, thanks to wandering around online and seeing what there is to see. Why not simply give them the same chance with our work?
I haven’t given up on print journals; it would be cool if I got more non-fiction pieces in dANDelion or Grain or The New Quarterly; I'd probably get a few more dollars to live on, and that would certainly make my life easier, but part of the process simply takes too long; I rarely hear back from some of these venues when I send pieces. If I'm going to write a piece on a new Bowering book or a poetry collection by whoever, I would rather have a potentially larger audience through the internet. It's part of why I keep sending to The Antigonish Review, that they not only pay $50, but publish both in the magazine and on-line. I used to send reviews to Prairie Fire in Winnipeg, which moved to online reviews instead of print a few years back (I admit that I have problems with their exclusion of print), but they still paid, which was pretty cool. The problem became the fact that they don't seem to archive their reviews online, making them disappear after about a year or so. Why bother? The purpose of a review, published anywhere, is in part having the ability to look it up in an archive later on for reference on a further piece, essay or whatnot. It's the whole reason why there are shelves upon shelves of literary magazines on the shelves of various university libraries. If Prairie Fire takes them down, it's like they never even happened at all.
There has simply been less reviewing in the literary journals in Canada over the past twenty years, and almost nothing left in the daily newspapers. Check out Contemporary Verse 2 from the 1980s under Dorothy Livesay, and just see the sheer amount of reviewing and interviewing; where did it all go? Stephen Brockwell says that when his first poetry collection came out in 1988, he got eight reviews (including one by George Woodcock in The Ottawa Citizen), but now books of poetry can barely get two. I can keep sending interviews and essays and reviews to Matrix and filling Station and The Antigonish Review every few issues, but they can't be expected to do everything. I just sent a query to Essays on Canadian Writing for a longer piece, and even edited an issue of Open Letter out next spring, supposedly. Where else can I send? After doing three reviews a week for nearly five years in The Ottawa X-Press (I left at the near end of 1998), part of the consideration became one of lack of venue, where does one send pieces out, and if I'm spending more time placing a piece than writing new ones, then what's the point, really? I'd rather talk potentially about more in fewer places. Part of it too becomes simply one of availability; if I only post pieces on my blog, then the only places you will see anything by me is on my blog. It can get rather limiting, after a while. It's why I sent my Alberta essay to The Danforth Review, to broaden readership, as well as the fact that I didn’t (or couldn’t) deal with some of the formatting issues the piece demanded (I don’t have a clue about html).
Q: What is your general philosophy with regards to the role of little magazines?
A: Magazines are a testing ground for new work, and a way to really engage in a continued way with a broad spectre of writing. If you like what goes on in The Capilano Review out of Capilano College in Vancouver, then picking up a new issue every few months is a way to engage in that conversation they're having over there; others will engage with The Fiddlehead at the University of New Brunswick, or dANDelion, from the University of Calgary. Some will see these as contradictions, while others will see them as complimentary, reading different sides of a wide berth. It's a way to see what is happening in a more ongoing way, from writers you may already know (a new piece by Anne Stone or Monty Reid or Shane Rhodes), or introducing you to ones you might not already know, whether new writers or writers who, for whatever reason, you simply hadn’t got to yet.
As a writer, the little magazine is quite literally a testing ground, another point of view to see if something works or doesn’t work, and finding out who that audience out there might be. I might be able to publish something in West Coast Line or The Antigonish Review, but I've never wanted to be in The Fiddlehead, and doubt that I even could; my goals are not their goals, so there would probably be little there for an editor to respond to, positively. If you can't find a journal willing to publish any of your poems or fictions, then how do you expect to find a book publisher (if that is your goal)? If you don’t publish in them at all, who do you expect to be out there purchasing your book? There are hundreds of titles out annually in Canada alone; how will yours even be seen, if you're an unknown? If a publisher is going to spend up to five thousand dollars making your book and no-one has heard of you, how can you expect to make it worth it for them? Publishers certainly aren’t there to hand out money. Books are hard to sell at the best of times, and don't sell themselves; publishers and authors sell books. Booksellers help, but there's only so much incentive on their end; the big stores are more often selling the books that already sell than the small press unknown that isn’t getting the same kind of media and reviewing, and could really use the push.
Q: Do you see the press as a natural evolution of the little magazine?
A: Not at all. One doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other. Some can evolve that way, leading quite nicely into the other, and certainly have, but others never would. Still, there are plenty of examples of those that have, taking Tishbooks out of Tish, blewointmentpress (which later became Nightwood Editions) out of blewointment, The Fiddlehead Poetry Series (what became Goose Lane Editions) out of The Fiddlehead, Snare Books out of Matrix magazine, LINEbooks out of West Coast Line, and even Prairie Fire magazine has started producing books here and there. That still doesn’t mean that a little magazine starts with the idea that they're eventually and inevitably going to do books; I mean, Arc magazine, Grain, or even STANZAS aren’t going to start a book series anytime soon (that I'm aware of). I think some see it as a completely natural extension of what they're doing with magazine publishing, while others simply don't. It's the difference between those that believe that novel writing is the natural evolution after writing poetry, as though writing poetry by itself is somehow lesser, to those poets who continue along that line through their whole careers. What about Robert Kroetsch, who started out in fiction and then moved into poetry? What about poets such as Karen Solie, Erin Mouré, bill bissett or Phil Hall, who work with poetry as their main and almost exclusive form? It certainly doesn’t make them lesser writers.
Q: Why did you begin Chaudiere Books? What sorts of difficulties have you faced so far with it? Has it influenced how you personally approach poetry?
A: In many ways, it's almost too early to tell some of the differences and difficulties through the press; it feels too early in the process. In many ways, it just feels a larger version of what I've already been doing for years through above/ground press (started back in 1993), but more about schedules, money, funding, sales, promotion, distribution and other things. I mean, we actually have a bank account; we have a couple of designers that Jennifer Mulligan works with. I don’t think we've fully comprehended the difference and difficulties with running a trade publishing house yet, but it'll come, don’t you worry about that. Chaudiere was started simply because Jennifer got tired of hearing me complain for five years about how Ottawa doesn’t have a local publisher; there are plenty of literary publishers here, including Oberon and Buschek and Penumbra and such, but they all seem national publishers that happen to be here. I don’t see any of them deliberately going out of their way to find local writers and local content; I don’t see them working their ways into helping to shape their city by being here, in the ways Arsenal Pulp Press did for Vancouver, Turnstone Press did for Winnipeg or Vehicule Press did for Montreal. It doesn’t mean that any of them are doing anything contrary or wrong, but simply that there are other things needed, and I'm simply trying to fill in the gaps. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, Quarry Press in Kingston published more Ottawa poets than any other publisher; by the end of the 1990s, it was Broken Jaw Press in Fredericton. As much as that is appreciated, isn’t there something wrong with that? Why can't there be someone here to do the same, and have opportunities with publicity and sales that someone out of town simply wouldn’t have?
After I did an interview somewhere talking about the need for a local publisher, I got a rather snotty email from Baico Publishing, reminding me that they exist too, and that they're local. I don’t necessarily know how they operate, but I've always had the impression that they're more of a vanity press (I could be wrong); they seem predominantly to be publishing fiction and non-fiction by new authors that have recently retired, and want to get their books out; if they don’t comprehend the difference between what they're doing and a publishing house working to co-exist with and compliment the work done by Coach House Books, Talonbooks, New Star Books, Conundrum Press, Insomniac Press, House of Anansi, Turnstone Press, Broken Jaw Press, Vehicule Press and how many other publishing houses across the country, then there really isn’t any point explaining it to them.
I don’t think that co-running Chaudiere Books has made me consider poetry any differently; I've put enough books together for other publishers that I don’t really see much difference in such. It's simply more focused; it makes me very aware of some of the folk around me in a different way. Max Middle is going to have a kick-ass first poetry manuscript when he gets it together, as is Sandra Ridley. We're publishing Ottawa poet Nicholas Lea's first poetry collection in less than two weeks, launching it at the ottawa international writers festival, and I think the boy has a whole lot of potential that is really fun to watch, and fun to watch develop. I'm already looking forward to what he will do next.
Q: What do you think about the poetry community in Ottawa? How has it grown/changed in the past few years?
A: It has, certainly. I've lived through a couple of exoduses in the 1990s, including watching Louis Cabri leave in 1994 to Philadelphia and Rob Manery two years later to Vancouver, two boys who did a whole lot here as far as literary activity, running readings at Gallery 101 in the late 1980s, and later starting hole magazine and hole books. I watched Tamara Fairchild, James Spyker and Andre Alexis leave for Toronto, George Elliot Clarke down to the United States (since returning to Toronto), Warren Fulton to Vancouver, and Stephanie Bolster and Wanda O'Connor to Montreal; one gets tired of watching people leave. Last year Jesse Ferguson left for Fredericton, and now his pal Nicholas Lea follows suit, at the end of the summer; will any of them ever return? For me, the whole reason seems a lack of infrastructure, with two universities and no creative writing programs (why is it that smaller cities can maintain such when we can barely hold it together with a creative writing class or two?), with little media and little publishing happening in this town, it becomes hard for folk to stay. Stephanie left for a job at Concordia, or even Melanie Little who left for Calgary to be writer in residence and staying after her year was over. What reasons would she have to return?
I made a very deliberate choice to stay here, and might probably have left Ottawa in the mid-1990s had it not been for my lovely daughter. Ever since then, I've worked hard to help make the city more livable, and help provide what I see around me as lacking, as well as to point out the existing strengths of the city that tend to get overlooked. At least one of the things that Melanie Little talked about when she was here, having lived previously in Vancouver and Toronto, that with the lack of media and publishing options in Ottawa, there is little to be gained by being an Ottawa writer, so most of us end up getting along instead of competing for something that just isn’t available.
Sean and Neil Wilson have helped a great deal around town with the ottawa international writers festival, and have brought out some locals I probably wouldn’t have heard of, including fiction writer John Lavery, who I think easily the most interesting fiction writer in town. They're very good at seeing and respecting the talent the city has, and working to encourage that talent through the festival. Talking to Amanda Earl the other night, she's convinced this is the best period that Ottawa has had for years, with the amount of activity currently happening, and she might be right. I think it was probably pretty cool in the late 1980s when Cabri and Manery were running The Transparency Machine readings at Gallery 101 (with Steve McCaffery, Erin Mouré, etcetera), Dennis Tourbin as artistic director at the gallery, Colin Morton running his publishing house Oroboros, John Metcalf running his reading series in Hintonberg, and Michael Dennis, who was the most published poet throughout the decade, with some seven hundred magazine and journal credits. That must have been amazing.
Q: Do you have anything to say in general about the state of poetry in Canada?
A: I think it's quite strong, and working not just nationally but internationally. The Griffin Poetry Prize has certainly helped give Canadian poetry a reputation internationally, and Canadian poet Sina Queyras did that anthology Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (New York NY: Persea Books, 2005) that was pretty interesting. I've been trying for about six years to convince a non-Canadian publisher to let me do an anthology of about twenty-four Canadian poets; without much luck, I might add, but I don’t give up easily.
The whole issue for this has been one of availability, and Canadian writing is more available now than it has ever been; how could that ever be bad?