In the 1960s and ‘70s, feminists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-establishmentarians, poets, writers and artists in Vancouver, who had found no place for their work in the publications of the mainstream, began to form their own book and magazine publishing enterprises. This was the era of the War Measures act, the Vietnam War and the Gastown Police Riot, of baby boomers coming of age. the CRTC introduced CanCon and the Federal Book Publishing Policy began to provide financial assistance to Canadian publishers. Small, niche presses began popping up all over Canada, which, until then, had been dominated by a few Canadian and foreign-owned companies with headquarters in Ontario.
Vancouver, at the time, had a population of about 426,000 (about a million in Greater Vancouver), two universities, many bookstores, a thriving counterculture scene and an NDP government (1972-75). Rent was still affordable, subsidized daycare was available, and people could support their artistic and cultural work for short periods with unemployment insurance claims, welfare benefits or temporary employment through government make-work programs. There were no publishing courses then; the editors and publishers of the 1970s learned everything from experienced people and/or just by doing.
What came out of this milieu in Vancouver was an efflorescence of publishing activity: feminist book and periodical publishers such as Press Gang, Makara and Room of One’s Own; counterculture presses such as Pulp Press and Vancouver Community Press/NewStar Books; avant-garde literary publishers such as Talonbooks, and periodicals such as blewointment, Periodics and TISH.
The following pages celebrate these publishers, on the occasion of Vancouver’s 125th birthday, with materials found in archives, libraries, basements and attics by Geist interns and volunteers, some of whom were born a year after the ‘70s ended, others almost a decade after. The young writers, editors and publishers at Geist chose materials that seemed best to represent a decade that they can only imagine, from over here, on the other side of the ‘70s.
Over the years, Vancouver seems repeatedly able to do what most other Canadian cities haven’t been able to do, and that is, acknowledge and celebrate its own rich, literary history. I’m still annoyed (and a bit confused) that nothing was done to celebrate Ottawa’s 150th anniversary a few years ago; when I premiered the first issue of the Ottawa pdf annual ottawater that January, I had presumed it would be only the beginning of a year’s worth of attention (apparently not). Still, every city has literary richness to celebrate, and fine contemporary work that could always use more attention than they currently get, and Geist has been anchoring a segment of British Columbia writing for decades. The new issue, #82, features “Signs of Literary Life,” showcasing “Literary Vancouver in the 1970s.” Anniversaries are worthy times to take stock, see just where it is you are, and where you’ve been, something that often gets lost during the course of any journey. For the sake of the issue, the feature on Vancouver’s literary history focuses on the 1960s and 70s, during which a wealth of activity began, and GEIST celebrates small fragments showcasing a whole array of activity, some of which, in different forms, of course, is still present. There are histories of many of these, from 3 cent pulp to blewointment to Talonbooks to Room of One’s Own that have yet to be written, but this will at least give a taste and context of what was happening during that period.
New Star Books got its start in 1969, when a group of writers and editors working for the Georgia Straight, an alternative Vancouver weekly paper, published the first of several literary supplements inserted in the paper. Within a year, this group had begun to publish books under the name Georgia Straight Writing Series. Early work by bill bissett, Judith Copithorne, Fred Wah, Brian Fawcett, George Bowering and Daphne Marlatt was featured in the series. In 1971, some members of the group (the York Street commune) started their own book-publishing project under a new imprint, Vancouver Community Press. Workers came and went, and by 1974, the press’s editorial focus had shifted to non-fiction titles about current affairs and politics. One of these books, Two Roads by Jack Scott, a largely positive account of the People’s Republic of China, inspired another name change, to New Star Books. In 2011, the press had about eighty books in print.
There has always been an element to GEIST of the literary scrapbook, picking worthy scraps and articles from other places, as well as original articles on just what is happening, remaining, in many ways, the news that stays news. Where else can you read of the infamous Gastown Riot of 1971 against an article by GEIST columnist Alberto Manguel on Australian outlaw Ned Kelly?
From his adolescence onwards, Ned Kelly led a violent life, involved in punch-ups, assaults, cattle rustling and bank robbing. For the latter purpose, he formed a gang of four: himself as leader, his younger brother Dan, the opium-addicted Joe Byrne and the melancholy adolescent Steve Hart. Ned was finally captured in June 1880, tried for his crimes and condemned to death by hanging. When the judge pronounced the fatal words “May God have mercy on your soul,” Ned replied: “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go.” His mother’s parting words to him were: “Mind that you die like a Kelly.” A petition to spare Ned’s life was signed by over thirty thousand admirers.
Vancouver writer Michael Turner, “one of six writers invited by the Association of Book Publishers of BC and the City of Vancouver to select ten classic Vancouver books to be brought back into print, in honour of the city’s 125th birthday” writes a small piece on D.M. Fraser’s Class Warfare, recently reissued by Arsenal Pulp Press:
The context of the conversation, when we speak of simpler things, a break from our usual attempts at making difficulty meaningful, an explanation of what is and isn’t missing, the logic we employ to make everything as obvious as possible, as if guided by something other than ourselves, yet forgetting ourselves in the process, coasting on our logic until someone calls us on it, and we argue about that too. Which is fine, until this writing, why it looks the way it does, how I don’t feel better for it, how it takes me away from the stuff we started years ago, when we made this stuff up.
I can’t for the life of me even recall the last time the City of Ottawa worked to celebrate anything literary; my front window still holds the “MY OTTAWA INCLUDES CULTURE” sign from the 2004 debacle when our then-mayor threatened to cut numerous city services, including hospitals, public transit and all cultural funding. Shameful, that. And far more shameful that our counter-arguments weren’t a louder, more sustained noise. Given the amount of literary activity Vancouver is able to celebrate, both officially and unofficially, including the recent Vancouver Poetry Conference, doesn’t it put all other Canadian cities to shame? Where are your celebrations, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary?