this interview was conducted over email from April to August 2015 as part of a project to document Ottawa literary publishing. see my bibiliography-in-progress of Ottawa literary publications, past and present here
Ottawa writer and editor Colin Morton is the author of numerous poetry books and chapbooks, including In Transit (Thistledown Press, 1981), This Won’t Last Forever (Longspoon Press, 1985), The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems (Quarry Press, 1987), How to Be Born Again (Quarry Press, 1991), Coastlines of the Archipelago (BuschekBooks, 2000), Dance, Misery (Seraphim Editions, 2003), The Cabbage of Paradise (Seraphim Editions, 2007), The Local Cluster (Pecan Grove Press, 2008), The Hundred Cuts (BuschekBooks, 2009), and Winds and Strings (BuschekBooks, 2013)—as well as the novel Oceans Apart (Quarry Press, 1995).
Morton grew up in Alberta, and moved to Ottawa soon after completing an MA in English at the University of Alberta in 1979. He has performed and recorded his poetry with First Draft and other music poetry groups, and his collaboration with Ed Ackerman, the animated film Primiti Too Taa (1988), based on Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate (Sonata in primitive sounds), led to a Genie nomination, a Bronze Apple, and other international film awards. He has been writer-in-residence at Concordia College (Moorhead, MN, 1995-6) and Connecticut College (New London, CT, 1997).
From 1982 to 1989, he was editor and publisher of Ouroboros, an Ottawa-based publishing house that produced books, chapbooks and ephemera, producing works by himself, as well as a number of poets around him at the time, including Susan McMaster, Chris Wind, Robert Eady, Margaret Dyment and John Bell, and culminated in the anthology Capital Poets, which included work by Nadine McInnis, John Barton, Christopher Levenson and John Newlove. He is currently one of the organizers of The TREE Reading Series.
Q: What was the original impulse for starting the press?
A: In the summer of 1982, the Tree Reading Series organized Word Fest, a 2-day poetry festival at SAW Gallery in ByWard Market, Ottawa. I edited a chapbook of the featured readers’ poems and worked with artist Carol English to produce the booklets. At the end of the two days of readings I came home hyper-excited and wrote my “Poem Without Shame” in one night-long beat-inspired cry. I thought a lot of the poem and wanted it out there. The prospect of sending it away to magazine editors and waiting a year maybe two before seeing my poem printed almost secretly in some little journal did not appeal to me. I liked the fold-old broadsheets that the League of Canadian Poets had produced for some of its members, and I thought that would be a way to get my poem shamelessly out into public. I chose a rigid cover stock and asked Carol English to adorn my poem with some cover art – something suitably surrealist – and the broadsheet was ready to hand out at readings.
From the start, I liked the idea of being able to control how the printed product looked. I naturally looked around for other projects.
Q: Were you part of the Tree Reading Series at that time? What other activity, whether readings or publishing, were around you at that time in Ottawa?
A: I had some production experience out west with NeWest ReView, Literary Storefront Newsletter and others, so Tree recruited me to create the WordFest catalogues. Ouroboros authors Susan McMaster and Margaret Dyment I met at Tree readings, and others, like Marty Flomen’s Orion series and Juan O’Neill’s Sasquatch. Christopher Levenson edited Arc magazine, then only a few years old, and hosted Arc readings as well. Ouroboros published several of the Arc poets – John Bell, Robert Eady and, later in the Capital Poets anthology (1989), Levenson, Nadine McInnis, Sandra Nicholls, John Barton, Blaine Marchand ... all these poets later published in solo editions by Quarry Press out of Kingston, Ontario. So it was a fairly busy time for poetry in Ottawa.
In addition to all that, I had weekly meetings over coffee and beer with First Draft, a collective of writers, musicians and artists who closed out Theatre 2000 near Byward Market in 1983 with a multimedia performance that including my recital of “Poem Without Shame,” “wordmusic” collaborations and others. The following year, 1984, saw First Draft’s third annual group show appear in the form of a book from Ouroboros – an artist’s book designed by Claude Dupuis of Ottawa. Dupuis filled every corner of every page with visual information, leaving the printer literally no margin for error. The result is The Scream, by far the most ambitious piece of book-making Ouroboros attempted. Smaller projects did use the visual resources of Ottawa’s print shops, and my own desktop publishing efforts. Visual poetry predominated in postcards, posters and chapbooks.
Q: What do you feel your activity through Ouroboros accomplished, and what prompted the press to finally fold?
A: About the time I was rounding up operations at Ouroboros, I had a phone call from John Buschek, who was thinking of starting up his own literary press and asked if I had any advice. I told him it would be a good idea to keep it small. Keep it small so that every project you undertake receives your full attention and love. (By this time I had decided to give my full creative attention to writing novels, one of which was eventually published by Quarry in 1995.) The second piece of advice I gave Buschek was to produce exactly what he wanted. We go into the arts, after all, to create something of ourselves, we don’t write books, or print and distribute them, to fulfill someone else’s dream. I’m glad to see BuschekBooks continuing to grow, a little at a time and, reflecting on the Ouroboros years, I’m glad I could bring those writers to wider public exposure, and to draw attention to Ottawa as a place to make art and literature, to talk and argue about art and literature, because these things matter.
Q: I’m curious about the activity you were involved with out west, before you moved to Ottawa. What prompted the move, and what differences did you see between the communities?
A: This is reaching back into the 70s, into the real arts-and-crafts era of little magazine production. I was involved in little magazines from high school, on though university and after. In 1973, I co-edited Harbinger, an anthology of southern Alberta writing that included Erin Mouré, Andy Suknaski and others. Later, at the NeWest ReView office, we received long strips of copy that we had to glue into straight columns by eye. Layout really was a matter of cut and paste. It could get messy. At Vancouver’s Literary Storefront there would be collating parties, a collective effort to get the monthly publication out on the streets before the events they announced. That was social media in those days.
Like a lot of people, I moved to Ottawa for the work – my wife Mary Lee’s work first and eventually my place in the publication division of a federal department. After supply teaching in Vancouver, I’d have gone anywhere at the first hint of an opportunity. After Vancouver, which had an established literary culture with factions and rivalries, Ottawa was more like Calgary and Edmonton – smaller, just getting active, open to newcomers and new ideas.
Q: The press ended on a high note, with the publication of the anthology Capital Poets. In many ways, the anthology represents just as much the aesthetic of the press as the poets active around you at the time. What was the selection process for the anthology?
A: Here’s one of the difficulties in reconstructing literary history. Capital Poets has a finished look to it, and you might see it as a landmark – the eighties generation in Ottawa. But it isn’t that and it didn’t set out to be. My original idea was to put out a monthly leaflet featuring a single writer each month – poetry or fiction or whatever – an author spotlight that could be distributed at readings or given away in bookstores or through the mail. A continuing series.
Two moments’ thought about the economics of the enterprise, though, reveals the problem. We are deluged by a flood of paper; we throw it away, often unread, whether it’s this week’s ads or poetry for the ages. No, the practical way to highlight Ottawa’s writers was through an anthology, up to ten pages from each of ten writers, printed and bound to be kept and remembered a generation later.
Capital Poets represents the poets I spent time with in the eighties, many of whom had connections to Arc and Tree and other literary groups. In a way, the collection was just as important for the writers who weren’t included in the anthology. It mobilized some to create their own anthologies, like Seymour Mayne’s Six Ottawa Poets and Luciano Diaz’s broader Symbiosis collections. In retrospect, I guess Capital Poets is a kind of landmark; it’s from then that Ottawa writers really start looking at ourselves as a community of interests. When I see Ottawa’s varied literary communities cooperating in our annual VerseFest, WritersFest and so on, I appreciate how much the city has matured, culturally, and how much it continues to change.
Q: Well, and I know, too, of a whole slew of Ottawa poets who didn’t respond to your anthology by putting out one of their own, such as the loosely-grouped poets around Gallery 101: Dennis Tourbin, Michael Dennis, Riley Tench, Ward Maxwell, etcetera. What was the response to the anthology when it appeared?
A: Not to mention Diana Brebner and Marianne Bluger, both emerging nationally about that time. The response to the anthology was vigorous, back pre-Internet when the letters to the editor page gave one a loud blowhorn. Again, the outsiders came across as more scandalized than the insiders were pleased. They took their own inclusion for granted, I guess. I could have gone ahead and published a second volume in the series. There were obviously the poets to fill one out, but the anthology field seemed well ploughed by that time, and I imagined writing would be a more satisfying use of my time, which it was.
Q: Was it as simple as that, then, choosing your writing over the publishing? You add Brebner and Bluger to my shortlist; who or what else emerged during the period you were producing Ouroboros?
A: A number of things were wrapping up around that time.
After theatrical productions of Susan McMaster’s Dark Galaxies and my Kurt Schwitters piece, The Cabbage of Paradise (with 3 actors and a 12-voice sound poetry choir), First Draft disbanded and members Andrew McClure and David Parsons moved to Toronto.
My writing was going more and more into prose and narrative, so the cross-media emphasis of Ouroboros was less top-of-mind.
The response to Capital Poets was disappointingly parochial (the opposite of what I’d hoped the anthology would show).
At the day job, the big public service strike started me thinking of going freelance instead. My son was going off to university, and soon I would be offered writer-in-residence gigs in the U.S.
Things end for lots of reasons; more mysterious is why some continue on despite the changes.
Memories tend to be short, and some exciting developments can be forgotten until someone like you, rob, comes along to preserve the memory somehow.
Ottawa in the 80s saw the emergence of valuable venues like Gallery 101, where Dennis Tourbin animated literary events. There, and at SAW Gallery, performance artists like Paul Couillard and Louis Cabri were exploring language in the visual arts context.
The National Library was a regular venue for national, international and local writers, thanks to Randall Ware’s direction.
Ottawa was a centre for the Chilean diaspora writers like Jorge Etcheverry and others though Split Quotation Press.
Patrick White’s Anthos magazine ran as a quarterly tabloid. There were regular reading series like Tree, Orion and Sasquatch.
Young writers were maturing and first books were coming out. Blaine Marchand, though Ottawa Independent Writers (another new organization then), introduced the Archibald Lampman Award.
Bywords emerged from Ottawa U. as a monthly newsletter preceded, I believe, by another monthly newsletter edited by James Cassidy.
Then as now, poets migrated to Ottawa from across the country – John Barton and Stephen Brockwell, for instance – and international poets were attached to embassies – like Shaheen who wrote ghazals in Urdu.
The trouble with such lists, like anthologies, is that something will be left out. But maybe this is enough to suggest that the Ottawa literary scene wasn’t a blank slate before the present generation arrived.
Q: In hindsight, what do you consider the biggest accomplishment of the press?
A: I'm inclined to let others decide what Ouroboros achieved. It might be the publication of the first book by Susan McMaster, Dark Galaxies; or the last long-poem by John Newlove, “In Progress” in Capital Poets; or a performing book like no other, The Scream.
But there’s something else, more personal.
I’m reminded of the Kafka parable about the man who waits his whole life at the door of the castle to be admitted. No one ever comes to invite him inside, and when it’s too late he realizes all he needed to do was to walk through that door. By publishing Ouroboros, I learned that Literature is not some great edifice or institution that we writers have to approach with our begging bowls. It is the sum of everything writers, publishers, critics do. As you know, rob, we just have to be bold enough to walk on past the gate-keepers.
1982 – Colin Morton, “Poem Without Shame” (8.5 x 14, 3-fold); art by Carol English
1983 – Susan McMaster, “Seven Poems” (8.5 x 14, 3-fold); art by Claude Dupuis
1983 – John Bell, “The Third Side” (11 x 17, 4-fold); art by Suanne Rogers
1986 – Chris Wind, “The House that Jack Built” (11 x 17 poster)
1989 – Richard Kostelanetz, “Openings” (8.5 x 11, 3-fold)
1983 – Margaret (Slavin) Dyment, “I Didn’t Get Used To It” (24 pp.); art by Claude Dupuis
1987 – Colin Morton, “Two Decades: from A Century of Inventions” (28 pp.)
1989 – Nancy Corson Carter, “Patchword Quilt” (16 pp.)
1984 – The Scream: First Draft; the third annual group show (96 pp.); writing by Colin Morton, Susan McMaster, Nan Cormier; music by Andrew McClure, Andrew Parsons; art by Claude Dupuis, Carol English; design by Claude Dupuis
1985 – Robert Eady, The Blame Business (50 pp.); cover art by Darien Watson
1986 – Susan McMaster, Dark Galaxies (50 pp.); cover art by Roberta Huebener
1989 – Capital Poets (96 pp.); poetry by John Barton, Margaret Dyment, Holly Kritsch, Christopher Levenson, Blaine Marchand, Nadine McInnis, Susan McMaster, Colin Morton, John Newlove, Sandra Nicholls
1983 – Colin Morton, “Dialogue 1” “Dialogue 2” “Dialogue 3” “Dialogue 4”
1984 – Penn Kemp, “Incremental”
1984 – Colin Morton, “Twins”
1984 – LeRoy Gorman, “moon”
1985 – Noah Zacharin, “Blues”
1985 – Colin Morton, “I read a shadow on the stream”
1985 – Robert Eady, “Amnesty” “The Lie” “Concise History of a Room” “How to Lube a Car”
1987 – Maureen Korp, “Melting Ice” (with art by Mitsu Ikemura)