this interview was conducted over email from November to December 2015 as part of a project to document Ottawa literary publishing. see my bibliography-in-progress of Ottawa literary publications, past and present here
Grant Wilkins likes letters, words, ink, paper and sounds, and combinations thereof. http://www.grungepapers.com/
Q: How did Murderous Signs first start?
A: Murderous Signs began life as a personal side project that I started while publishing The Canadian Journal of Contemporary Literary Stuff with Tamara Fairchild. The economics and logistics of trying to put out a “real” magazine – as Stuff was intended to be – meant that it was a very slow, laborious and expensive beast to put together and publish, so I saw MS as a chance to do something in the same vein, but faster, cheaper and with a more personal bent to it.
As we were trying to do with Stuff, my aim was to put out good literary work, but to do it with a sharper editorial viewpoint than most of what I saw in the literary landscape around me. There were quite a lot of little literary zines and poetry mags floating around the Ottawa scene back then, most of which followed a fairly standard poetry/prose/reviews-at-the-end format, with little sense of a point of view beyond the work printed, and minimal effort to comment on or otherwise engage with the wider cultural world.
It seemed to me even then that the arts in general needed to engage with the larger culture if it actually wanted to be a living part of that culture, so this notion of MS as being at least partly a vehicle for a broader editorial or cultural comment was part of its conception. To that end, most issues ended up being three part affairs, wherein I’d publish work from two other writers – usually some combination of poetry and prose – and then I’d either write an editorial piece, or I’d dig up an essay that I thought had something useful to say. This format became more variable as the issues went on, but that’s basically the way it worked through the 15 issues of the run.
Q: I like the idea of attempting a journal that incorporated as what you saw as the next logical step, ie: attempting to “engage with the larger culture.” How well do you feel you accomplished that, and what kind of feedback did you receive, if any?
A: The responses that I got back were generally pretty positive, and to the extent that I got feedback from outside my immediate community, it always seemed to be quite encouraging.
Ultimately though, I think MS was too fully situated in the literary world for it to really do what I wanted it to do or be what I wanted it to be. The mission statement that I ran in each issue insisted that Murderous Signs was “a literary zine dedicated to presenting comment, prose, poetry and perspective on subjects literary and cultural, and to the notion that the printed word, well crafted and aimed, can be used as a weapon.” I didn’t seem to have too much trouble finding literary work that I liked – poetry or short prose – but I didn’t have much luck attracting writing that could be considered comment or cultural perspective in any broader sense. It just didn’t seem to be the sort of thing that was being written in the part of the literary world that the zine inhabited.
The end result of this was that MS often seemed a little bit schizophrenic, with me writing an editorial about the media coverage of the G-8 meetings, or ranting about how Chapters decides what books to carry, or finding an essay by CGD Roberts about modernism – which was followed by a suite of poetry and a short story of the sort that you’d find in any standard issue litzine.
I did manage to bridge the gap between comment and content a couple of times. Issue #5 had several letters by jwcurry to the McMaster University Library about how they were (or weren’t) collecting Canadian concrete & visual poetry, while issue #10 had poetry by George Elliott Clarke and Stephen Collis – both of whom contributed work that seemed to explicitly look outward at and have something to say about the world around them.
Aside from that though, most issues of MS seemed to have this slightly split-personality feel to them that I never quite managed to get a grip on.
Q: In hindsight, how do you think you might have changed your readership, ie. beyond the immediate of the literary community?
A: Practically speaking, I don’t think there was any way that I could have significantly changed the demographic that was reading MS. In however peripheral a way, I was an inhabitant of the local small press/literary world, and I’d set MS up to be a literary organ that functioned in that world. Short of metaphorically packing my bags and wandering off to find some other niche or community on the cultural spectrum in which to hang my hat, Murderous Signs was always going to have to be largely aimed at what I perceived as being my corner of the litverse.
I did make some sporadic efforts to find people and places beyond my immediate world who might be interested in Signs. Mostly this entailed mailing copies out to an ever-evolving list of addresses – university english departments, libraries, writers groups, poetry readings, writers, other magazines, etc etc. Still a literary audience, just a little broader, and further afield.
Mostly though, MS’s readership was largely determined by the fact that I’d always intended its distribution to be done by hand. I’d set MS up to be a print vehicle – it was very much in the standard photocopied/folded/pamphlet-stapled form – which made it easy and inexpensive to make, and which meant that I could give it away for free at small press fairs or mail it out pretty cheaply. The fact that I was only doing it as a biannual meant that it was never going to cost me a huge amount, which I liked, and it meant that I could time the publication for the spring and fall small press fair seasons, which I variously attended here, in Toronto and Montreal.
So yeah, MS started out as at least mostly a literary creature, and thusly always had to be aimed at mostly a literary audience. By about half way through the run I’d come to realize that the slightly bifurcated approach of the zine was a little problematic, and so I began more consciously trying to write or to find editorial/commentary content that was more directly related to the literary world. As I said before though, I never really ironed that part of it out.
Q: Is this something you’ve attempted to reattempt through any other means since? Meaning: have you written any non-fiction pieces for other media since the end of Murderous Signs?
A: Not as such, no. I hadn’t started Signs with the intent or desire to write content for every issue – it had been a long time since I’d had any particular aspiration to write – so by the time it ended I kind of felt like I’d had my say, and that that was enough.
By that time too I had developed a fairly generalized dislike of most kinds of linear or narratival writing – non-fiction, fiction or poetic. Partly this came out of what I was reading in the literary world around me, and partly it came out of the submissions piles I’d been wading through for years with Signs, Stuff, and MPD before that. It often seemed like mostly the same sort of people were writing mostly the same sort of thing mostly the same sort of way – and it didn’t really matter if it was poetry or prose or fiction or not, it was just mostly really uninteresting to me.
My solution was to start exploring more actively in the concrete, visual, sound & process-based poetry worlds. Eventually I started to do some experimenting in these sorts of writing myself, and ran a couple of reconfigurations of Archibald Lampman poems in the last few issues of Signs. To the extent that I’ve done any writing since Signs that qualifies as non-fiction, it would probably be this sort of thing.
(Amusingly, I’m realizing that what was probably only my second ever piece of process writing – the second of my “2ND H@” series – was created out of a program for a literary conference at Ottawa U that you gave me).
Q: I’ve always been intrigued by your fascination with the Confederation Poets – Archibald Lampman, et al – in your publishing, even to the extent of publishing contemporary poetry alongside essays by the Confederation Poets in various issues of Murderous Signs. What is it about their work that you find so compelling?
A: I’ve got a degree in History and Classical Civilization, as well as a degree in English, so I think my interest is partly just a function of these things sitting at the point where my different enthusiasms intersect. There is in some way a feeling of real physical proximity to my interest too, as I’ve been living no more than four blocks away from one or other of Archibald Lampman’s old addresses since the late 1980s.
In that vein, I was also a member of Steve Artelle’s “Ottawa Literary Heritage Society” in its early stages of lobbying for what became “The Poets Pathway,” and I spent some time a few years back rooting through documents and microfiches at the Ottawa Public Library and at Library and Archives looking for information on Ottawa’s printing and publishing industries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ultimately, Lampman, the Confederation Poets and Canadian literary history are all just part of the spectrum of things that I’m interested in – so it isn’t really a surprise that some of it has shown up in my various publishing ventures.
Also, frankly, I’ve always been kind of appalled at how little attention we seem to pay to our history as a culture, and how little there is of it left around to engage with. Even here in Ottawa – a place that does have some historical significance – we physically don’t really have much more than a handful of buildings and a canal that go back past the early 20th century – we’ve knocked the rest of our history down, built over it, and now most of us aren’t even aware that it was there in the first place.
Our arts culture works the same way too, and when you combine that dynamic with the short shift arts and literature have been getting in our educational system in recent years, the end result often seems to be a generation – maybe a couple of generations now – of writers and artists who are largely unaware of the writing and art that came before them. I’ve been going to poetry readings for more than 20 years now, and reading submissions to literary magazines off and on for almost as long, and it’s deeply depressing to see and hear work by people who appear to be struggling mightily to reinvent the wheel – apparently oblivious to the fact that not only has it been done before, but that there was actually a very strong local tradition of the doing of it.
So yeah, I reprinted – and continue to reprint – that sort of work as the opportunity allowed and allows, in large part because I’m really quite interested in it, but also because I can really be pretty pedantic.
Q: One of my favourite issues had to be the one that included the correspondence between jwcurry and McMaster. How did the issue come together, and what was the response?
A: To be honest, I can’t really recall how that one came about. I think it must have developed out of the conversations john and I would occasionally have at the Ottawa small press fair or at readings. At that point I’d known him for a few years and known of him for a few years more, and of course I’d have been happy to publish anything from him – but this was just issue #5 of Signs, and I hadn’t yet gotten to where I was brave enough to actually go out and directly solicit work from people.
Anyway, what he gave me was a sequence of letters that he’d written to Carl Spadoni at the McMaster University Library. McMaster had seemed to be interested in the work curry was creating & publishing, and had bought some of it from him previously. Things had recently gone silent though, so john had written these letters in an attempt to see what was up and elicit some sort of explanation as to what their interests and intentions were or weren’t.
Not surprisingly, the letters were very interesting, being partly a general history of the institutional neglect of the corner of the literary world that john inhabits, partly an attempt to determine McMaster’s interests on the basis of their previous purchases, and partly an essay on the value and valueing of the sort of work that john produces, publishes and is otherwise interested in. The only reply he managed to get from Spadoni was a very short and very belated note to the effect that McMaster was not going to be collecting any Canadian poetry published after 1999, thank you very much. Apparently they had more important things to spend their money on than books of poetry.
The response to the issue and especially to the letters was as positive as these sorts of things get, and I was giving away copies fast enough that I quickly had to print a second run of it. Several people and institutions that I wouldn’t expect to pay attention to something like Murderous Signs – or even be aware of its existence – ended up contacting me for copies or subscribing. I did mail a couple of copies to McMaster too, though without generating any response.
Q: What was behind the decision to finally suspend the journal?
A: It was a combination of things, as these decisions usually are. Partly it was a matter of time, and my being about to have a lot less of it, as I was going to back to school for at least a couple of years. I’d done the full-time job & part-time school thing before, and knew that it would be hard to fit Signs into that, especially if I had ambitions of doing anything else.
In addition to that, my interest in the project was waning. Fairly early on in the run of Signs I’d taken a weekend workshop in papermaking, and immediately fallen in love with the process. This in turn led me to letterpress printing, about which I became even more enthusiastic. It took a while for these new interests to chrystalize into a coherent practice, but as the years went on my enthusiasm for the book arts (as these kinds of arts & crafts get labelled) simply overtook my enthusiasm for small press publishing of the sort that I’d been doing – so when I was put in a position of needing to wind down at least one of these things for the sake of my sanity, Murderous Signs was the thing I dropped.
In the end, I didn’t really feel too bad about it. I’d been involved in running zines and magazines more or less continuously for about 14 years at that point – Signs, Stuff before that, and MPD before that – so the more I thought about it, the more a change of pace and focus appealed. And that was that.
Q: Given your move deeper, as you say, into the book arts, do you see yourself returning to any kind of small press publishing, or even a blending of the two?
A: For the last few years all of my publishing has been in the “book arts” vein – handmade paper, letterpress printing, hand binding, combinations thereof – and has mostly involved the reprinting of what I think of as classic work from the “old dead Canadians” (the Confederation Poets, Pauline Johnson) and the “old dead Brits” (Shakespeare, Sidney, etc). I have printed a little bit of my own work along the way – in my mind letterpress seems to lend itself to the sorts of process/chance/indeterminant forms of writing that I’ve come to focus on in my own still very minimal writing practice – but aside from that I don’t think I’ve yet printed the work of anyone who’s been alive to complain about the typography.
It is a kind of vaguely held, long-term goal to eventually get back into printing some contemporary work (other than my own). I don’t think I’m quite there yet as a printer though, and I’m certainly not set up to do the sort of ambitious book work that some of my letterpress friends do – so I think that the fulfilment of this ambition is still a ways off. Having left behind the need for deadlines, mailing lists, submission piles and the like – and having no interest in going back to them – I expect that my re-entry into the printing of contemporary work will be a very small scale thing when it happens, and I’ll be fine with that.
Murderous Signs bibliography:
ISSN: 1499-6006. All issues distributed free. Print run: 150-500+, varying issue by issue.
Issue 1: March 2000. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Poetry by Huang Di. Short story by Sean van der Lee. Cover art by Esther Deitch. 14 pages.
Issue 2: September 2000. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Poetry by Jeffrey Mackie. Short story by Jim Larwill. 18 pages.
Issue 3: May 2001. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Poetry by Stan Rogal & LeRoy Gorman. 18 pages.
Issue 4: October 2001. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Prose by Adam Elliot Segal. Poetry by Giovanni Malito. 18 pages.
Issue 5: June 2002. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Poetry by April Severin. Letters from and to jwcurry. 26 pages.
Issue 6: October 2002. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Poetry by Frances Ward. Short story by Beverley Cook. 26 pages.
Issue 7: May 2003. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Poetry and short story by J.J. Steinfeld. 22 pages.
Issue 8: October 2003. Comment by Archibald Lampman. Poetry by T. Anders Carson and James P. McAuliffe. 26 pages.
Issue 9: May 2004. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Poetry by Becky Alexander. Prose by Bradley Somer. 26 pages.
Issue 10: October 2004. Essay and poetry by Charles G.D. Roberts. Poetry by George Elliott Clarke and Stephen Collis. 26 pages.
Issue 11: May 2005. Essay by Stéphane Mallarmé. Performance documentation by the Max Middle Sound Project. Cover art by George Dunbar. 22 pages.
Issue 12: October 2005. Essay by Frederick Philip Grove. Poetry by Richard Stevenson. Cover art by George Dunbar. 22 pages.
Issue 13: May 2006. Essay by Kyla Dixon-Muir. Poetry by Deborah Schnitzer and rob mclennan. Cover art by George Dunbar. 34 pages.
Issue 14: October 2006. Essay by Frederick Philip Grove. Poetry by Anna Panunto and Archibald Lampman. Cover art by George Dunbar. 34 pages.
Issue 15: May 2007. Editorial by Grant Wilkins. Short story by Edward McDermott. Poetry by Tim Conley and Archibald Lampman. 30 pages.