Saturday, March 24, 2007

a note on (literary) history

A few months ago while digging through the University of Ottawa's library for articles on John Newlove, Andrew Suknaski and George Bowering (as well as a few other items) for the three Guernica Editions books I've been working on, I found some interesting pieces running through Grain magazine from the 1980s. In two different places, I found pieces written on the histories of various prairie publishers, including "A Brief History of Thunder Creek Publishing Co-op," the organization that publishes Coteau Books, by Geoffrey Ursell, and the uncredited "A Brief Official History of Turnstone Press 1976-81," as well as a more general piece on "The Saskatchewan Presses" by Patrick Lane. From the uncredited Turnstone Piece:
Turnstone Press was founded one afternoon in 1976 in a pub near the University of Manitoba by a group of teachers and writers of whom Robert Kroetsch later wrote: "They dare to be culture-makers, the givers of new form in a city that prides itself on having grown old young." Five years after those ad hoc beginnings, Turnstone Press is now the largest and most active literary press between the West Coast and Toronto.

The initial mandate of the press was to provide a quality publishing outlet for the work of a growing group of new Prairie writers. Beginning with W.D. Valgardson's In the Gutting Shed ― now in its third edition ― Turnstone will have published 59 titles by the end of 1981. In the process, it has also been part of the development of a community of writers and readers in Manitoba ― by the time the Manitoba Writers' Guild was formed earlier this year, many of its founding members had had their first book published by Turnstone Press.
If you're in the midst of the game, it's important to have a sense of all the beginnings, even the ones that might seem a bit offside, or somehow "less important" than what is currently in front of you. As Lane begins his piece,
Literature is that creative work whose interest has a permanent or universal nature. There are only two publishers in Saskatchewan whose primary concern is such work, and they are Thistledown Press in Saskatoon and Coteau Books in Moose Jaw. Both began their venture in small-press publishing in 1975 and the first collections were the poems of the publishers and editors themselves. This is the basis for what is known in the trade as 'vanity' publishing, but there is a difference here. True vanity presses publish within an already respected and viable publishing scene. This was not the case for Saskatchewan in the early seventies. At that time there were no publishers interested in literature. There were elsewhere in Canada, of course, but their interest in prairie writers was and is now desultory at best.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the history of these two small presses. Suffice to say that this kind of publishing in Canada and elsewhere is almost always begun in order to publish the work of the men and women who begin the press. Anansi, Coach House Press, Talonbooks, and Very Stone House, presses from Toronto and Vancouver which began in the mid-sixties, all published themselves first. Their next step was to publish their friends and the loose, ill-defined group of regional writers who surrounded them. All these presses were, during the first five years, extremely regional with local biases and preferences. It was the same for Thistledown Press and Coteau Books in 1975, a decade later and in another place.

Prior to 1970, most writes, at least those who believed in a serious literature, left the prairie to go elsewhere. There are a few notable exceptions such as John Hicks and R.E. Rashley, but others like Robert Kroetsch, Miriam Waddington, P.K. Page, and Dorothy Livesay emigrated early in their careers. In the more recent past, John Newlove and Andy Suknaski left for the west coast to find a viable publishing and writing world. It is interesting that they have both returned, as has Robert Kroetsch. It is largely due to the work of the small publishers that this was possible. They created the climate of publishing that began to define a writing scene that was at home on the prairie. The establishment of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild in 1969 and Grain magazine in 1973 are equally crucial. The work of Ken Mitchell and Jean Freeman, along with others, goes far to establish a place where literature can occur. The work of Caroline Heath and her co-editors at Grain is also crucially instrumental.
It's far too easy to lose track of such things, even for those attempting to pay attention, and so much even an inch behind us is already unknown. I remember talking to a friend of mine a few years ago who's first book had been published in the late 1990s by Nightwood Editions; she had no idea that the press had originally been bill bissett's blewointment, with a history going back well into the early 1960s. And why should she? How many people know, that through The Georgia Straight and The Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, Vancouver's New Star Books can trace themselves all the way back to Tish?

These are things that don’t seem to be discussed, asked or written about. It was something that came up at the recent Factory Reading the other night with two Montreal writers, neither of whom had heard of the 1970s beginnings of Vehicule Press through the Vehicule Poets, or any of their members, including Ken Norris, Artie Gold or Claudia Lapp (it came up when I asked if there had been any discussion for an Artie Gold tribute in the next issue of Matrix, on the heels of the current issue's Robert Allen tribute? Neither of them even knew who Artie Gold was…). Thinking later on the issue, who would have told them about Artie Gold? I suppose there are places to find a few of these, including back issues of Essays on Canadian Writing and Open Letter (including their Coach House Press issue), many of which I've been picking up for years; Ken Norris even did a book collecting interviews and articles of their group for the collection Vehicule Days (1995); why can’t other groups be that organized?

Still, I wouldn’t mind knowing some of the history of Oolichan Books, for example (a publisher I seem to know very little about), or ECW Press. And what will they say in ten years about the beginnings and early years of such presses as Insomniac Press, Broken Jaw Press, or even above/ground press and Chaudiere, if anything?

Maybe there aren’t that many people who are actually interested in such things. Still, I think every publisher out there should have at least a few pages somewhere written about their beginnings; if I weren’t so overloaded currently, I would do the damn thing myself.

related posts: my piece on Montreal's ga press;

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