Long overdue, this special issue on the Kootenay School of Writing naturally begins with the old joke and the ongoing problem of situating the now 25-year-old group: they are not based in the Kootenays, they are not a school, and the work they produce disrupts and defamiliarizes recognized kinds of writing. Where and what is the KSW, then, geographically, institutionally, and in relation to literary history and criticism? Working through the name of Canada’s longest-running avant-garde collective provides a few startling points for coming to terms with the kind of paradoxes and problems that have shaped KSW’s poetics, politics, and history.
And so begins the introduction to Open Letter, Fourteenth Series, Number 3, summer 2010 focusing on Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing, guest-edited by Gregory Betts and Robert David Stacey. The issue exists as a follow-up, if you will, to the work started in Michael Barnholden and Andrew Klobucar’s anthology Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (Vancouver BC: New Star, 1999), built as an attempt at a necessary and long-overdue overview of a collective that, often and even deliberately, has defied simple description. If you don’t know anything about the Kootenay School of Writing, the loose-collective of members over the years have included Lisa Robertson, Catriona Strang, Jeff Derksen, Donato Mancini, Michael Barnholden, Kevin Davies, Dan Farrell, Gerald Creede, Peter Culley, Deanna Ferguson, Christine Stewart, Dennis Denisoff, Meredith Quartermain, Colin Browne, Fred Wah, Susan Clark, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Nikki Reimer, Pauline Butling, Stephen Collis, Colin Smith and so many others, with the collective organizing readings, lectures and even a few conferences. Editors Betts and Stacey have compiled a series of essays focusing on members including Robertson, Strang and Derksen, as well as pieces on the history of the collective, and a collaborative piece on the current floating membership as well, including Mancini, Butling, Collis, Barnholden and Reimer, exploring the poetries and multiple histories of a disparate non-group group. Part of the strength of the Kootenay School of Writing, arguably a continuation of some of the aesthetic conversations previously held in Vancouver through the 60’s infamous newsletter TISH, has been the apparent contradictions of its ongoing engagements with the immediate local, and the international avant-gardes of, predominantly, the United States and England, as well as an engagement with social politics, as through the works of Derksen, Culley, Barnholden or Collis. As Clint Burnham writes in his “Empty and Full Speech: A Lacanian Reading of the Kootenay School,” citing a list of “sites of production for Kathryn MacLeod’s work”:
This list spans 13 years and includes magazines that were essentially photocopied typescript, saddle-stitched or stapled at the corner (JAG, early Writing, Motel); those with more polished offset printing in book form (Raddle Moon, The Capilano Review, later Writing), two key Vancouver anthologies (East of Main, Writing Class) and a stand-alone book (mouthpiece). All of these sites were local. Or, more accurately, they were regional. JAG billed itself as a magazine for DTUC émigrés (David Thompson University Centre was the Nelson, B.C. liberal arts college shut down by the provincial government in 1984, as part of the cost-cutting measures that led, on the one hand, to the Solidarity movement of social protest and, on the other hand, to DTUC students and faculty relocating to Vancouver and starting the KSW). Raddle Moon itself had moved over from Vancouver Island to Vancouver (Raddle Moon had its origins as the Uvic student writing magazine From an Island [1978-1981]; the mailing address for Raddle Moon shifted from Sydney, B.C. to Vancouver). Writing, long the house magazine for the KSW, was at first published out of Nelson at DTUC (Writing was saddlestiched for its first 22 issues; it was then perfect bound until the end of its run in 1991). The Capilano Review has been, and continues to be, based at Capilano College (now University) in North Vancouver. East of Main situated itself resolutely, and perhaps controversially, in the eastern half of Vancouver. MacLeod’s work also appeared in American magazines that were, as it were, fellow-travellers of KSW or post-Language poetry: Big Allis (New York), How(ever) (San Francisco), Avec (California), and chain (Buffalo).
This issue reads as an important opening salvo for what should really be so much more, so much further ground to cover; why not pieces on Lusk, Smith, Stewart, Ferguson or Clark, for example? Will someone take the ball these two have started and continue, run with it even further? I would certainly hope so.
One thing that encourages though is that somehow KSW always manages to stay KSW. Joining KSW – even simply collaborating with KSW from the outside (W2) – has always been a process of learning KSW. It takes time – no one sits you down and says “KSW is this and not that: like it or lump it.” But its outlines come into view as you work within it and I’d say this really boils down to its being about collectivity (:Ohhhh…you really mean it isn’t about ME?”). As we’ve all been saying, collectivity is always a struggle – especially under current conditions – but we continue to struggle with it (otherwise we would do something other than KSW). (Stephen Collis, “By the Collective, For the Collective, On the Collective”)