I’m stunned and deeply sad to hear that Fredericton writer, artist, editor, publisher, community enthusiast, radio host and a ton of other things, Joseph Wendell (or simply, Joe) Blades died this past Wednesday. On Friday morning, the link to his obituary started floating around Facebook, which is how we first heard of it:
Age 58, Fredericton, NB, passed away April 22, 2020. Joe was the son of Wendell and Phyllis (Pieroway) Blades. He is survived by his mother and sisters Carol and Ruth (Mike Daye), and was predeceased by his father, just one month ago. He was born in Halifax, NS and was based in Fredericton, NB, since 1990. He grew up in Elmsdale and Dartmouth, NS, and also lived, studied, and/or worked in Delhaven, Halifax, and Port Hawksbury, NS; Toronto, ON; Montréal, QC; Banff, AB; New York, NY; Dumfries, Scotland; Senta, Serbia; and Pale, Republik Srpska. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Art (1988) from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, a Certificate in Film and Television (2008) from the New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative, and a Master of Education (2012) from the University of New Brunswick. Joe was a writer, artist, and publisher–president of independent literary publishing houses. He travelled extensively throughout Canada and Europe conducting poetry readings and creative writing workshops and took great joy from working with children and instilling in them a love of art and creativity through words. Joe will be sadly missed by family and friends across Canada and around the world. In honour of his memory, donations may be made to the Nova Scotia Writers Federation or the charity of your choice. Cremation has taken place; a celebration of Joe’s life will be held at a later date. Personal condolences may be offered through www.yorkfh.com
|Joe Blades, myself, baby Rose: Fredericton, 2014: photo by Christine McNair|
Given this seems to have come out of left field, I am stunned, confused. I am sad at the death of my friend. It is striking for me to realize that Joe was an early mentor to me and my activity—even acting at times as an older brother—in a hands-on way that so many others I would consider mentors and supporters during those early days of my writing life simply didn’t, from my twenties engaging with Judith Fitzgerald, Ken Norris, Michael Dennis and Diana Brebner to those mentors during my later teen years, Gary Geddes and Henry Beissel. He’d been already doing a decade or more what I’d only just begun. Joe and I both produced chapbooks, we both ran around the country doing readings, we both organized events in our home-cities and hosted each other multiple times. We included poems by each other in our journals and schemes, and produced chapbooks by each other; we hosted each other. It was through Joe Blades that I was first introduced to the work of R.M. Vaughan, then a writer still living in Halifax; it was through Joe I was introduced to UNB’s QWERTY magazine (which then introduced me to Andy Weaver, Sue Sinclair, Murray Sutcliffe and others), the flyer soliciting work for the debut issue in one of the envelopes he regularly sent my way of letters, poems, publications, notices, stickers and other papery scraps. He knew everything, everyone. Every small scrap. Did you know he was around for the founding of The Writer’s Guild of Alberta? Apparently he’d been working in Banff during those days, and was considered a founding member. He stayed at every residence I had, from 1996 onward, with notebook and towering backpack, having arrived first thing in the morning from an overnight Greyhound. He showed up for the first few years of ottawa small press book fair, tabling his east coast wares and spending more time at everyone else’s table than his own.
|above/ground press, May 1994|
I first encountered Joe Blades either late 1993 or early 1994, having responded to a notice he’d picked up somewhere about the new chapbook press and poetry journal I’d started in July of that year. He seemed to know everything that was happening in the small and micro press worlds, and everyone working the literary DIY aesthetic across Canada, and various other corners as well. Despite the geographical distances between us (Ottawa to Fredericton) we saw each other once or twice a year, whether him coming through town, or us meeting up at a reading or League of Canadian Poets conference in some other city.
We toured together in 1998, five poets running around Canada for a five-poet anthology Joe had produced of our work—D.C. Reid (Victoria), Brenda Niskala (Regina), Anne Burke (Calgary), myself (Ottawa) and Joe (Fredericton). A national tour, during which we would read in each of our home cities, was organized, with enough funding to get us across, and finally to Victoria, where the League of Canadian Poets agm was being held. It was a tour, in part, to allow us all the funding to get west for the conference. And we also thought it hilarious to tour across Canada without even stopping in Toronto. From Ottawa we flew to Regina, where a carload of poets landed in Brenda’s car and drove out to Winnipeg to read, driving the next day to Saskatoon to read, the following day back to Regina to read before driving to Calgary to read twice (where I first met derek beaulieu in person), and then back to Regina, from where we each flew out to Victoria. All of this was in a matter of days, with stops along the way at the Margaret Lawrence House, and Indian Head. We talked, we adventured, we grabbed photographs of each other and wrote poems, and gathered memorabilia, books and multiple postcards. Our first few days with then-Regina-based CBC Radio freelancer Robert McTavish, future editor of A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove (2007) that I co-published through Chaudiere Books, who was recording and producing a radio documentary of our mad prairie poetry reading tour. At the time, we theorized that we’d driven the equivalent of Paris to Moscow. Another tour, a year later, found Joe and I in his parents’ house in Halifax, with fiction writer Anne Stone, where we enjoyed fresh lobster caught not twenty feet from his parents’ front doorstep.
|STANZAS magazine #19, above/ground press, February 1999|
There were things about Joe that were constant: his expansive notebook, where phone numbers, emails, appointments and first drafts of poems were collected. He would often stop as we walked to pick up some small item or scrap of paper that he would slip into his notebook or pocket for later. He collected “lost dog” posters he pulled from telephone poles. He pilled other fliers that were glued (with constant notebook companion, his glue-stick) into the pages. Elements of found materials often made it into issues of his New Muse of Contempt down the road, a journal as expansive in concern as his notebook: images, found materials, poems, prose, lost dog posters and visual poetry. He had an interest that expanded out into multiple directions, with no publication too large or too small to catch his attention.
In 1996, heading north via multiple buses and ferries from Vancouver to Sechelt for the sake of a conference on small and micro press that Victor Coleman and Michael Barnholden organized, Joe took a photograph of me in front of Molly’s Reach in Gibson’s Landing. Joe seemed to know everyone else at the conference: John Pass, Tim Lander, Barry McKinnon, Victor Coleman. It was good to have him there, for introductions. A few years back, I requested a copy of that photo, and he mailed me a print-out. I would have preferred a digital copy. Why couldn’t he have sent me a digital copy? Joe Blades and I at Molly’s Reach, where I purchased postcards to send to my parents, knowing they’d get the reference. Knowing they’d understand this one speck of my western trip at all.
We were around for at least one break-up each, and I think he might even have assisted one of my moves. He produced five of my poetry titles and two chapbooks, and I appeared in a handful of anthologies he produced. I even edited five collections he published, via my cauldron books series, under the wing of his Broken Jaw Press (Chaudiere, I might point out, is French for “cauldron” or “basin,” providing moniker to both the falls and the rapids along the Ottawa River). I produced a handful of his chapbooks, and included him in numerous journals and anthologies I was putting together as well. He was a one-man literary powerhouse, doing everything and anything from the east coast, from hosting his weekly radio show to writing reviews of books, chapbooks and gallery shows, producing poems, prose and visual art, and producing books, chapbooks, magazines, zines, anthologies, readings, performances, art shows, etcetera. What parts of literary activity and production he wasn’t part of out there I never quite trusted; if there was something or someone that didn’t want Joe Blades and his energy as a part of what they were doing, it felt suspect, at least from here. I know he was hurt to not even be included in an anthology of poetry from the east coast, as though his thirty-odd years of writing and publishing activity hadn’t counted for a damned thing. He was right to feel slighted, and it made me distrust some of those other engines that much more.
|above/ground press, May 1997|
I know he did feel frustrated out on the east coast for the lack of support he received, as though he had to do everything himself, unable to find anyone to assist with the reading series, or the publishing, or anything else. It made for some difficult visits. It meant that sometimes he would appear in Ottawa and spend the entire time vocalizing his frustration with the Canada Council, sales force/distribution issues, or with East Coast poetry politics or with whatever else that it left little time or energy for any other kinds of conversation, including actually engaging with the activities he was doing, or what any of us were doing. By the time he produced what would be my final Broken Jaw Press title in 2006, it felt as though he was the last one to realize that he didn’t want to be a publisher anymore. He’d been worn down too far. His shift out of book publishing and into a PhD at the University of New Brunswick in multi-media around that same time was a positive one, although it meant far less travel and touring. It meant we saw him less often. But it meant he could focus his attentions on his own studies, and his production, and a direction that might shift some of his financial opportunities as well. In 2011, the literary press I was co-running at the time, Chaudiere Books, prompted a poetry manuscript out of him, Casemate Poems (Collected) (still available through Invisible Publishing), resulting one of his few book-length poetry titles not out through his own Broken Jaw Press. It’s a title that emerged through a residency he’d undertaken a couple of years prior, and I think remains some of his strongest published work. I’m incredibly proud of that book, and I think Joe was too, although it didn’t provide his work the attentions I thought it deserved. Later on, in 2017, I even reprinted a chapbook I’d produced of his in 1997 as a “twentieth anniversary edition,” which I thought was pretty fun. His TRIBECA (above/ground press), is a mixture of text and visual-collage, most of which he’d composed a decade earlier while in New York City as, he writes in the new edition’s “Afterword,” “a curatorial intern at the New Museum of Contemporary Art [where his journal title New Muse of Contempt had emerged] as a chosen part of my Nova Scotia College of Art and Design’s final year of BFA studies.”
Looking at these poems now, as well as related ones, I keep returning to Delaney quote at the front of this chapbook. I believe these poems contribute to a portrait of New York in 1987, and that they still share a story of that place and time. More people dream of going to New York than actually do. I have done some edits to some of the poems herein but essentially they remain the same. What has changed is not even mentioned herein: removal of self from most poems, fall of the towers, waterfront condo(m) developments in Halifax, etc. Twenty years is considered a generation. Wow! Time enough for so much to change. What will anyone think or feel about these poems today? Except for my ongoing use of manual typewriters, this piece excepted, what do I do now? I have so many more poems and situations addressed.
The last time I saw Joe in person was in 2014 (where Christine took this photo of us), although I did receive an email not two weeks before he’d died, mentioning, among other things, that his father had recently passed. Towards the end of Christine’s maternity leave year, we spent more than a week driving east in the fall of 2014 with baby Rose, and one of our stops was at the University of New Brunswick were Joe was working that week on the election, managing to get lunch with him there. It was familiar, sitting with Joe in the food court with Christine and baby Rose. As though nothing had changed between us, and nothing would. We would meet again. As he wrote as part of his Casemate Poems (Collected) (Chaudiere Books, 2011):
because i’m back in the casemate of public art
because there are always more stories to tell