Dudek’s Legacy: In Practice or In Peril?
An Examination of the Ottawa Small Press Scene
by John Kehoe
The Canadian Small Press movement ostensibly began in Montreal in the early 1940s with the creation of the First Statement Press and Magazine. John Sutherland launched the little magazine as “an alternative to the ‘elitism’ of Patrick Anderson’s magazine, Preview” (Davey 4). Later Louis Dudek, Irving Layton and Raymond Souster founded Contact Press over much the same concerns that Sutherland had. Dudek believed that “the poet has to publish his own work… if he wants to print what he wrote” (letter 1952). These initiatives emphasized the divide that existed not only in Montreal but in Canada generally, that of young impassioned poets eager to be published and established, usually academic, writers who were of little help to them. Yet these two early presses would become a springboard for such poets as Dudek, Souster, Layton, Daryl Hine, Jay MacPherson, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood, and Leonard Cohen to launch themselves into poetic popularity and mainstream readership. Unfortunately, the divide that prompted the early press pioneers still exists today and is most probably responsible for the plethora of small presses, little magazines, and do-it-yourself publishers in existence all over Canada. In Ottawa, a fairly populous and multicultural city with a large student population, there are numerous small presses, independent poets, and little magazines, yet readership remains very limited and national recognition seems unattainable. A major difference between the Modernist Montreal scene and present day Ottawa is that the Montreal scene took off, while Ottawa remains stagnate. This paper will endeavour to show that the current state of the small press scene in Ottawa lacks a motivating and discriminating figure such as Dudek (or a press that extols the early Montrealers’ strict mandate of publishing only the best of poems). It will draw heavily on the Professor Tracey’s own work, “The Little Presses That Did: A History of First Statement Press, Contact Press and Delta Canada, and an Assessment of the Contribution to the Rise and Development of Modernist Poetry in Canada During the Middle Part of the Twentieth Century”; as well as Dudek’s and his contemporaries’ ideas and theories about the purpose of the small press.
Though Dudek saw Contact Press as a venue in which to “publish younger poets, some good some bad” (Letter 1959) his overall, and grand goal was “to create a genuine school of modernism in poetry” (Stromberg-Stein 52). And as Professor Tracey has already noted, “the main motive of the little presses was to publish the work of young, radical and experimental writers when no one else would” (Tracey 32).
Sutherland initially mandated that First Statement Press follow the ensuing goals:
a) To maintain the highest possible literary standards without regard to any consideration of any other kind.
b) To provide expression for writers of merit denied publication elsewhere.
c) To give special encouragement to the young writer and to the experimental writer.
d) To help sharpen the awareness of Canadian writing both past and present.
e) To employ only strict standards of criticism, but to emphasize the importance of the developing native sensibility in Canada.
f) To establish...a liaison with the French-Canadian writer.
The second of Sutherland’s goals is echoed by the University of Ottawa’s, and former Contact Press poet, Seymour Mayne who wants to “give encouragement to younger writers who find it difficult to break into print.” However the important qualifier “of merit” to the type of writer sought by Mayne and his University affiliated Friday Circle Press is missing. “Young artists,” Dudek wrote in a 1969 Montreal Gazette article, “are multitudinous and prolific but they do not strive to unite the whole of life in new substance and form.” Such insight can be applied universally and permanently to probably most poets. Yet Dudek was a fierce campaigner for those poets he believed to possess poetic genius and, as such, he’s ideology on the subject of publishing maintained Sutherland’s vigorous exploration for best poetry possible.
Such concerns over publishing poets of quality, who are creative and avant-garde, seem lost in the Ottawa small press scene1. The aims of one of Ottawa’s most popular little poetic journal, Bywords:
“are to publish emerging and established poets who reside, study or work in Ottawa… [and it welcomes] all submissions. No one approach or group of writers is given preference. Instead, Bywords is open to all practitioners of the genre and attempts to reflect the diversity of practice in the Ottawa area” <www.bywords.ca>.
This sensible and accommodating mandate seems overly courteous in comparison to that of First Statement and to the editorial pedigree of Louis Dudek. Firth’s commentary that “[b]eing critical of chapbooks and zines might be seen as akin to telling a five-year-old you don't like her finger painting. You're just not allowed to do it” seems a little complacent in comparison to Dudek’s view that,
What makes a literature is the contact between one poet and another, between one generation and another. Poets breed by scission. Even when they disagree, they learn, and stimulate one another. Nothing stimulates a beginning poet more than the irritating activity of another poet in his vicinity. And once this local decoction has been started, it perpetuates itself— it can hardly be stopped. (montreal 8)
Other small presses seem focused on quantity rather than quality: Rob McLennan, founder and operator of above/ground press boasts that his is "the most active chapbook press in Canada” (xpress ) though reviews of publications have been mediocre2.
Perhaps the most interesting and talent-full publication is that of Murderous Signs put out by the Grunge Papers press. The mandate of this self proclaimed “literary zine” is “that the printed word, well crafted and aimed, can be used as a weapon” <http://grungepapers.com/msigns/>. It has certainly published some great poets such as George Elliott Clarke, Stan Rogal, J. J. Steinfeld and April A. Severin. Yet these works are difficult to find and amongst the literary scene that I am privy to, is not spoken of.
Two recent articles in the Ottawa Xpress (February 17th & March 10th, 2005) have investigated to a minor, yet competent, extent Ottawa's “Micropresses.” Each of these articles was written by one of Ottawa’s own small press owners, Matthew Firth, and uncompromisingly maintains his acerbic and apprehensive tone towards the type of poetry being published in the city. In describing Ottawa’s poetic scene Firth cites Bukowski: "I'm afraid the small presses, the mimeo presses, have kept alive too many talentless darlings ... starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius" (xpress). Firth’s reviews have been brutally honest but, unfortunately, do not shine the spotlight on any poets of brilliance that may help spark interest in the scene in general. David O’Meara, winner the Ottawa Book award, the Ontario Trillium Award, and the 2004 Archibald Lampman Award still works at a pub on Elgin Street in virtual anonymity. It may be that poets who publish in small presses, as Burnham argues, “cut across class, ethnic, and gender boundaries and [produce] work of literary, visual, material, and political significance” (6); however such ideals seem pointless if they and their works remain in virtual obscurity.
Broken Pencil’s online mandate argued that when small presses and little magazines are looked at “[i]ndividually, these obscure publications do not seem to matter. But when considered as a collective unit, they area amazingly pervasive documents that insist on the sanctity of a life where independent creation is still possible in a society, a country, a world, that might have it otherwise” <www.brokenpencil.com>. Such consideration may be apt, but would seem to negate the young sparks bustling here and there and the need, as Dudek was quick to practice, to recognize these talents and promote them. The 1961 Canadian Royal Commission on Publications Report stated that "[o]nly a truly Canadian printing press, one with the 'feel' of Canada and directly responsible to Canada, can give us the critical analysis of the informed discourse and dialogue which are indispensable in a sovereign society" (Ottawa 1961); such positivism is lost in Broken Pencil’s mandate. The “dialogue” of which it speaks was once shaped and loudly voiced by the young Montréal modernists and could potential find a new voice here in Ottawa if we take on Souster notion that a small press’s role
is to bring along the young until they can make it with the commercial publishers. Or to publish work by older poets whose work is too uncompromising or "advanced" for the commercial houses and would otherwise be denied a hearing. (Souster, letter)
Ottawa may indeed possess the calibre of poet that would have appealed to Souster and Dudek however they are lost in a flood of mediocrity otherwise known as Ottawa’s small press scene. Of course with the proliferations of computers and access to the internet self publication and online ‘zines are extremely easy to construct and could, potentially, reach a much wider audience than the print medium. However this scene may be in the throes of change.
One of Ottawa’s newest ventures into this scene is Sorrowland Press. I asked its creator, Damien Bailey, why he wanted to start a small press in a city already full of little poetry circulations, ‘zines, presses, and online sites. He says,
There are poets and places to go, but it's all d
There's no emotion, no energy. It's cold. I'm going to try to
counter this, but it's going to be hard… Academia will
probably turn its back on me (Interview with the author).
Though Bailey’s pessimism about the role academia takes in helping young independent poets is perhaps valid, he did have help getting started from Professor Mayne who, with a more cautious tone, also sees a need for other presses in the Ottawa scene:
It's a big venture in terms of time and other
commitments but Ottawa could benefit from
another vital small press on the scene (Interview with the author).
Both of these opinions about the Ottawa small press scene seem almost to be the synthesis of Dudek’s own concern over the state of poetry and the role that young poets must fill in keeping up an excellence in Canadian verse:
Now, the young obviously must replace what was there - and make sure there is as much perfection now as there ever was. And as much good and evil as there ever was... Everything that always was is re-created in a new form. The young have this wonderful opportunity, and the responsibility of bringing it about again through their own new kind of living (Interview 104).
Admittedly, this paper is somewhat hypocritical. I have been, myself, a lazy product of the Ottawa small press scene, having some poems published here and there and reading my poems at a few small reading series. However, I blame Dudek and the reader for inspiring not only a need to investigate the state of small press in Ottawa but also to do something about it. Though the Ottawa scene may be “dead” as Bailey suggests, things are changing. Matthew Firth is shedding light on the scene through his articles in the Xpress (another is due shortly); while old practitioners, like Professor Mayne, are more then willing to help and encourage motivated poets and beginning publishers.
Bailey, Damien. Personal Interview. March 23, 2005.
Burnham, Clint. Allegories of Publishing: The Toronto Small Press Scene. Toronto: Streetcar Editions, 1991.
Davey Frank. Louis Dudek & Raymond Souster. Vancouver : Douglas & McIntyre, c1980.
Dudek, Louis. In defence of art : critical essays & reviews edited with an introduction by Aileen Collins. Kingston, Ont. : Quarry Press, c1988.
---. “The Montreal Poets” in Stevens, Peter. The McGill Movement.
Hildebrand, George. “An interview with Louis Dudek” in Louis Dudek: Essays on His Works. Ed. George Hildebrand,Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2001.
Firth, Matthew. “Spit and polish: The good, the bad and the clichéd latest small press offerings” March 10th, 2005. <http://www.ottawaxpress.ca/books/books.aspx?iIDArticle=5547>
---. “Smaller than small: Ottawa micro presses feed the spirit of hope”. February 17, 2005. <http://www.ottawaxpress.ca/books/books.aspx?iIDArticle=5405>
Mayne, Seymour. Personal interview. April 1, 2005.
Souster, Raymond. “Letter to Louis Dudek.” October 4, 1964. Ms in Contact Press Collection, Thomas Fisher library.
Stromberg-Stein, Susan. Louis Dudek : a biographical introduction to his poetry. Ottawa : Golden Dog Press, 1983.
Sutherland, John. "Origin of First Statement Press" Rpt. in Dudek & Gnarowski 69-70.