Where the Exiles Go — The Canadian Literary Outlaw in a Conformist Culture

For as long as I’ve been writing and publishing in Canada, the concept of a Canadian Literary Outlaw has always been something of a contradiction. Not that there hasn’t been Canadian Literary Outlaws to speak of, which, of course, there have always been. I think of those English-speaking writers who surrounded Montreal’s Contact Press in the 1950s — Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster and Irving Layton — who would went on to publish most of the important Canadian poets of the fifties and sixties, including Leonard Cohen‘s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, printed in 1956 while Cohen was still a student at Montreal’s McGill University. Then there were those poets surrounding the TISH journal started by George Bowering, Frank Davey, David Dawson, Jamie Reid and Fred Wah founded by student-poets at the University of British Columbia in 1961 and edited by a number of Vancouver poets until 1969. Then, of course, there is Victor Coleman, Coach House Press editor in chief between 1966 and 1975. His publications were, for me, a virtual education in Canlit.

Canada has never really lacked for outlaws, literary or otherwise. Whether the Contact Press writers, or the TISH poets, or even the literary outlaws like Victor Coleman and the writers who surrounded Coach House Press (outlaws such as bp nichol, David W. McFadden, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Artie Gold, Gerry Gilbert, or Joe Rosenblatt). They inspired and encouraged a lot of Canadian writers and poets during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Unlike the United States, though, Canada has never had an avid history of enthusiastically promoting it’s own outlaws, either in its schools or its media — preferring instead to celebrate politicians, law enforcement (RCMP) and, of course, hockey.

It was during the 1980s, when I first became aware of the inherent contradictions between Canadian society and its emerging literary outlaws. It was the decade in which I first began to actively function as a writer, poet, micro-press publisher as well as an organizer of numerous reading series of local and national authors.

One such contradiction was illuminated for me when two authors I had invited to give readings were both eligible for sponsorship by the Canada Council Readings Program. Both had self published their own first books. Both were university graduates. Both had been widely published in magazines and anthologies. On paper, their applications were virtually identical. Still, one was chosen over the other. One thing was certain — the jury’s decision, I surmised, was based solely upon intangible qualities which works against the literary outlaw in Canada: race, gender, sexual orientation, and politics.

From then on, one thing became abundantly clear to me as a transgressive writer and publisher: though individually Canadian writers, poets, have been outlaws — as a group, say, like the Beat writers, the Black Mountain poets, the Naropa poets and, of course, the Unbearables, literary outlaws in Canada have never known the same cultural support.

It is to this backdrop that Canada’s literary outlaws and underground have clawed and scratched every inch of the way — receiving more tangible support from outside of Canada than from within. Case in point, the Rare Books Library at the University of Wisconsin at Madison purchased the entire backlist of my paper-based litzine, Urban Graffiti — while at the same time I couldn’t even give away my publications to Canadian libraries for free.

Canada’s literary underground and literary outlaws, though, do have a steadfast cheerleader who champions their cause, their publications, and their efforts. Enter Hal Niedzviecki’s Broken Pencil: A Magazine of Culture and Independent Arts, which has just celebrated it’s 52nd Issue. Read BP’s feature article, “50 People (And Places) We Love” to get an idea of the breadth and scope of literary outlaws and underground artists in Canada which have caught BP’s eye. Hal Niedzviecki is an outlaw in his own right — a modern day Northrop Frye cum Marshall McLuhan — whose literary criticism and literary theory, whose books and anthologies, are equalled only by his uncanny ability to read and measure our present-day cultural zeitgeist.

I think it can be debated that it is largely due to Canada’s profound insular nature, as well as its traditional connection between universities and small presses and magazines into which universities have traditionally supplied these very writers and editors which have produced a systemic bias, as well as a systemic environment of conformity. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with university educated writers, editors, and publishers. I am one, myself. Over the past twenty-five years, however, I’ve noted an increasing cultural schism in Canada between the underground literary outlaws, and how seldom they are actually published by established Canadian presses (particularly university presses). Very troubling given Canada’s vibrant, courageous, and adventurous publishing past.

In Canada, if you seek the work of excellent literary outlaws, you are much more likely to find it in zines, litzines, and chapbooks (as reviewed in the pages of Broken Pencil) — not in the pages of it’s literary magazines and university-based journals.

Indeed, there was a time when literary outlaws and outsiders went into exile — be that exile in New York, London, or elsewhere. Now, the Canadian Literary Outlaw remains an exile without ever having to take a single step outside Canada’s borders.

The remedy, though, for this unusual dichotomy is this very medium through which I communicate to you now. It both removes the cultural stranglehold that has long kept the Canadian Literary Outlaw under thumb, and liberates by giving the literary outlaw the means to bypass conservative publishers and editors altogether. Never before has the Canadian underground and the Canadian Literary Outlaw been on the verge of such a renaissance.


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2 thoughts on “Where the Exiles Go — The Canadian Literary Outlaw in a Conformist Culture

  1. Great piece Mark. A lot of names I’d half-forgotten. Or plain forgotten. You left out Al Purdy! What did Bukowski call him ‘a wild man out on a limb in the middle of nowhere, screaming fire songs into his jug of home-made wine’. Now, that’s a Canadian image for you.

    The same phenom exists down here of course – everywhere in fact. So much writing has become ancillary to creative-lit programs, which are a huge business all on their own. But I wonder in Canada if it isn’t part of a general regression in the last 30 years or so to the hewers and drawers of water we’ve always been. There was a flowering in the 60’s and 70’s, perhaps continuing on into the 80’s, when we strove to become something else. But it is also part of a larger trend.

    T.

    1. Thanks, Tim. If I endeavoured to name every Canadian Literary Outlaw, this post would’ve been one long list of names. As it was, my focus in this post was primarily on those literary outlaws involved with particular important turning points in Canadian literary culture and publishing, generally. Through his own poetry, and the championing of other poets such as Milton Acorn and Susan Musgrave in the 60s and 70s, particularly through the two anthologies of new poetry he edited — Storm Warning, and Storm Warning 2 — certainly places him among notable Canadian Literary Outlaws.

      Of course, the same phenom exists everywhere, in which “writing has become ancillary to creative-lit programs, which are a huge business all on their own.” Robert Siegle in his seminal book, Suburban Ambush (which I recommend as a virtual bible for any urban post realist writer) describes the anti-academicism of the post-punk writers he’s writing about being in direct “opposition to the great culture machine — which includes academia, the literary establishment, and the media.”

      I would go further to suggest this Borgias-like marriage between academia, the literary establishment, and the media began in the early seventies and accelerated in the eighties, particularly in Canada, to the point where no writer, or publisher, who has not first given a kiss to the ring of the great culture machine will not be deemed suitable.

      For instance, after spending the 1980s actively publishing and promoting writers in my home province, an anthology outlining my province’s literary history was published by the local university press. Not a single individual I promoted, and published, was included.

      At that instant my anti-academicism was cemented, as was my opposition to the great culture machine.

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