Friday, June 15, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: David McKnight

This is the twentieth in a series of short essays/reminiscences by a variety of authors and friends of the press to help mark the quarter century mark of above/ground. See links to the whole series here.

above / ground press – A Collectors Odyssey

I don’t remember the exact date – but sometime in the Spring of 1996, one evening, I walked past The Word Book Store, Anglo-Montreal’s legendary and very literary second hand bookshop, which was located in the McGill Ghetto.  As you walked into the dimly lit, compact low ceilinged shop, a former Chinese laundry, the floor to ceiling shelves, fastened to the brick wall, were packed with several thousand high quality used books – Adrian King-Edwards the bespeckled, bearded shop owner - as usual was ensconced behind the desk located under the narrow stairwell that led to the workroom on the second floor pricing a book.

Adrian held court behind his counter: examining books dropped off by graduating McGill students eager to sell his or her textbooks; or it might be a book scout who had found a pristine signed copy of the first edition of Leonard Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies – Adrian’s eyes lighting up, or it might be a small press publisher dropping off copies of the latest issue of his/her little magazine or chapbook.

Half of the store’s stock comprised of literature, literary history, and poetry – unlike trade bookstores, Canadian literature was interfiled in the appropriate section. For twenty years, The Word was one of the important literary institutions in the vibrant, though testy Montreal poetry scene. Véhicule authors shelved beside Signal Editions authors. If you were in search of contemporary Canadian literature, surely you would find a copy at The Word or if historic perhaps filed in Adrian’s basement a half block away from his shop.

Adrian did and still devotes a section on the west wall of his shop – with window visibility – to new Canadian small press and little magazines.  So if you were passing by the shop in the evening not only would the items in the window display cause excitement, but you could also glimpse at the new chapbooks and magazines on the Small Press section as well.  There it was: STANZAS! I didn’t recognize the title nor did I recognize the imprint above / ground, but I had to have the new mag.  The next day I entered the shop greeted Adrian and I made a beeline to the Small Press shelf. I picked up the issue of rob mclennan’s long poem mag: STANZAS and I have been an above / ground subscriber ever since.

Although I was rare book librarian with a weakness for acquiring literary papers and poetry collections for McGill University Libraries, I was also a book collector. Since 1972, I had been acquiring Coach House Press books; in 1976, while scouring a new second bookshop focused on Canadian literature, I bought the first fifteen issues of Tamarack Magazine (1956 – 1982). Tamarack was one of the great literary magazines published in Canada during the formative 1960s and successor to John Sutherland’s Northern Review (1945 – 1955).

For the next thirty years I amassed a very large collection of Canadian little magazine comprised of 800 titles and 6000 issues dating from 1920 to 2005; a near complete Coach House Press collection including ephemera and posters and a comparable collection of Canadian small press imprints.  In addition to the mags, chapbooks, and ephemera I had also, through gift, possessed an important small press literary archive. All of this stuff is now at the University of Alberta’s Bruce Peel Special Collections.

In 1990 when my personal collection had grown in scope and size - my purpose as a collector was to trace and locate every little magazine published in Canada during the 20th century in English and French and other languages.  I consulted library catalogs, made lists, I scoured the shelves in every bookstore in major Canadian cities. There was always Adrian’s basement or Nelson Ball’s legendary vault in his home / shop in Paris, Ontario.  Poetry Toronto, Halifax and other cities listed new mags and I dutifully copied names and addresses. I sent letters and cheques. The response was always amazing. The collection grew.

In 1996 there was a sea change in Canadian small press publishing. Stan Bevington regained control of the Coach House Press after a short-lived misguided change of ownership. Founded in 1965, The Coach House Press is surely the most important small press in Canada. Bevington’s influence was immediate and enduring. Thus it is not surprising to learn the rob mclennan lists among his influences The Coach House Press.

As Bevington and the Coach House was on the rebound in 1996, a new wave of poets and micro press publishers was emerging across Canada. From Jamie Reid (an original TISH member) who founded the short-lived mag Dada Baby, derek beaulieu’s House Press, jwcurry’s industrial sabotage and 302 books imprint and, of course, rob mclennan’s above / ground press.  Although I could pick up issues of mclennan’s long poem mag, STANZAS at the Word or copies of poem, mclennan’s long running broadside series devoted to a single author and poem, I decided to become a subscriber and I still am. (Indeed, since moving to Philadelphia, above / ground is the only Canadian small press to which I currently subscribe.)

Among his other influences, rob cites in his 2016 interview with Entropy magazine (, bpnichol’s grOnK and bill bissett’s blewointment. In the case of the former, nichol publications proliferated in a variety of formats (jw curry has continued in the nichol tradition producing his 1 cent leaftlets which are notoriously difficult to collect); bissett for his part used different yet equally different anti-bibliographic strategy yet he favored a collage method that required the 8 ½ x 11” or 17” page sizes for his magazine and Chapbooks. For his part rob has produced seven different series beginning in 1993. His approach is copy ready, tasteful, utilitarian, and sometimes whimsical (especially the covers of the chapbooks – the words take precedence over the mise en page.

As a long time subscriber, I have been amazed at rob’s industry for the past 25 years.  According to my tabulation, rob has created eight different series:

·   poem (Broadside): 343 issues since 1996.

·         STANZAS (a magazine devoted to the long poem) No. 1 (1993) – No. 44 (2006).

·         Bitlet (periodical devoted to a single writer): 1999 – 2003 (six or more issues).

·         Drop: 2002 - 2006 (1 - 6). (Produced in conjunction with the Jack Purcell Community and above ground press for Poetry workshops with people living with mental illness. From the first issue).

·         Missing Jacket: Writing & Visual Arts. (rob’s foray into producing and editing a literary and arts journal.  Nos. 1-5, 1996-1997.

·         Peter F. Yacht Club: (periodical): 2002 –  present (25 issues).

·         Touch the Donkey: (periodical): 2014 – present (17 issues).

·         Chapbook Series: 1993 to the present. 200 titles.

According to rob’s tabulation he has produced 800 pieces since 1993. I believe that I have over 700. Recently I examined the 300 issues of his broadside series – poem – I donated to the Bruce Peel Special Collections, simple: one folded sheet – with the poem itself photocopied on the recto side. In my view poem is an essential document representing an eclectic range of mostly Canadian poets active since 1996, in other words, rob’s contemporaries.   The same can be said of his Chapbook series which turns twenty-five this year along with the press.  The range of authors from a to z is amazing. There is the nod to the work of the TISH generation: George Bowering, Robert Hogg and John Newlove, among others; but the list of chapbook authors post 1990 to the present represents a remarkable roster of poetic voices, some will endure, others will drift into anonymity, but the one thing that connects them all is rob mclennan and his above ground press. Congratulations on twenty-five years of independent, small press publishing in Canada!

David McKnight is Director of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to accepting the position at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, he was Director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Head of the Digital Collections Program at McGill University Libraries where he worked in various roles for fifteen years. A past president of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, McKnight is currently founding Co-Director of the Philadelphia Avant-Garde Studies Consortium. In2012, McKnight and his wife Lillian Eyre donated their extensive collection of Canadian Little Magazines, Coach House Press Imprints and Small Press Publishing Archive to the Bruce Peel Special Collections. Highlights from the collection are currently on view at the Center. In tandem with the exhibit is a catalogue entitled: Experiment: Printing the Canadian Imagination.

David McKnight has been an above/ground press subscriber for nearly twenty-five years.

No comments: