Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Land of a thousand CanLit anthologies

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Land of a thousand CanLit anthologies

Nathaniel G. Moore’s Conflict of Interest column appears biweekly.

Tis The Season For CanLit anthologies, fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. Hey they might make good stocking stuffers – think ahead people, seriously. And why not? For the price of one author, you get 12, or in some cases, over 50. So where to begin? Take a deep breath as I reminisce about my own experiences editing one of these curious book forms and profile six new anthologies, all due this fall season from Canadian Literature Incorporated.

Talking to a lead Toronto bookseller in 2005, when I was editing and promoting my first anthology, Desire, Doom & Vice, there was much discussion on the possibility for success and failure. A very open exchange began about the reality of actual sales: these things can be bookshelf poison, I was told, a publisher's nightmare, collecting dust and heavy on returns.

Of course there is a bright side (there must be): a lot of these books fly off the shelves and even require second printings. It all depends on book-buyers moods, genre trends, promotional tactics, what the theme of the book itself is and perhaps even the ol' economy.

However, this season, the mighty fall of 2009, which has already been heralded as one of the most star-studded, crowded book seasons in a decade, offers a slew of anthologies coming at us from all corners of the centre of the universe here in Toronto. From the highly respected to the rebellious upstarts, the buffet of multi-authored books is coming at us, whether we like it or not.

Fresh off the heels of releasing the spring season's She's Shameless anthology, Tightrope Books alone is publishing three count 'em three anthologies this fall season: Gulch,The Best Canadian Poetry (edited by the Griffin-Prize winning poet A. F. Moritz) the follow-up to last years inaugural collection which collects 50 of the best Canadian poems published in 2008 from the long list of 100 poems drawn from Canadian literary journals (a daunting task to say the least) and another new series for the press, The Best Canadian Essays.

Alex Boyd, one of the anthology's editors says he's excited about the range of essays in the book and the reaction to them. "From insights on the environment to a remarkable portrait of an individual, to the new face of porn, or notes on Canadian fiction, it's all over the place. I almost feel a copy should be mailed to every Canadian politician, and the President too."

Boyd says he was inspired to approach Tightrope Books after they produced the first Best Canadian Poetry. "I've always loved essays, and I read them frequently. Orwell is among my favourite essay writers -- he's an underrated one, I think. His voice is remarkably sincere but perceptive."

Gulch, a late addition to the fall line-up is a fifty-plus authored collection of contemporary poetry and prose, though co-editor Karen Da Silva points out its not necessarily an anthology so much as, "an assemblage of nodes from the Canadian literary community, stretching from 70-year old scholars, to established writers, to unpublished lit students and a handful of hobos." Da Silva also says Gulch is Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome theory in everything from selection to design, "so it's an unconventional book you have to play with - literally."

The task of releasing three anthologies simultaneously may seem like a bit of an excercise for any publisher, but Tightrope leader Halli Villegas is adamant the team will stay focused throughout the season. Last year's inaugural The Best Canadian Poetry continues to sell weekly, and the press is looking forward to the exciting challenges ahead. "To prepare for the onslaught we begin with an Ativan and champagne luncheon," she muses, "then we work really closely with the editors to establish schedules and meet deadlines."

Villegas points out there is a spirit to publishing an anthology versus a single-authored book. "Traditionally publishers speak of anthologies as the hardest to publish and sell, not worth the trouble. But we’ve had nothing but good times with the anthologies. It gives us a chance to support writers across Canada that primarily publish with other houses as well as support the publishers themselves. It gives us a way to explore genres and styles that are not the focus of some of our single authored books."

In addition to new staffers, such as the recently appointed editor Shirarose Wilensky at Tightrope, the team feels confident they won't hit any snags along the road this busy fall season. "We have been blessed so far with a lot of positive feedback, cooperation and help from industry members which makes it easier. When the anthologies finally make it to the printers everyone at Tightrope spends a day in intense Freudian therapy exploring the childhood traumas that led us to publishing in the first place. With those insights firmly in mind we are ready for the next round of anthology challenges."

Over at Coach House comes Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women's Poetry and Poetics, co-edited by Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne which offers "an extensive look at the work of some of the best writers currently involved in avant-garde literary production." Some pieces date back to the early 1970s and others appear as original debuts, published for the first time in the collection. The book boasts work from Nicole Brossard, Margaret Christakos, Susan Holbrook, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Sina Queyras, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Nathalie Stephens and Rachel Zolf.

Eichhorn says original groundwork for the anthology began over two years ago. "At the time, I was traveling in the US and meeting a lot of poets. I realized that many of them had not yet encountered many of the writers who are in this anthology. They could usually mention two or three poets... not always the same ones... but that was it. Heather Milne and I started an e-mail dialogue about the need for an anthology that might parallel American Women Poets in the 21st Century. When I returned to Toronto, we approached Alana Wilcox with our idea and a few months later, the project was in motion."

With any book there are risks along the way, and Eichhorn points out some of the realities of publishing any experimental work. "There is a huge financial risk involved in committing one’s life to producing work that will likely never pay the rent. In the micro economy of the experimental poetry world, it matters if three or four university instructors decide that they are going to teach your book year after year on a course. It matters if your work is taken up by a few more readers and critics. It matters if it receives serious critical engagement. Without these things, how does a writer sustain herself?"

Coach House Books is no stranger to anthologies, having released several well-received urban and environmentally-themed collections of essays over the last five years, including uTopia: Towards a New Toronto which has been the presses best selling anthology to date, requiring at least one reprint. "The Toronto anthologies continue to sell well and show no sign of stopping. We're hoping our new Toronto book, The Edible City, experiences the same kind of success," says Evan Munday, publicist at Coach House Books.

Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch is busy this season as well, editing The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology. In addition to celebrating one of the great Canadian poets by esteemed writers who were also his contemporaries (Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, George Bowering, Margaret Laurence and Patrick Lane, to name a few), the book also illuminates the place that was the centre of Purdy's writing world – his home, a lakeside A-frame cottage in Ameliasburgh, Ontario. Says Vermeersh of the project, "The idea of the book is to raise awareness of the cultural and historical importance of the Purdy A-frame house in Ameliasburg toward the greater end of raising funds to purchase the house and convert it into a writing centre and heritage property to be enjoyed by future generations of writers and book lovers." All proceeds from the anthology will go towards preserving the Purdy home as a writer retreat for future generations of Canadian writers.

Richard Rosenbaum, associate fiction editor at Toronto's Broken Pencil magazine, is the editor of Can'tLit, (ECW Press) also due this fall. Says of his collection "Can't Lit has a mix of stories from well-known writers as well as writers whose work is just as good as the big names but more difficult to find." The stories are all culled from back issues of the magazine, and each one has brand new illustrations by Winston Rountree.

Another upstart, Spencer Gordon, one of the editors of the seasons most outlandish anthology Dinosaur Porn, (Ferno House/ Emergency Response Unit) asks his own questions when I pried into the behind-the-scenes world of the anthology making world, and considering his team is publishing out of pocket, I let him ramble a bit. "Why do we have so many poetry chapbooks with spare, elusive and/or allusive titles, printed on cheap paper with a mediocre sense of design craft? Why are the larger magazines in Canada so routinely devoid of a sense of humour? Why has the mere mention of a book called Dinosaur Porn – which we promise will be hand-made, perfect-bound and as beautiful an object as we can possibly craft – produced everything from giggles, surprise and fascination, passionate enthusiasm, all the way to dismissive smugness or indignant outrage? Why? Because despite its potential detractors – those who find the project overly silly or requiring too much of an imaginative stretch – the concept is undeniably original, hitherto unforeseeable in the recent world of visible Canadian small press publishing, and is obviously capable of creating quite a buzz."

We'll have to see about that. All of it. Let the season begin.

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