I think one of my first memories of James Reaney dates from the late 1960s. Elke & I were both enrolled at University College at the University of Toronto. I was in Honours English. Elke was in Modern Languages.
This would have been shortly after the House of Anansi started up, and then Stan Bevington’s Coach House Press. This was also just about the time that Canadian university English students realized, for the very first time, that ‘poets’ were not necessarily British, American or deceased.
I attended a performance at Victoria College of James Reaney starring in his own One-Man Masque. The auditorium was not large. I remember watching Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood sitting towards the front, laughing heartily at literary illusions of a sort that sailed right past an undergraduate’s ears.
The one thing I did manage to take away from Jamie’s performance that day was his sense of theatre, his use of goofy props (brown furry motoring gloves, come to mind) and his sense of humour.
James Reaney, of course, got himself into a significant amount of trouble, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.
There was this one story, in particular, called the ‘Box Social’, which he published in New Liberty magazine, that was not popular with the administration at the University of Toronto.
I, also, got myself into a significant amount of trouble as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto
but nowhere near as much as Jamie did.
I first met James Reaney when I worked with Dave Godfrey at Press Porcépic in the early 1970s. One of the first contract printing jobs we accepted at Porcépic was to design and print Reaney’s Collected Poems, edited by Germaine Warkentin, and published by newpress in 1972.
I remember someone congratulated me, years later, that the ‘gray’ quality of the presswork was a clever reference to Reaney’s obsession with local newspaper records of historical events. But it wasn’t. The type in Reaney’s Poems is gray because I didn’t know what I was doing, at the time, on a Multi 1250. The book was printed two pages at a time, 146 pressruns in total, then the pages were folded in half, hand-collated and gathered into signatures. It was a great honour, for me, to be allowed to work on such a book. It was also an enormous amount of work.
Subsequently I was given an opportunity to design and print the Porcépic edition of the first of Reaney’s Donnelly trilogy, Sticks & Stones.
I remember a weekend in the summer of 1976. My wife Elke & I attended an exhausting presentation of the entire Donnelly trilogy staged by Keith Turnbull’s NDWT Company at the Bathurst Street Theatre in Toronto.
That would have been a Sunday. I was disconsolate, because my application to the Royal Bank for an equipment loan to buy a ‘Sulby AutoMinabinda’ had been denied, on the Friday afternoon.
At intermission, probably at the close of Sticks & Stones, I was interviewed in the lobby by CBC Radio.
Unbeknownst to me, the loans officer at the local branch in Erin Village just happened to be listening to CBC Radio that particular Sunday afternoon while grilling burgers on his Bar-b-q.
Monday morning, early, I took a call from the bank informing me that my loan application had been ‘reviewed’ on the grounds that the bank had hitherto not been aware that I was ‘famous’.
I am not, famous. But this was my first experience of the power of theatre to change people’s lives.
I still have the Sulby AutoMinabinda