Fabulous Fictions and Peculiar Practices

ABOUT THE PROJECT

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Continued

Some time later (March 2013) Elke and I were invited to the opening of an exhibition at the Fran Hill Gallery on St Clair of recent sculptures by Leon Rooke entitled "Wide World in Celebration and Sorrow". The exhibition opened just weeks before we completed publication of The April Poems which features one of Leon's oils on the cover and stars a "mature damsel" who travelled "with a shotgun under her dress" and boasted "Ideal cleavage too". April is pluck, prink and plumelets. April is an intellectual colossus, a pearl of a girl, mother and daughter, lover and beloved. Marriage to April, the reader learns, is like the beauty of pure math … or like juggling bricks in a hurricane, and in fact I do recall an incident at the Rooke's home in Eden Mills that ended with Leon and I sheltering under a coffee table while Connie smashed much of the crockery in the house against the facade of a stone fireplace. By chance Elke and I met Tony Calzetta on the sidewalk in front of the gallery and I took it upon myself to suggest that I thought Tom Smart might be interested in seeing Tony's Fabulous Fictions project if Tony could be persuaded to arrange a private showing.

Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke

"Wide World in Celebration and Sorrow" included one interactive stick figurine that was titled "Still in Business" because that is what I often respond to the ubiquitous question "How are you?", and Leon certainly knew that. The opening at the Fran Hill Gallery included a complement of the reigning literati of the city including Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje who was very friendly, possibly because we had recently published his deceased friend Tom Marshall in our Essential Poets series. Jane and Tony Urquhart were there, Rosemary Sullivan, and Ellen Seligman. There were others, as well. Tony Calzetta mentioned that he would, in fact, be very interested in an opportunity to present Fabulous Fictions to Tom Smart, who had been, until recently, CEO at the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg. I assured Tony that I would be pleased to make the necessary arrangements, then Elke and I headed for the door just as Barry Callaghan made an appearance.

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Chandra Wohleber

Chandra Wohleber

Sterphanie Small and Chandra Wohleber arrived at table together, whether by design or happenstance I don't recall. Stephanie travelled from Windsor on Via Rail to attend the early spring luncheon at Allen's. Chandra lives in an apartment on Broadview, a couple of blocks south of Bloor and pretty much directly east of St James Cemetery, across the expanse of Riverdale Park and the Don River. Chandra trained as a copyeditor in New York at the offices of Farrar, Straus & Giroux; she worked with Leon Rooke on the manuscript for The April Poems, and managed to gently persuade the author that a 7,000 word story about the affection of Marucha Figuera Jotomaria for her beloved Fazzini did not really sit well with the focus of the collection. "Art of Pig" was cut, with encouragement from Elke. Chandra had also worked with Tom Smart on a couple of feature articles for the Devil's Artisan, notably on wood engravers George Walker and Rosemary Kilbourn, and had also contributed yeoman's work on Tom Smart's philosophical treatise on Jack Chambers' Red and Green. Tom's manuscript for a future Devil's Artisan feature on Tony Calzetta was delivered to Chandra at lunch.

Tom Smart once gave me one of Jack Chambers' glass paint pots, which I treasure as much as the oversized porcupine's quill that Michael Ondaatje brought for me from Sri Lanka.

Stephanie Small

Stephanie Small

Stephanie Small completed her undergraduate studies at Windsor, where she took a practicum course in book publishing from Marty Gervais of Black Moss Press. I first met Marty at a League of Canadian Poets conference at the Empress Hotel in Victoria in the early 1970s. Marty told me that he had tried to do a little publishing, in Windsor, but he was unhappy with the production standards available locally in Essex County. I assured him the Porcupine's Quill could do better, and we did end up doing a lot of printing for Black Moss through the latter part of the 1970s and into the late 1980s. I remember we left the poets' conference in Victoria early on the Monday morning on a Twin Otter out of the harbour bound for Vancouver, and Marty did not fare well on the flight. The Twin Otter was a float plane. The way a pilot persuades a float plane to break the surface tension of water's surface is by rocking it, quite sharply, back and forth. This manoeuver tends to provoke unwelcome side-effects if some passengers have perhaps over-indulged the night before. I also remember that Marty came to visit in Erin Village some weeks later, and there was a bit of shock of recognition when Elke and Marty simultaneously realized that they had met, by chance, before, in somewhat compromising circumstances, on Philosophers' Walk at the University of Toronto. Marty and I later shared any number of adventures on tour with the League of Poets, including one memorable trek to the James Bay Educational Centre in Moosonee on the Polar Bear Express, in February.

Stephanie Small was scheduled to do a three-month unpaid internship with the Porcupine's Quill in the fall of 2012 as part of her Masters degree in Public Texts at Trent under the direction of Zailig Pollock, then Cynthia Good at Humber convinced Stephanie that a more promising career option would be to accept an internship with HarperCollins. Time passed. A number of PQL interns graduated to the Bertelsmann empire, and I had an opening. I remembered Zailig Pollock's glowing recommendation of Stephanie Small. She was skittish, partially because she had already committed to freelance eBook production for HarperCollins, but I prevailed, and Stephanie joined the payroll in January of 2013.

Stephanie knew Tom Smart from a meeting they had attended at the offices of the Ontario Arts Council in the summer, and then Stephanie had helped Tom with the design of his own website. Stephanie also knew Marc Glassman from publicity work she had done with Debby de Groot for Marc's inaugural Pages UnBound Festival + Conference.

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Tom Smart

Tom Smart

Tom Smart had studied at Western with James Reaney, and appeared in minor roles in a few of Jamie's plays, some of which starred David Ferry who first came to theatrical prominence with Keith Turnbull's NDWT Company national tour of Reaney's Donnelly trilogy. It was in London that Tom Smart first encountered the perceptual realism evident in the paintings of Jack Chambers, and also the chaos of the Nihilist Spasm Band that included artists Murray Favro and Greg Curnoe, and set Tom on a career trajectory that has included stops at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, The Frick in Pittsburgh, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection where he was Executive Director from 2006–2010.

While Tom was still at McMichael we were introduced by a mutual friend, and then it turned out that Tom was not only very interested in the poetry of P K Page as well as James Reaney, but was also much taken with the wood engravings of George Walker, Rosemary Kilbourn and Wesley Bates, all of whom appeared in small trade editions published by the Porcupine's Quill. I had an opportunity to show Tom prints of Rosemary Kilbourn's very large format wood engravings on religious themes, and shortly thereafter we started planning a series of Porcupine's Quill / McMichael co-produced wood engraving exhibitions. In the summer of 2010 a change in the composition of the Board of Trustees at McMichael unexpectedly cost Tom Smart his livelihood. The wood engraving exhibitions were summarily cancelled, and replaced by an exhibition curated by the new regime in Kleinburg entitled "Marilyn in Canada" which presented photographs of the American actress wearing bullet bras and snug sweater sets while pretending to golf at the Banff Springs Hotel. Tom Smart disappeared for some time, then I rather boldly offered to buy him dinner in Erin Village in return for an explanation of whatever it was that had happened at McMichael. By the end of dinner we had agreed that Tom would accept a position as contributing editor to the Devil's Artisan in return for a six-figure cut in salary.

Three years later a meeting was arranged at Tony Calzetta's studio on the Danforth above Allen's. Tom was not only smitten with the Fabulous Fictions extravaganza, he also purchased a copy, much to Tony's astonishment, and Tom was also quick to recognize the dramatic possibilities inherent in the work. It was Tom who suggested we contact David Ferry. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing while we established, between us, who it was that knew David Ferry better, though neither of us knew him well, other than by reputation, which is prodigious and includes DORA awards and the Barbara Hamilton award for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

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David Ferry

David Ferry

David Ferry is originally from St John's and was the first Newfoundland graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada. He became involved with James Reaney, Keith Turnbull, Jerry Franken and the NDWT Company in the 1970s and toured the country with a production of Reaney's Donnelly trilogy (1975). The Porcupine's Quill had printed the first edition of Sticks & Stones for Dave Godfrey's Press Porcepic, and that led to a commission to design and print nineteenth-century wood type posters that were used to publicize the Donnelly tour. Shortly thereafter we got involved with a play called Baldoon that Marty Gervais had co-written with James Reaney based on a nineteenth-century poltergeist that had been recorded near Wallaceburg.

As publisher, I was invited to spend a weekend at the schoolhouse Donna & Marty Gervais owned in Coatsworth, to help pick bullrushes with Keith Turnbull, David Ferry and the NDWT Company … to be used as props in a production of Baldoon.

Driving back to Coatsworth from Wallaceburg late on the Saturday night, the cast was stopped by the Ontario Provincial Police. We were instructed to assemble into a file by the side of the road, and then to walk, as much as possible, in a straight line. Much to my surprise, I was singled out of the file as the straightest in the group, and instructed to take the wheel of the VW van. At issue, of course, was the inconvenient circumstance that I didn't actually know how to manage the stick shift on the floor of a VW van, but Jerry Franken sat up front and talked me through the ordeal which was complicated by the flashing lights of the cruiser right behind me.

The next morning, early, several of the cast members let it be known that they needed to be back in Toronto, soonish. It was decided that I was now the company's official "driver", based on my memorable success just a few short hours earlier. We set off, from the schoolhouse in Coatsworth, on an unfamiliar latticework of lines and concessions that led rather quickly to an unexpected ninety degree turn that I saw at the very latest possible moment, and nearly rolled the top-heavy VW van in an ungainly attempt to negotiate the unmarked curve. David Ferry may not remember the incident, but he almost died that Sunday morning, along with the entire cast of the NDWT Company.

Jerry Franken, years later, agreed to ride shotgun on the Erin Stage at a memorable reading given by James Reaney at an Eden Mills Writers' Festival. David Ferry gave a memorable reading himself, from one of Jamie's Performance Poems at the Stratford Public Library the night we launched The Essential James Reaney (November 2009). A couple of years later David Ferry and I attempted to secure funding from the Ontario Media Development Corporation to produce a radio drama based on James Reaney's famous long poem A Suit of Nettles. The application was denied, much to my chagrin, though this does bring to mind another NDWT story that came to a happier resolution.

The Ravening Beasts at Fairy Godfather House

The Ravening Beasts at Fairy Godfather House
Early Draft from Fabulous Fictions.

In 1975, the same year the NDWT Company was touring the Donnelly trilogy, the Porcupine's Quill was awarded a lucrative contract to print and bind fifteen hundred copies of a quarterly published by the Canadian Council of Teachers of English.

I approached the local branch of the Royal Bank, with a view to financing the purchase of a used Sulby AutoMinabinda with a chattel mortgage to expedite production of the increased volume that would be occasioned by the Teachers contract. The application was declined, on the grounds that we had no collateral beyond what the bank had already secured—which was everything Elke and I owned, including her jewellry and my library.

The disappointing news was received on a Friday, as I recall.

On the Sunday of the same weekend (December 14) Elke and I attended the final gala wrap-up performance of the Donnelly national tour which was staged at the Bathurst Street Theatre in Toronto. This was the one occasion on which all three of the Donnelly plays were presented back-to-back-to-back, on the same day. At first intermission, between Sticks & Stones and St Nicholas Hotel, I was interviewed in the lobby by a stringer for CBC Radio about the origin of the wood type we had used in the design of the posters we had printed a year earlier.

Monday morning the manager from the Royal Bank in Erin Village telephoned with the stunning news that he had heard me interviewed on CBC Radio the day before, that the credit application which had been declined on Friday afternoon had already been reviewed, and approved, on the grounds that the bank had not hitherto realized that I was famous.

This was, of course, news to me, as well.

I am tempted to suggest this was the moment that I recognized the power of theatre to change people's lives, but that might be a bit thick.

I did, however, come to realize …

  1. that it is unwise to assume that banking decisions are irreversible, or that such decisions necessarily make sense, either way; and,
  2. one should never, ever, pass up a media opportunity.

* * * *

The company, gathered at Allen's on the Danforth

The company, gathered at Allen's on the Danforth.

Lunch at Allen's ended. David Ferry asked about "next steps", particularly as he is currently on stage at the Royal Alex in a production of The Last Confession starring David Suchet that will be going to Los Angeles and then a five city tour of Australia. The nine of us climbed the two flights of stairs to Tony's attic studio above Allen's. Wine was poured, and the performance began.

To be continued...

 

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.