In/Words: A Personal Memoir
This month, Ottawa’s rob mclennan wrote a wonderful article about a magazine & press close to my heart called In/Words. During my tenure as an editor there (2005-2010) I witnessed many brilliant writers pass through its pages as contributors and editorial staff: Bardia Sinaee, Justin Million, Cameron Anstee, David Emery, Rachael Simpson, Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Leah Mol, Ben Ladouceur, Jesslyn Delia Smith, Jeff Blackman, Dave Currie, Amanda Besserer, Joshua Nadeau and Jenna Jarvis are all worth googling. The Conduit blog has discussed Jesslyn, Bardia and Justin but we haven’t done a retrospective on the entire In/Words community yet. The following is a strictly personal account of the literary activity that rob’s article outlines. Here are the aspects, moments and events that occurred around In/Words that I remember fondly: the types of things (I hope) are characteristic of literary collectives but seem special in this case, perhaps because they happened relatively quickly in a small, somewhat isolated literary community.
Firstly, it’s difficult to describe the exact nature of In/Words. When I joined the editorial board, they were a sporadically-published poetry magazine revolving around the only permanent facet in the organization, Dr. Collett Tracey. I was involved in the organization in different capacities from volumes 5-10. During my regime there I saw 4 brother/sister publications start & 3 of them fold: Moose & Pussy, a journal of erotic arts and literature; Vagina Dentata, a feminist creative journal; Blank Page, a poetry magazine focused on 1st year university; Mot Dit, a French-language arts mag (which I believe is still in operation.) We also had a small chapbook press sometimes publishing 200-copy runs of 17 different books per year alongside 4 issues of the flagship mag. We had a monthly reading series based out of the Avant-Garde bar, then the Legion on Kent St. and currently at the Clocktower Bar on Bank. There were weekly writing circles conducted out of the English department at Carleton University and other shady activities having to do with their ancient, terrifying, risograph machine, which gave birth to other presses–operated by the same people–with the purpose of avoiding being technically connected with In/Words… I suppose at the time we all had a pretty clear definition of what In/Words was, but in retrospect it was too big, too sprawling and dissociated to even describe. My favourite tag for In/Words was one Jeff Blackman and I came up with: an ‘eclectic collective’ of writers and artists. This is still probably the easiest way to describe it. As rob pointed out, Cameron Anstee‘s Apt. 9 Press is in many ways a continuation of the frenzy of activity during 2005-2011, and most of the writers mentioned here have also published with Anstee after they retired from In/Words.
From a production standpoint, some of the credit should go to certain individuals at Carleton University’s Graphic Services. It was there that most of the In/Words editors received a provisional education in publishing and design watching some poor printer-jockey (usually a gruff French Canadian named Ron) fix the mistakes we made in Photoshop at no extra cost.
I had a peculiar relationship with the GS operations manager Bob Tippins. As a student-run organization it was pretty common that we didn’t have enough cash to cover a print job. As such, Bob and I would have a meeting, he would work his interdepartmental financial magic and somehow ink would meet paper. I was usually the one he met with and during the years when my activity with In/Words diminished I would still introduce the new editors to him. During this period Bob would graciously welcome these people and in the first couple years ask them “where’s Eeyore?” Naturally Bob was referring to me and my demeanor when I’d meander into his office basically asking for free or discounted printing services. I guess Bob never realized how generative our relationship was, since in 2010 I had a short collection of poems published called ‘Eating Thistles‘ through Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press. The title itself came from a short lyric poem called “Eeyore song,” something written partly in reverence to my friendship with Bob, and certainly in the spirit of small press publishing:
though I am a donkey
there is mule inside of me
when I lose my tail
my sawdust body trails behind
laced with gore
from eating thistles
on my birthday I cry
pray while I shit,
try to keep my circulation
hide my pink bow,
in my outfit
One of the most validating episodes at In/Words for me occurred when some of us were solicited for publication in a “Canadian” issue of an online poetry magazine Sugar Mule and subsequently published in a print anthology called Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry (2010, ed. Susan McMaster.) This publication is probably the first external recognition of the In/Words group, and it was exhilarating to be in print, all in one place. The anthology, published by Sudbury’s Your Scrivener Press included Rachael Simpson, myself, Ben Ladouceur, Cameron Anstee and Jeremy Hanson-Finger alongside Canadian writers we all admire such as Margaret Atwood, Lorna Crozier, Don Mckay, Erín Moure and Monty Reid. This, along with numerous publications from Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press are what formed a strong collective identity within the In/Words crew outside of our initial small magazine work. In fact, Ben Ladouceur has described the print anthology as our ‘yearbook,’ determined to collect every single author’s signatures in the table of contents.
My favourite poem from this natal period is one by Rachael Simpson that was published in Sugar Mule: the Canadian Issue. It has everything a good poem should: wit, elegance, and it’s about me:
I like you
the way you are now,
head in a garbage bag
puking your guts out.
I will still like you,
it’s a thing we all do—
we show our insides to each other
when we’re not ready.
Rachael’s work has been reviewed by rob mclennan here. This poem reverberates with how Jesslyn Delia Smith spoke about In/Words in mclennan’s article: “at the risk of sounding a bit gushy, they were (and continue to be) a small family pushing each other further all the time.” It is also incredibly unique and accessible at the same time. I don’t have enough positive, supportive things to say about Rachael’s writing, and her chapbook from Anstee’s Apt. 9 press is a terrific example of her voice at its very best.
Another watershed moment for In/Words writers was a semi-impromptu wedding ceremony between two founders of the press’ erotic lit mag The Moose & Pussy Jeff Blackman and Kate Maxfield. This occurred in my back yard. For this occasion, Cameron Anstee, Ben Ladouceur and I formed an acoustic covers band as entertainment. Every preceding Sunday for a month-and-a-half Ben and I rehearsed in my apartment, arranging songs with percussion, guitar, harp, organ and egg shaker. Half the guests were either a former editor or contributor to In/Words. Anstee’s current fiance (Jenn Huzera) even caught the bouquet. The photograph of the wedding party (below) is truly the closest we ever came to an official staff photo, and probably the closest we’ll come to a reunion in a few years. Jeff wrote this poem during that period:
You bathe while I wash
the roof of the shower slopes
so you must bow to condition
I give you the hot and use a lot of soap
I reach in the sink and grasp a knife
I heated the oven and the door fell off
I reached for a trivet and its hook came loose
I put the cream in on its side and it poured into the deli keeper and ruined the roast beef and the head cheese I bought by accident
the water shuts off
the dishes krang in the basin
now you are in the house
but I don’t know where
last night you said to walk ahead
I place faith in objects
they are where I left them
you said you would catch up
I find you still in the bathroom
elbow your arm, you flash your chin
our eyes wed in the mirror
Watching two editors marry brought a sense of wholeness and resolution to a furtive, fertile epoch of In/Words. Most of the senior editors retired the following year.
Since then, many In/Words writers have relocated from Ottawa to Toronto. Currently the group is split between the two cities, with Ben Ladouceur, Bardia Sinaee, Rotem Yaniv, Jeremy Hanson-Finger and eventually Leah Mol residing in Toronto and Anstee, Justin Million, Dave Currie, Rachael Simpson, Jesslyn Delia Smith and Jeff Blackman still living in Ottawa. Ben’s work was featured in the last issue of Jeremy’s Dragnet Mag, and has been nominated for a Prism Poetry Prize. Jeff and I had a collaborative poem published in a small magazine recently (alongside work from rob mclennan) and Blackman has a chapbook forthcoming from Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press.
There are too many stories about the staff at In/Words to include in one article. For example: the nude calendar that was in the works for years, utilizing famous Canadian books with titles that qualified as euphemisms–Hugh’s Barometer Rising; Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush; Crozier’s Sex Lives of Vegetables; Souster’s As Is; Engel’s Bear. This may sound glamorous but there are probably reasons beyond poor organization that prevented its publication. In/Words itself is still operating a reading series, chapbook press and magazine. It has been rebooted once again with a fresh editorial team including Jenna Jarvis, whom I can vouch for. Their latest issue can be read here.