The House of Anansi, a.k.a. the basement of David and Ellen Godfrey's house on 671 Spadina Avenue in Toronto, struck me as a mixture between an Edwardian mansion and a stage set for Maxim Gorki's The Lower Depths when I first saw it in the summer of 1967. It was, as I picture it today, a jumble of wooden staircases and landings piled high with boxes of books, old suitcases, and scattered sleeping bags. Presiding over the mess was the benign presence of Anansi's co-founder, the poet Dennis Lee, making friendly noises at passers-by through the stem of his pipe.
At the time Lee's friendliest noises were directed at me. Earle Birney, the elder statesman of Can Lit, had given Lee a batch of my poems, some of which had been printed a year before in an anthology edited by Raymond Souster. Lee said that he was prepared to bring my manuscript out as a book.
I was, of course, elated. I had come to Canada eleven years earlier, and had never had a book published in this country or anywhere else before. I can't say, however, even in hindsight, that I felt as if I were participating in literary history. In those days one could hardly walk by the front door of a small publisher without a hand reaching out and grabbing one's manuscript. Small houses had the life-span and significance of mayflies, and I had no sense that Anansi would be different. Had I been aware of the mainstream publisher Jack McClelland's remark-quoted in Doug Fetherling's memoir, Travels by Night-that gave Anansi a prognosis of six months, I might not have disagreed. I would have hoped, though, that it would survive long enough to make me a published poet.
Anansi came into being as a result of a conversation over a glass of beer, or more likely several glasses of beer, between David Godfrey and Dennis Lee, both young writers and academics in the mid-1960s. Lee and Godfrey thought that the established publishing houses in Canada were not adventurous enough: i.e., they seemed reluctant to print their work or the work of their protégés and friends. In having this raison d'être, Anansi probably resembled most "small" or literary presses that were ever founded anywhere in the world.
The first book Anansi published in 1967 was Lee's own Kingdom of Absence. The second was my book, The Absolute Smile. I think the fourth was David Godfrey's collection of short stories, Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola. In between came a re-issue of Margaret Atwood's The Circle Game, which had won the Governor General's Award the year before. It was originally printed in 250 copies by Contact Press, a small literary house founded on much the same principles as Anansi by Raymond Souster, Louis Dudek, and Irving Layton, the avant-garde of the 1950s.
The house of the African spider god Anansi-a verbal memento of Godfrey's years as a teacher in West Africa-inherited the mantle of Contact Press, or at least a sleeve of it. The rest of the garment was divided between several other small houses that flashed across Canada's volatile literary skyscape during the 1960s, with the lion's share going to Coach House Press, set up by Stan Bevington a couple of years before Anansi. By 1966 Contact Press-always a labour of love for Souster and his friends rather than a publisher in any real sense of the word-had run out of steam, as small houses often do when the main reason for their existence is superseded by events, usually meaning that their founders and contributors have become part of the "establishment" themselves. This was how Contact Press's predecessor First Statement Press (which had published Layton's first collection in 1945) had run out of steam at the end of the previous decade. By the time Lee and Godfrey appeared on the scene, Layton had long become a star author of the commercial house of McClelland & Stewart, Dudek was the dean of all English-language poetry in Quebec, while Souster was being published by Ryerson and the Oxford University Press.
Still, while their rites of generational passage may be universal, small houses are by no means equal. They are distinguished by many other factors, including editorial instinct. Publishing, like prospecting, requires a measure of divination and luck. It additionally resembles mining operations in that digging for literature entails shifting tons of dirt for each ounce of precious metal.
Anansi certainly shifted its share of dirt, but it also dug up some nuggets of gold, enough to keep it going through a long period of gradual decline until the late 1980s. The decline had less to do with the quality of its books than with the fact that Anansi, like most literary houses, was a creature of its times.
Anansi was an epitome of the sixties, including the good and the bad, the idealism and the naivety, the liberating iconoclasm and the doctrinaire stupidity, the limitless vistas and the suffocating blind alleys. As the period receded in time, so did Anansi. Its products, on the whole, only improved under Shirley Gibson, James Polk, and Ann Wall, who followed Lee and Godfrey as Anansi's editors and publishers, but while their books may have been better written, printed, and distributed, by the end of the seventies they were no longer publishing events, and by the end of the eighties they no longer mattered. As for the Anansi of the nineties, I plead ignorance.
There were a few years, however, roughly between 1967 and 1972, when the future seemed to belong to Anansi and everything it stood for. The feeling was akin to that brief interlude after the invention of the pill when old taboos seemed suddenly nonsensical. The sexual revolution was in full swing, syphilis was gone, AIDS had not yet appeared, families had nothing of importance to contribute, and there appeared to be no reason for people not to emulate baboons. It elevated doing one's thing from self-indulgence to a moral imperative. Though there was nothing specifically sexual about Anansi-apart from the internal soap opera of some of its editors and contributors-it did, like sex in the sixties, carry the magic of being in tune.
My own feelings were far more ambivalent, not just about Anansi (or sex), but about the entire period. Simply put, it was an age that asked the right questions but, as it seemed to me, invariably came up with the wrong answers. Its preoccupation with enlightenment made it embrace the hebephrenia of drugs, its absorption with love led it to a worship of the libido, its disdain of violence got twisted into an apology for Che Guevara, and its search for social justice made it flirt with some of the most repressive systems in human history from Brezhnev's to Mao's. All in all, it was a culture that did not coincide with either my aesthetics or my temperament-except for one thing.
This one thing was a conviction (or perhaps illusion) I shared with the turbulent sixties that the arts had some significance in human affairs. After the resolute philistinism of the 1950s, it seemed ironic that I could talk about the things that mattered to me only with people I would have disagreed with on most other subjects-ironic, but irresistible. Though the literary influences of the period left me cold, I was happy to publish two more books with Anansi in 1970 and 1973.
Many people involved with the period had a sense that they were at the leading edge of momentous and lasting events: a sense some retain to this day. Is it justified? If, in fifty years, the history of Canadian literature is reconstructed once again, will the House of Anansi and its contemporaries merit more than a footnote? I don't know, but I can recall an anecdote.
I was about twenty when I was uncivil enough to laugh at an illustration in one of my father's books. It depicted a group of Victorians wearing silk cravats and mutton-chop whiskers ca. 1870, standing around an elaborately carved writing desk strewn with manuscripts. The tableau looked like a family of early industrial-age ironmongers and it was entitled "The Vanguard".
"Don't snicker, you abomination," my father said defensively when he heard me laugh. "In their time they were the vanguard."
The scene flashed back in my mind as I was leafing through a rare copy of New Wave Canada, Raymond Souster's 1966 anthology. The book, subtitled The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry, was one of the last volumes published by Contact Press.
Was the New Wave an explosion or a fizzle? I'll leave that to others. Most people in Souster's anthology ended up making a living from the practice of letters, but whether or not they made an impact on the culture, individually or as a group, is open to debate. After thirty-one years the only one whose name would be widely known to Canadian readers (general readers, that is, with no special or professional literary interest) is Michael Ondaatje.
I was a contributor, but luckily no photograph was ever taken of our little "vanguard". The youngest of New Wave's seventeen poets would be fifty-three today. I happened to be the oldest, and I'm sixty-two.
George Jonas is a motorcyclist, columnist, poet, TV and radio producer, true-crime writer, and librettist.