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Line Breaks - West Coast Line, Past and Present
by Andrew Klobucar

Back in the summer of 1981, Toronto writer Eli Mandel was invited by several young West Coast colleagues for an evening of literary discussion and authentic West Coast Asian cuisine in Vancouver's Chinatown. Mandel was in the city courtesy of Simon Fraser University, as a guest lecturer from the "other Canada" to participate in a special program on BC writing, "The Coast is Only a Line". The program featured a special, cross-regional conference on contemporary West Coast writing, with poets like Daphne Marlatt, bill bissett, and Phyllis Webb presenting their work to other invited writers from around the country, including bp nichol, P.K. Page, and Robert Kroetsch. Mandel had long appreciated the remarkable diversity within different Canadian literary communities and fully welcomed the opportunity to work with one of the largest scenes outside of Toronto. His company that summer evening included poets and critics Roy Miki, Warren Tallman, Gerry Gilbert, George Bowering, and Lionel Kearns, a few students, and Gerri Sinclair. As Mandel periodically discovered, debates concerning regional differences in Canadian culture rarely confined themselves to the university setting, and that night at the popular Japanese restaurant, the Kamo, was no exception. Mandel was no stranger to BC's distinctness-its cool, wet climate, diverse languages, and cultural history; yet, faced with the Kamo's unusually exotic menu, Mandel found even he simply could not order dinner and so politely refused to sample any food. Apparently, there would always be limits to the promises of cultural exchange.

Mandel's wariness of Japanese cuisine likely only confirmed for many of BC's conference participants that cross-regional encounters between writing communities were necessary if West Coast work was not to be isolated or ignored by the larger, more established literary networks of Ontario and Quebec. Toronto had long signified to Vancouver the hegemonic centre of Canadian writing, with its strong professional connections to the publishing hubs of New York and New England. Yet, in the post-war period, Vancouver had seen its own share of literary movements develop and mature, creating, by the 1980s, a vibrant tangle of new art and writing practices. BC writing had come a long way from the frontier-based themes and references that had dominated it in the first half of the twentieth century; poetry, much like BC's once railway-dependent economy, no longer centred on the "last spike" as the significant historical trope.

Miki considered an evening of good Japanese cuisine a fitting way to cap the semester. In fact, Mandel's discomfort with the menu revealed just how localized Japanese food was in Canada at that time; Toronto's cosmopolitan downtown had yet to experience its passion for expensive sushi restaurants. Miki himself was less surprised at Mandel's unfamiliarity with the food than he was with his unwillingness to sample it; yet, he interpreted such innocence as another sign of how cultural differences not only separated writers from different parts of the country, but ruined their dinner parties. What the Kamo dining experience said about the connection between Toronto and Vancouver could be summarized in Oscar Wilde's witticism about Britain's relationship with America a century ago: two countries separated by a common language.

In fact, it was San Francisco, just a day's drive south, that was Vancouver's closest cousin in the arts. As early as 1959, prominent poets working out of both the Beat movement and the Berkeley Renaissance began making brisk trips north to work (drink) and engage (drink) with Vancouver writers. In the early 1960s, thanks to Warren Tallman's energetic promptings, Robert Duncan pursued annual appearances in Vancouver as an ambassador for the "New American Poetry", as defined by Don Allen's then-recent anthology. In 1963, Tallman, along with Duncan, invited other poets, like Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg, for an important series of panels on poetry, epistemology, and writing theory. Two years later, Jack Spicer joined Tallman at his house for a set of lectures and interviews on his own work (see Jack Spicer's The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, published by Wesleyan University Press in 1998).

After San Francisco, Vancouver was arguably the primary port of call for West Coast experimental writers, especially those associated with the Allen anthology. The local scene most strongly allied with these visitors from San Francisco collected themselves under the rubric Tish. After listening to Duncan in the early 1960s acclaim the importance of "little magazines" in new poetry movements, Vancouver writers like George Bowering and Jamie Reid, along with several writers from the BC interior, were inspired to begin their own. Tish helped organize the Vancouver writing scene as a new site of literary production, and the group quickly established itself as the West Coast locus of "avant-garde" writing. Operating foremost as an immediate record of new Vancouver writing, the periodical also strongly identified with the American literary tradition of the small, independent poetry "zine", celebrated by Duncan. Here again, the New American Poetry provided Vancouver with its precedent for literary activity. Cid Corman's Origin and Black Mountain Literary Review, as well as Leroi Jones and Diane Diprima's The Floating Bean supplied important models for Tish's format and the type of work it would eventually feature.

In its content, Tish recalled not only the importance of independent publishing within the avant-garde in general, but also the usefulness of small serials or periodicals to local writing movements striving to communicate their ideas to a wider audience. In Duncan's view, the growth and development of new art movements and communities over the last half century derived strongly from the corresponding proliferation of independent publishing networks. The key to community, for Duncan, was communication. "To write at all," Duncan suggested in "Rites of Participation", "is to dwell in the illusion of language, the rapture of communication that comes as we surrender our troubled individual isolated experiences to the communal consciousness." This appeal to the communal informs much of Duncan's poetry: not only did he invoke a type of community spirit in his topics and poetic vision, but the words he used had a life of their own, briskly engaging the reader on a variety of levels simultaneously. Tish, for the most part, accepted this dynamic view of language, seeing in Duncan's work the possibility of defining a community through poetics. The West Coast, the editors believed, because of its distance from most major publishing centres, required an especially well-developed small press network. Tish, accordingly, proved to be a calculated move by Vancouver writers to re-introduce local literary activity to San Francisco as well as to the rest of Canada. Its writers wrote not to express isolation, but to end it.

Tish endured for eight years, publishing forty-five monthly poetry newsletters and a large number of books and chapbooks. For many local writers, especially those of a more experimental and alternative slant, Tish had been the most significant literary journal to support their work across the country. When it ceased publication, only a few university serials, such as Victoria's Prism and SFU's West Coast Review, were left to advocate writings originating in BC, and these journals sought few readers outside the boundaries of campus life. Indeed, given its cultural development, by the 1980s, the Lower Mainland seemed in some ways more isolated than before Confederation.

The conference, "The Coast is only a Line", focused on a need for more interaction between the different areas of Canada and their respective literary movements. "The Coast", the conference held, was to be considered "only a line". In other words, rather than a geographical border of unsurpassable mountains and strange climate zones, the Pacific West delineated an alternate typography or "edition" of Canadian culture-a line of communication, not isolation. The dominant themes of connecting or redrawing lines of Canadian culture eventually culminated in the journal, Line, conceived by conference hosts as an ideal method for continuing their cultural discussions long after the conference had ended.

Line was also a response to the growing sense of economic uncertainty and political crisis felt throughout the province of British Columbia. For North Americans, the 1980s inaugurated one of the most serious economic recessions since the 1930s. British Columbia, with its heavily resource-based economy, was hit particularly hard. By 1983, the year Line debuted, BC unemployment topped eleven per cent, its highest rate in five years. Markets everywhere across the province appeared to be in decline, including all foreign calls for wood and pulp. It is no coincidence that the literary history Line invoked with its debut issue represented primarily the more revisionary, vanguard modernisms of the early twentieth century, for they too evolved during a period of political and economic crisis. Many of the themes and formal linguistic experiments in the writings of Pound, Stein, Williams, and Zukofsky attested to the severe social disjunctions felt throughout America and Europe between the world wars. In connecting itself to this particular strain of modernist writing, Line was consciously situating itself within a larger genealogy of cultural revisionism and reformist thinking. Ruptures in social growth and economic logic had, for these earlier writers, inspired a corresponding interest in artistic experiment; a "make it new" outlook on culture permeated their writing. Similarly, Line sought to establish fresh directions in poetry and prose. As Tish had demonstrated, there was no shortage of experimental approaches to writing in Vancouver. What was lacking was a formal publishing venue able to represent and distribute these approaches to the rest of the country.

The editors and writers associated with Line were not the only ones responding to the economic recession of the 1980s. They had to contend with the more extreme conservatisms developing in response to these economic and political anxieties. The highly conservative Social Credit party, then in power, wasted no time in identifying itself as the official Canadian branch of the Reagan/Thatcher axis. Upon their re-election in May 1983, the provincial Socreds initiated a series of deep and pervasive cuts to government services. The central campaign, known as "Restraint", was an effort to trim in order to eliminate what the party considered to be "unnecessary government". The BC legislature subsequently demanded new restrictions on expenditure, including the arts and education. "Restraint" and discipline, the Socreds reasoned, constituted the only course of action that could help regulate such a dangerously unstable economy.

Given the increasingly unsympathetic political environment in which most teachers, artists, and writers found themselves, the need for better representation across Canada became more apparent. Isolation from other Canadian intellectuals would only deepen and solidify the political and cultural crisis in their province. If ever a literary or cultural line was needed between the disparate centres of the country, this was an important time for it to originate in BC. Surrounded by coastal mountains to the east and the wide Pacific to the west, the most common access route was from the south. This geographical position partly explains why San Francisco was traditionally the most important locus for the Vancouver writing community. Long after Tallman's own organized readings and literary events, writers from San Francisco continued to visit and move to Vancouver. Robin Blaser, Stan Persky, and George Stanley made Vancouver their home between the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the 1980s, however, Vancouver's literary history seemed more than ever in need of renewed lines of communication.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the literary lines propounded at the SFU conference and the subsequent journal that emerged from it contained few geographical determinants. Line boasted of no unique typography, other than its determined focus on local or BC writing. Aesthetically, though, the lines followed a more distinct literary genealogy. The first issue defined itself exclusively "as a journal of the contemporary literature collection... related to the line of post-1945 Canadian, American, and British writers whose work issues from, or extends, the work of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, HD, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Olson." Indeed, few genealogies appear as definite as Line's mostly American, modernist/objectivist roots. Yet, by carefully defining its aesthetic mould, Line hoped to facilitate a strong cross-regional audience, one that might waive the limits of geography for a common interest in poetics: the continuity sought by Line centred upon linguistic and aesthetic issues rather than those of place.

Line's chief editor was Roy Miki, who worked closely with a collective made up of prominent Vancouver writers, including poets George Bowering and Robin Blaser, critics Stephen Scobie and Peter Quartermain, and Eli Mandel. In some ways, few literary journals could claim a direction and motive as continuous as the poetics Line suggested. With its literary genealogy so firmly established, both the journal's audience and contributors were, for the most part, culturally predetermined. Those interested in either the New American Poetics or the revisionary modernisms of the interwar period were certain to be stimulated by the work between the covers of Line.

However, as Miki would learn, such a strongly defined aesthetics was, in fact, a mixed blessing. Miki and the editorial collective fervently culled poetry and criticism from the Vancouver area; yet the poetics they featured tended to overshadow what local characteristics may have been present. Line quickly acquired the type of readership its editorial vision explicitly encouraged inside the first issue. To be interested in new examples of revisionary modernism did not necessarily imply any corresponding concern over where such writings originated. This lack of geographical sensibility partly explains the shifts in editorial policy that occurred when Line evolved, six years after its debut, into its next incarnation, West Coast Line (1990 to present).

If it is possible to determine a single originary moment or event behind the formation of West Coast Line, the folding of West Coast Review, SFU's other journal, serves as well as any. Ceasing publication after a run of over two decades, West Coast Review (1966-88) indirectly provided Miki with a unique opportunity to expand and refurbish his own Line, using resources made freshly available through the older periodical. This opportunity also inspired Miki to re-think the journal's aesthetics. Miki had long wanted to edit a more representative, and hence diversified, journal of West Coast culture. Now, he was free to do so.

Gone were the simple, monochromatic covers made of thick, heavy bond paper. Line's modernist poetics had easily carried over into the design of the journal. Each cover bore the journal title in the top left corner, just above a centred reproduction of a scripted poem by one of that issue's featured writers. The effect suggested a trim classicism, again recalling Line's identification with early twentieth-century revisionary modernism. Placed on your bookshelf, the journal fit in well next to anything published under James Laughlin's New Directions imprint. Inside, the layout had been consistent with the cover design, offering a slick, highly unified typography with almost no bold or italicized variations. Titles and stresses appeared underlined, keeping with the early twentieth-century feel of the journal.

West Coast Line, by contrast, displayed a veritable explosion in colour and typography. Each cover featured the work of a local Vancouver artist, underlining the distinctness of the individual issues. The title depicted the word "West Coast" in a colourful, dynamic script, partly suggesting the movement of the Pacific waves against the shoreline. Content-wise, the journal offered an equal focus on the visual and literary arts of Vancouver. Even the choice of paper was brighter than that used by its predecessor, displaying an intense semi-gloss, suitable for even the most complicated, image-laden designs. West Coast Line evoked a completely fresh look at Vancouver's art and writing communities in the 1990s, loudly and candidly emphasizing the city's increased diversity.

The shift from Line to West Coast Line signified more than an increased budget. The new title offered Miki a chance to re-conceptualize much of its poetics. Moving steadily away from the distinct revisionary modernist lineage that informed Line, WCL focused more on Vancouver (and Canada) as an actual place, a distinct locus, where Line sought a more literary relationship with both its readers and its writers. The new journal took its inspiration from the diversity in culture and ethnic identity informing much of the country's more innovative writings. In this sense, the debut of WCL marks the growing importance of identity politics within avant-garde art. When Line began a decade earlier, Vancouver art and writing scenes certainly reflected the city's impressive cultural pluralism; yet the explicit exploration of such themes within the works themselves rarely occurred. It wasn't really a part of the Vancouver avant-garde's aesthetic or cultural agenda to explore issues of race or ethnic identity and this is, perhaps, one of the more significant legacies of the Tish group. Line's open embrace of American writers was likely radical enough in a country forever coming to terms with its dual colonial heritages.

Line was bold in the sense that it critically questioned all forms of nationalism, even Canada's, which defended itself as a drive for emancipation from the ever-pervasive influence of the US. In Ontario and Quebec, especially, value in Canadian literature has traditionally been measured in terms of how well or creatively a work distinguishes itself from any colonial influences. For Quebec, of course, this discourse targeted the English language in general. In the rest of post-war Canada, emancipation primarily meant less American influence over all national policies. Both Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (1972) and Dennis Lee's "Cadence, Country and Silence" (1973) reflect the type of anxiety and frustration Canadian writers commonly felt about the spread of US culture. Lee writes: "Canadians were by definition people who looked over the fence and through the windows at America, unselfconsciously learning from its movies, comics, magazines and TV shows how to go about being alive". In Lee's view, the need for a literature that was mindful of Canada's own history and intellectual traditions, those, in his words, "of the classical Euro-American loyalist" tradition, had only increased over the post-war period. To follow, then, as Line had done, a distinctly American lineage of modernism constituted a fairly radical move in Canadian letters at the time. Line's promotion of poets like Williams, Pound, and Olson risked more than peer criticism; it courted cultural abandonment.

For Miki and Line's immediate Vancouver audience, the strength of the poetics, American or otherwise, was of greater concern than any anxieties over national culture, especially when the locus of these frustrations seemed to stem exclusively from central Canada. Lee's essay makes distinct references to "Upper Canadians" when making its points, but no mention of the West. Miki was thus wary of uncritically adopting any type of openly national attitude towards American and Canadian culture, especially when such stances seemed confined to work being produced east of Manitoba. The West's absence from most post-war debates on Canadian-American cultural relations was, in fact, a chief inspiration behind the original conference.

Without wishing to evoke a type of aesthetic transcendence over specific political issues, Miki remained convinced that national boundaries rarely represented the emancipatory interests of a culture or community. Line's passage into West Coast Line sought to express this important disjunction between national and community identities even more boldly, yet without constructing any type of fixed political program for the arts. Far too few Canadian communities, WCL reasoned, would be served by the formation of general cultural categories or mandates that attempted to decide what exactly constituted a Canadian art. For Miki, the distinctness of Vancouver writing and art needed little categorical validation. WCL was not interested in defining a Vancouver "cadence"; rather, possessed of its own ethnic makeup, its particular historical movements, the West Coast offered a poetics that was neither "Canadian" nor American modernist. The new journal subsequently claimed a new aesthetic position, derived in part from its immediate context and history.

Throughout its first ten years, the journal has demonstrated how radically engaged cultural politics and the idea of the avant-garde have evolved across the country. In some ways, the very suggestion of a Canada-wide position on any issue, especially the arts, seems highly outdated, and yet only ten years ago, localized concepts of community-oriented art were rarely invoked.

Last year, Miki formally stepped down as chief editor. The last issue he personally worked on (numbers 26-27: "Here and There Between South Asias") highlighted some of the interesting South Asian work being done both in Canada and abroad. In his capacity as editor, and as a Japanese Canadian himself, Miki has helped guide the fairly recent emergence of Asian-Canadian culture into national discourses. Focusing on the important ethnic, class, and political components that have always enframed Canadian writing, Miki promoted the development of a variety of new discourses within the arts. Similar shifts in aesthetics have occurred all over the country, especially within the last decade, giving WCL an unprecedented relevance within Canadian politics and society. When experiments in Canadian writing have become identity-driven, whether this tendency stemmed from post-colonial writing or more explicit identity politics, the cultural direction of the avant-garde also shifted. No longer confined to a struggle for Canadian autonomy from the behemoth to the south, an alternate emancipatory politics began to evolve in nearly every province and state.

BC's cultural development over the last thirty years reflects this shift in politics and identity. In fact, the province's geographical and cultural distance from central Canada has always tended to signify the potential difficulty in defining a unified national politics. Intepreted in this context, West Coast Line stands revealed as an important literary development within a much larger cultural transition in progressive Canadian art and writing. Its focus on local communities, in all of their ethnic diversity, presents an intriguing mapping of the Canadian avant-garde in general, illustrating one of its more significant movements from national to regional themes. Similarly, the latest editorial changes in the journal likely represent yet another moment in Canadian art and politics, another line break. Though the shift may not at this time signify or stand out as a bona fide movement, it is nevertheless consistent with all avant-garde art in that it represents a need for cultural change. It is a work, in other words, in constant progress. 

Andrew Klobucar currently works as a writer and editor in San Francisco. He holds a doctorate from UBC in Postmodern American Poetry, and is a member of the Kootenay School of Writing, where he has also taught and performed. He recently joined the editorial collective of the new West Coast Line. His publications include Writing Class (New Star Books), an anthology of Kootenay School of Writing poets, co-edited with Michael Barnholden, a recent essay in The Recovery of the Public World (Talon Books), and numerous articles for such magazines as Boo, Philly Talks, and Sulfur.


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