||But Add to the Usual Suspects
by Bruce Meyer
When it began inauspiciously in 1970 as a gestetnered literary supplement to the Graduate English Association Newsletter at the University of Toronto, few would have paid more than passing attention to Descant. The frail little gathering of sheets, a saddle-stitch folio, was nothing to brag about. The poems in the first three issues were the usual pretentious mixture of the banal and unselfconsciously bad. There was no artwork to speak of, and the typeface was that of an old Smith-Corona.
Like the literary magazines of today that are flooded with a continuous stream of submissions, just about everyone who was a writing grad student at the U of T wanted to see their work in the fledgling mag. Just about everyone wrote poetry in the early seventies, and there was no shortage of people who wanted to "get into the scene" for a millisecond or two to claim their little niches and crow and preen or do whatever hipsters did back then when they wanted to announce to all the world that they had literary aspirations.
What made the difference for Descant was the arrival of a genuine editor, Karen Mulhallen, after the third issue. Looking back on the magazines that made it out alive from the early seventies and that have had impact on the Canadian literary landscape (for those who are history buffs, Atwood provides a handy rough guide or time capsule to publications of the period, at the conclusion of her Survival), journals such as Exile, Descant, and Black Moss (which gradually transformed itself into a publishing house), the key ingredient for survival seems to have been good editorship. Mulhallen brought not only perfect binding to the magazine; she brought the sense that the writing in its pages had to be good, if not excellent. That tradition has been maintained. Magazines can be art, and art can be magazines.
I worked as an assistant editor for Descant in the early eighties, as did a number of other writers and critics, such as Rosemary Sullivan, Russell Brown, David Carpenter, and Antanas Sileikas. I was one of the seconders of acceptance for W. P. Kinsella's short story "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa" and prepared Descant's first index, reading through every issue and getting a first-hand idea of how the magazine had grown and changed. It was a thrill at the editorial meetings to discover a new talent and to have a look at the material that was going to be run in the next issues.
Most people who have worked for a literary magazine will confirm that this is the fun part of editing: getting caught up in the energy of the moment, sifting through the mounds of dross just to find those gem authors who keep contributing good work. This is what Mulhallen in her introduction to Paper Guitar calls the "awful freedom about editing...the engagement with someone else's text-flesh, the apparent dispassion of nipping and tucking...like the intimacy of love-making...the most ideal conversation."
For this hefty festschrift volume-which is like some American anthologies such as those produced to honour the New Yorker, Poetry Chicago, or Antaeus-authors such as Atwood, Findley, Manguel, Govier, Skvorecky, and Rooke have written new work.
The presence of these writers here says several things about Descant. First, the writers are loyal to an editor who has supported and encouraged their work, so that they put their craft at the disposal of the editor for a special occasion. Second, the magazine is willing to stand behind those it has supported in the past and maintain a positive and consistent creative relationship. But beneath this mutual admiration society there is more than meets the eye: there is the old malaise of magazines relying on their "stable" of authors-which really should not draw undue criticism. What made Descant a success from its early days was its discovery, encouragement, and promotion of new writers. Alas, there are none to be found in this celebratory gathering.
Perhaps Margaret Atwood says it best in her poem "Owl and Pussycat, Some Years Later" (one of the better pieces of poetry in this collection) when she opens with what (in the context) is a rather ironic comment on the whole anthology: "So here we are again, my dear,/ on the same shore we set out from / years ago, when we were promising..." Even the elegiac tribute offered by the including the work of the poet Elliott Hayes, who was killed in an automobile accident while the volume was in preparation, cannot allay the fact that the Descant represented here is reflecting a national literature now middle-aged and showing signs of greyness, repetition, and solidification; writers who emerged in the sixties and the seventies have little idea of what it is like to live in and be artistically hungry in the nineties. All of the writers in Paper Guitar are established voices. They are far beyond the point in their careers where they need the support and encouragement and forum of a literary magazine. It may be part of the sense of celebration for the editor to say "Look what we have done" and partake of a well-earned pat on the back; but where, oh where, are the new authors? There are a few notable exceptions, but for the past fifteen years or more, Canadian literature has been dominated by one generation of writers; a general indifference has been paid to rising voices.
A case in point is W. P. Kinsella's "Murderous Ways", which borrows its voice from a B movie and demonstrates little of the energy and refraction that I saw when I seconded his amazing short story that went on to become the Field of Dreams. In many ways the aging of Descant and those it sought to promote is grandiloquent-sad in many ways, but like a good wine. And there is some wonderful vintage writing to be found here.
Rosemary Sullivan's coda to her Governor-General's-award-winning biography of Gwendolyn MacEwen (itself probably the best book of its kind written in Canada in the last twenty-five years), "Memory-Making and the Stamina of the Poet", is a superb, enlightened, and passionate piece of belles lettres that illuminates her magnum opus and stands as an intriguing insight into the art of biographical writing and the way a biographer is implicated in the life of a study subject. More than the poetry in this collection, Sullivan's prose captures that depth, that hypnotic cadence which is the hallmark not only of the very best prose but of the best poetry. This piece alone is worth the price of the volume, and should be read and reread.
The tragicomic yet entertaining "You're Not Gay If You Can Whistle" by Alberto Manguel is also worth the price. In this essayish story (and the strength of this anthology is the prose that blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction) about growing up gay in Argentina, Manguel traces the lives of two schoolboys who openly declare themselves at a young age.
The editor attempts an unnecessary critical exegesis in the introduction, especially when there are attempts made to hide behind Aristotle's Poetics in order to make us feel sympathy, or perhaps empathy, for the subject-matter of what we have not yet read in the anthology. Supporting authors over the long haul, encouraging them, publishing them is wonderful; but rolling up the sleeves and challenging the reader to feel certain things (which often aren't felt at all when the piece is read) doesn't do the authors any good. Editors should know when to lay off. If something is selected, then let it speak for itself. Don't tell the readers what they feel in advance. It is distracting. It is annoying. It is un-editorial.
This tendency to defend by contextualizing the contemporary within the broader spectrum of literature through casual references to classical texts is what is most worrisome about Paper Guitar. Here we see the first phases of monumental marbleization setting in, the cultural atrophy that so often spoils so much cultural energy in this country. No matter how grand a magazine becomes it should always, even in twenty-fifth anniversary anthologies, be in constant contact with its origins, its first principles, not just its usual suspects. Publish good work. Publish new work. Publish new authors. Surprise and delight more than merely entertain. Take risks. Kick open the doors for the comers. There is much that is good about this anthology and much that is good about Descant. One hopes that the energy, the newness that gave it birth, life, and longevity will not be forgotten before 2020.