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Presses

Contact Press (1952-67)Montreal and Toronto

Raymond Souster, Irving Layton & Louis Dudek (joined later by Peter Miller
[w/ Victor Coleman ex officio circa 1964] ).

Raymond Souster edited and produced 10 issues of the mimeo magazine Direction
between 1943 and 1946. This was followed by the short-lived Enterprise (1948) and,
after a hiatus, Contact (1952-1954) with editorial contributions from Louis Dudek and
Cid Corman, editor of the important Origin magazine. Once Contact Press began to
actively publish writers other than its three editors Souster began to publish Combustion
(14 issues between 1957 and 1960), the final issue of which was issued as Island
Six/Combustion 15 by Victor Coleman's Island Press in 1966.

In Contact Press's first promotional announcement Souster described the press as
'a non-profit organization formed...to take the place now largely abandoned by the larger
commercial book houses-[for] the publication and encouragement of poetry in Canada.'

BRUCE WHITEMAN. Contact in Context: The Press and Its Times
West Coast Line 25.2 (#5) Fall 1991 On 16 January, 1952, when the first issue of
Raymond Souster's new little mimeographed magazine Contact reached him in Montreal,
Louis Dudek sat down to write a letter to his Toronto colleague. "Hoo-RAY!" it opened,
The contact has arrived. Those good old days -- Direction & First Statement days are
almost back again. Old Sutherland may get a whiff now of how it felt then. By god,
what a baggy-pants beer-drinking bohemian bastard he was then, and what a
sluggard he is now.


Direction was the mimeoed magazine that Souster edited for 10 issues from 1943-46,
and First Statement was the important little magazine (mimeoed for a year and
subsequently typeset) published in Montreal and edited by"old Sutherland,"
as Dudek called him. John Sutherland was a critic, writer, editor, and publisher.
In 1945 First Statement merged with another Montreal magazine, Preview,
to form Northern Review, which was still active in 1952 when Contact
first appeared. In this brief passage quoted, Dudek has managed, first, to trace
the genealogy of Contact (and of Contact Press, as will be seen); and, second,
to pinpoint an essential element of its etiology in John Sutherland's transformation
from a "bastard" into a "sluggard," as Dudek put it.

In this same letter to Souster, after suggesting that Souster send a copy of Contact to
William Carlos Williams, Dudek noted that Williams and Robert McAlmon had also
published a magazine called Contact, a fact which Souster presumably already knew.
Williams and McAlmon had emphasized contact with real experience as the only basis for
authentic writing; as Williams put it in the third issue of the first series of the magazine in 1921:

It is difficult, apparently, to make clear that in stating contact with experience, as
evidenced in a man's work, to be the essential quality in literature, we do not mean
to state and have never stated that Contact is literature. Neither have we stated nor
implied that
Contact ensures everything written under its influence to be literature.
We have definitely declined to start a school; and must we repeat, how many times?
our refusal to be responsible for teaching anyone how to write.

We have simply and as frequently as possible and with as many apt illustrations as
we could muster that contact with experience is essential to good writing or, let us
say, literature. We have said this is the conviction that contact always implies a local
definition of effort with a consequent taking on of certain colours from the locality
by the experience, and these colours or sensual values of whatever sort are the only
realities in writing or, as may be said, the essential quality in literature.


Souster and Dudek, as well as Irving Layton, the third partner in the as yet unborn Contact
Press, were also devoted to a kind of poetry that would communicate real experiences in a
direct way. But it is clear from Souster's correspondence at this time that"contact" meant
equally contact among poets, and this emphasis not only arose from Souster's own sense
of isolation, but also explains in part the magazine's international character. It was meant to
put like-minded poets in touch with each other's work, whether they lived in Canada,
the United States, or elsewhere (the elsewhere represented in the magazine by
translations).

Dudek's casual linking of Contact to the mimeographed magazines of the 40s points up an
important element of the context within which the press came to be and to find its centre.
Layton, Dudek, and Souster all came of age poetically in the 40s. In 1945 Layton was 33,
Dudek 27, and Souster 24; all of them published their first books then: Layton's Here and
Now
in 1945, Dudek's East of the City in 1946, and Souster's When We Are Young
also in 1946. Two of the three books -- Souster's and Layton's -- were issued by John
Sutherland's First Statement Press, and Dudek and Layton were closely associated with
both the press and with First Statement magazine. Souster was less closely involved with
the Montreal group because of his active service in the war and because he was a
Torontonian; but the closeness of his poetic sympathies with the aesthetics of First
Statement
is obvious. In a letter from Dudek to Souster written when Souster's Selected
Poems was in press with Contact Press early in 1956, Dudek wrote:

[Your poetry] will be seen and recognized: as we have recognized it in secret (I
know I have) since"The Hunter" came to Stanley Street [where John Sutherland
lived], and sitting in a horsehair chair (the horsehair coming out of it) we gazed at
that miracle.
(22 January 1956)

This brings us back to Dudek's naughty description of John Sutherland as a bohemian
turned sluggard and the importance of that evolution -- a rather more complex one than
Dudek's thumbnail sketch indicates of course -- for the founding of Contact and Contact
Press. Sutherland's enthusiasms in the 40s, which were bohemian (certainly), leftish, and
devoted to a modernist approach to poetry in the Williams tradition of realistic and
experimental verse, gradually changed through the late 40s and early 50s into a stated
preference for more traditional poetry. This change has something to do with extraliterary
considerations, including Sutherland's religious views -- he converted to Catholicism in
1954 -- and no doubt also his declining health. Sutherland's change of heart was recorded
in his well-known essay"The Last Decade in Canadian Poetry," published in Northern
Review
in 1950. In 1953, more in sorrow than in anger, Souster quoted Dudek
Sutherland's policy for Northern Review as it was given in a "little magazine quarterly"
entitled Galley:

We have no exclusive policy, but the editors look towards the revivification of
traditional values and forms. They believe that the context of literature is moral;
that its function is a life-giving one; and that its tie with religion should be obvious.


"What's got into John?" complained Souster,"Is he trying to out-eliot Eliot?" (24 March
1953).
Sutherland's lack of sympathy for an adventurous kind of poetry coincided with the demise
of Contemporary Verse in 1952 to leave little in the way of outlets in which Souster,
Layton, Dudek, and others could publish; and book publication was no easier. Poetry then
as now sold poorly in Canada, and publishers took on very little of it. Macmillan of
Canada, for example, published only eight books of poetry between 1950 and 1960, of
which three were by E.J. Pratt and one was the anthology The Blasted Pine. McClelland
and Stewart limited its poetry list pretty much to the Indian File Series, which Roy
Daniells's Deeper Into the Forest inaugurated in 1948 and which ended ten years -- and
nine books -- later with John Glassco's The Deficit Made Flesh. Ryerson Press was the
most active of the three largest publishers with respect to poetry, but Lorne Pierce was
ever conscious of the balance sheet, the Ryerson Chapbook Series was beginning to slow
down, and larger manuscripts were limited to one or two per year. One gets a keen sense
of the difficulties from the poets' point of view from an outburst in a letter written by Dudek
to Souster during the months that led up to the publication of the first Contact Press book:

Yes, goddamit, let's get ourselves out a book of our own, the three of us, and piss on
the presses. The poet has to publish his own work henceforth, if he wants to print
what he wrote, and if he wants to print more than 12 pages in SIX YEARS. [...] The
whole system stinks, when 100000000 advertisements get mass distribution and a
few poems get 250 copies on toilet paper.
(11 February 1952)

It is not surprising then that Souster described Contact Press, in its first flyer, as"a non-
profit organization formed this year to take the place now largely abandoned by the larger
commercial book houses -- the publication and encouragement of poetry in Canada." The
consanguinity of Contact Press and Contact is not as intimate as one might suppose from
the name. The idea for a three-headed book was first raised in correspondence in early
February, 1952; Souster seems to have sent his section of the book to Dudek on the 18th,
and by early April the book -- now called Cerberus after the three-headed dog of Greek
mythology -- was in press with Real Lucas, the printer of Northern Review (Souster to
Irving Layton, 17 February 1952 and 9 April 1952). It was in a letter of March 18, 1952,
that Dudek raised the issue of a name for the press and suggested Contact Books,
Contact Press, and Contact Publishing Company. Souster, independently, had written to
Layton three days earlier and said:"Have an idea -- if you want to tie the thing in with the
work we' re trying to do in CONTACT why not say the book is published from
CONTACT PRESS?" (15 March 1952). And a week later he added:

Glad the both of you were thinking along the same lines as I was about using the
name CONTACT PRESS or CONTACT BOOKS. I think it all ties in with what we' re
trying to do in the mag -- establish contact with one another in Canada and the U.S.
(22 March 1952)

As casually as that was Contact Press born, and Dudek's sense at the time of how it
would run was in large part accurate, at least until the end of the decade:
Contact Press (we [Layton and Dudek] think) should be considered [...] as entirely
separate from Contact mag. The editors of Contact Press are Souster, Layton,
Dudek. The business will vary, and accounts must be carefully kept for different
publications. Some will be financed by all three (e.g., CERBERUS); some by two
partners (Canadian anthology we' re working on); some by one (Twenty-Four
Poems
I have in mind, etc.)). The relations must be free, and the Contact Press
imprint is mainly a convenience for publicity purposes.
(To Raymond Souster, 16
April 1952)

Contact Press did more or less operate in this loose fashion for the first half of its life. Most
of the 30 titles issued in the 50s originated in Montreal, and there is no doubt that in the
beginning Souster viewed the press as belonging to Layton and Dudek. Around the time
that Cerberus was published he referred to himself as"only a sort of silent partner in the
Press" (to Irving Layton, 11 June 1952); and two years later, when there was a serious
disagreement between Layton and Dudek over a proposed Contact Press book of poems
by the American poet Cid Corman, Souster tried to remain neutral and pointed out
that"the PRESS is strictly a twin baby between you and Louis" (21 July 1954). Souster's
involvement on the editorial side was mainly limited to issuing his own collections in
mimeographed form, though he helped to wrestle manuscripts out of Eli Mandel (then in
Regina) and Gael Turnbull (who was practicing medicine in Iroquois Falls, Ontario) for
Trio, the first Contact Press book not by one of the three founders; and the publication of
W.W.E. Ross's Experiment in 1956 came about because of his interest and efforts. It,
like the anthology Poets 56, Souster's last Contact Press project until the end of the 50s,
excepting his own collection Crepe-hanger's Carnival, was also issued as a mimeo.
Souster did take part in the record-keeping and the distribution of Contact Press books;
but despite the Toronto imprint on most of the books, it was predominantly a Montreal
press until Layton left in 1959 and was replaced by Peter Miller in Toronto. At that point
the activities of the press shifted largely to Toronto, and Dudek became, as it were, the
minority shareholder.

As we have seen, the Contact Press imprint was created for Cerberus, the three-man
collection in which the founders presented themselves as a trio in a way that followed up
on John Sutherland's grouping them together in Other Canadians as poets who
were"achieving something of [...] significance for the future," and in whose work"one finds
a more Canadian point of view, a greater interest in themes and problems of a Canadian
kind, and a social realism which distinguishes it from the political make-believe of other
poets" (19, 20). Of the 30 titles published by the press in the 1950s, 20 were written by
(or in two cases, edited by) the founders, and almost from the beginning there was an
awareness of the risk that Contact Press might seem merely a private press. In mid-1954,
Souster wrote to Gael Turnbull that there were"too many CONTACT BOOKS already
by too few names (you know who they are) and so the venture is too damn much like
vanity publication to suit me" (19 July). Dudek had earlier written to Souster that "We' ve
got to have more outside names on our list of published books before long" (23 July
1952), and both agreed that the publication of Trio in 1954 was a vital step in broadening
the press's activities."It's part of our movement" (25 May 1954), Dudek said of the book,
leaving little doubt that Contact Press was far from considered a vanity press, but came
quickly to be viewed as the central medium of recording and advancing the approach to
poetry favoured by the three editors. The messianic tone of Dudek's prediction in a letter
written to Souster in 1955 bears this out, and -- messianic or not -- he was largely right:

It will have to come to be realised, I don't know when, that what counts in poetry in
this country from 1940 to 1960 or so, is yourself, Layton, and I. [...] All of them
[Smith, Scott, Page, Anderson and Klein] are very nice, mind you, and good to have
around; but the real trail is the one we blazed...from
First Statement to CIV/n,
Cerberus, and on. [...] There was a kind of Zeitgeist pushed us forward and gave us
the feeling from the beginning that we were on to something very important.
(18
May)

The broadening of the presses list in a serious way would have to wait until the 60s, when
Layton departed and Peter Miller joined; but Contact Press's activities during the 50's
were not limited solely to its own list. The press acted as a distributor for several other
publishers, magazines, and individuals, and this work was integral to its purpose of putting
poets in touch and getting their work around. A few examples will illustrate this.

Through Cid Corman [editor of the then Boston-based little magazine Origin, later in
subsequent series appearing from Kyoto], Souster had been introduced to Charles Olson,
Robert Creeley, and other American poets, and he became an active promoter of their
work. Creeley lived for a time on Mallorca and was involved there with Divers Press,
before moving back to the United States in 1954 to teach at Black Mountain College and
to help launch the Black Mountain Review. Souster acted as a distributor for Divers
Press books in Canada and for the Review, as well as for related books like Olson's
Maximus Poems, which were first collected and published by Jonathan Williams [Jargon
Press] in Germany. When in 1955 Gael Turnbull produced four mimeographed pamphlets
of his translations of French-Canadian poetry, Souster responded enthusiastically and
offered to help in their distribution:

I'll do all I can to help with the pamphlet series, as I think it is something really
worth doing. Distribution should not be too hard a problem, with the limited number
of copies and also the fact that they're not going to be handled in a commercial
way. I have gone through all my lists carefully and have made up a selected list of
those I think would be most responsive to the series and also the ones where I
believe they might do the most good and circulate far beyond the number of copies
you plan to print. A circular to each of these people should give you quite an initial
response, which added to the people you should know, should pretty well handle
your printings. I'll take over the distribution when you leave and will wind things up
in the best way I can.
(18 May 1955)

The following year, when the Ryerson Press balked at distributing Layton's The Improved
Binoculars
on moral grounds, Contact Press took over, and is in fact listed as the
distributor of the second edition of 1957. And finally, mention must be made of Dudek's
McGill Poetry Series, which he launched in 1956 with Leonard Cohen's Let Us Compare
Mythologies
. In posing the idea to the Principal of McGill University, Dudek had
suggested that"to obtain outside distribution and advertising they may appear under the
imprint of Contact Press, a small non-profit press in Toronto of which I am a partner" (to
Cyril James, 13 January 1956). As Michael Gnarowski has noted, the McGill Poetry
Series books are not really Contact Press books per se; but again, Souster worked hard
in Toronto to help make them known and available.

Only once did Souster grumble about distributing a book, and that was Henry
Moscovitch's The Serpent Ink, issued in Montreal under the Contact Press imprint in
1956."As far as I'm concerned," he wrote Dudek, this volume is not a proper Contact
Press book, and I don't see why we should stock it here. But if you feel differently
and can supply us with stock, weI'll fill orders.
(15 August 1960)

Moscovitch was a Layton protégé, and Souster's uncharacteristic ill-humour probably
arose because Layton had brought the book out under Contact's imprint without getting
either Dudek's or Souster's okay. Dudek said in reply,"Don't worry about Moscovitch. An
obnoxious kid. His first book was sneaked into the list before we had any system. There's
no reason why we should distribute it; I'm dead against it" (18 August 1960).

Late in 1959 Layton's involvement in the press came to an end. The stock was moved to
Peter Miller's house in Toronto, and slowly the character of the press's list was altered.
Dudek put his finger on this change in the letter to Layton in which the new order was
defined:

Originally, the purpose was to publish Ray's, your, and my books, and then others
gradually; by now the 'others' have taken over, the press really exists to publish
younger poets, some good, some bad, & the McGill series (no book this year).
(24
September 1959)

In the three years from 1959-1961 only three books are published; obviously there was a
period of adjustment, as the editorial focus of the press's activities shifted to Toronto. That
no books at all appeared in 1961 was probably due to the fact that Peter Miller spent a
good part of the year abroad. But the following six years saw 17 books issued under the
Contact Press imprint, and, as Dudek foresaw, most were by the younger poets, or poets
who, though not young, were at a crucial point in their careers -- Al Purdy and Milton
Acorn, for example. None of these younger poets -- Gwendolyn MacEwen, George
Bowering, Frank Davey, and Margaret Atwood -- was completely unknown and
unpublished. All had appeared in the literary magazines, and all had published one or more
slim pamphlets of poems for which the antiquarian booksellers now ask outrageous sums
of money. But all of them published their first substantial collections with Contact Press,
and all, of course, went on to establish remarkable reputations. Indeed, in retrospect, it is
astonishing how accurate an eye the three editors had for young talent. Of the poets
published in the 60s only one, Richard Clarke, did not go on to publish an important body
of work, thus incidentally proving Dudek's opinion of Clarke's Fever and the Cold Eye:

Frankly there's so little there. The man's dead inside. Nothing perking. No
imagination. No verbal excitement. No emotions. No observation. What the hell do
you see in it?
(To Raymond Souster and Peter Miller, 30 March 1965)

Unlike the arrangement during the 50s, when each of the three editors had a fairly free
hand to publish whatever he wished, during the 60s the government of the press was more
orderly. All three editors read each manuscript, and at least two had to vote in favour of it
for publication to proceed. In practice this meant that some books were published which
one of the editors disliked, as Dudek disliked the Clarke manuscript and the Gwen
MacEwen book (he thought it"spurious" [to Peter Miller, 11 June 1962], while Souster
thought her"the best talent among the young" [to Cid Corman, 3 December 1961]), and as
Souster disliked Harry Howith's Total War, the last book of the press. Feelings
sometimes ran hot. In rejecting a manuscript by Margaret Atwood (not the manuscript that
they published later), Dudek complained that"if we allow ourselves to become another
prestige-giving institution of dull but excellently written poetry then to hell with it. We might
as well fold up" (to Raymond Souster and Peter Miller, 10 December 1963). All the same,
while reactions to individual manuscripts often varied, Souster, Dudek, and Miller shared a
largely identical view of the press's role at this time. Compare with Dudek's remark just
quoted Miller's remark that"our function is limited, evidently, to providing needed outlets
for the best new poets, but only if they meet our joint idea of standards of excellence" (to
Dudek, 2 October 1964), and Souster's similar statement that"I' ve always thought the
idea was to stay in the vanguard of what was being done in Canadian poetry, to encourage
the young" (to Dudek, 3 April 1965).

Oddly enough the press's commitment to the young was a factor in its demise. The last two
Contact Press books -- Howith's Total War and Peter Miller's translation of Anne
Hebert's The Tomb of the Kings -- appeared in 1967; but the previous fall Peter Miller
had declared his desire to leave the press, and on Halowe' en, 1966, Souster wrote to
Dudek that he"propose[d] to opt out with Peter." He went on to substantiate his reasons
for doing so:

Now that Delta [Canada] Press is firmly established and the Coach House Press
and Island Press in Toronto are active, I don't think young and deserving talent will
be badly served in the future. I think Contact Press has done the job it was founded
to do -- we have bridged a very difficult time in Canadian letters -- and now it's
largely history. What better time to call a halt?


Of course there were other reasons involved in the closing down of Contact Press. Peter
Miller had been financing most of the books (the press's one application for a Canada
Council grant, for Milton Acorn's Jawbreakers, was turned down) and looking after
arrangements with the printers. His marriage in March of 1964 no doubt left him less time
and money to devote to publishing. Some of Dudek's energies were diverted into his own
imprint, Delta (Canada), beginning in 1964-65. But Souster's sense in 1966 that
henceforth the young poets would have other outlets for their work is the essential
explanation for closing up shop. Much had changed on the Canadian poetic landscape
since the 1950s; and while it was true, as Souster said in 1964, that"without Contact Press
in the past few years a lot of good poets would have quit by now, just thrown in the
sponge" (to Cid Corman, 2 February), only three years later Contact Press was no longer
the sole press in Canada devoted to the new poetry. It had reached a blessed climactic,
and ironically enough, one of its last books, Atwood's The Circle Game won the
Governor General's award for poetry in 1966, the only GG ever awarded a Contact Press
book. Characteristically enough, Souster's last editorial project was an anthology of the
new experimental poetry entitled New Wave Canada in which poets such as Michael
Ondaatje, David McFadden, bpNichol, Fred Wah and others appeared. As the press had
begun, so it finished: as a supporter of the vanguard in Canadian poetry and a central part
of the movement that connected the young poets of the 1940s to the young poets of the
1960s, and as a helpmeet in the maintenance of a vital poetic tradition in Canadian
literature. George Bowering bore witness to the press's effect in an interview conducted in
1976. In a discussion of early influences, the interviewer remarks that "Eli Mandel said the
one poet that turned him around was Raymond Souster." Bowering replies:

Well, when the whole Tish thing was happening, we were people who had been
deracinated -- we didn't get any Canadian writing in school in B.C. Most of the
people in
Tish -- Fred Wah and Frank Davey -- didn't know anything about
Canadian poetry. The only people that knew of Canadian poetry were Lionel Kearns
and I, who got together before the
Tish stuff happened anyway. Lionel had been an
exchange student in Quebec and he brought back the Contact Press books and I
read them in one of those cabins in the dorms. Souster, Layton, Dudek, D.G. Jones,
Milton Acorn and all those guys. I hadn't even thought about Canadian poetry. I
didn't even think about thinking about Canadian poetry. It's not that I didn't think of
the idea. And I was amazed. And the language, too. If you look at the 1950s stuff
those guys were doing and the contentions they were making in their magazines -- it
was really exciting. I was getting it about five years out of date. And I read every
one of those. I read
Laughter in the Mind -- oh, a great book, and I was reading
Dudek's
East of the City -- fantastic -- I probably got more out of Souster than I did
out of the other guys, that is the short lyric poem that I wrote a thousand of.
(Out-
Posts 81)

1952     Cerberus, Dudek, Layton & Souster
1953     Love the Conqueror Worm, Irving Layton
1953     Shake Hands with the Hangman Poems 1940-1952, Raymond Souster
1954     Trio, Gael Turnbull, Phyllis Webb & E(li).W. Mandel
1954     A Dream That is Dying, Raymond Souster
1955     Europe, Louis Dudek [Laocoon, Montreal]
1955     The Blue Propeller, Irving Layton
1955     The Cold Green Element, Irving Layton
1956     Let Us Compare Mythologies, Leonard Cohen [McGill Poetry Series]
1956     Experiment / 1923-29, W.W.E. Ross
1956     The Bull Calf And Other Poems, Irving Layton
1956     Poets 56 Ten Younger English-Canadians, [Avi Boxer, Marya Fiamengo,
             William Fournier, Daryl Hine, D.G. Jones, Jay Macpherson, John Reeves,
             Mortimer Schiff, Peter Scott, & George Whipple] edited by Raymond Souster
1957     The Eye of the Needle, F.R. Scott
1957     Frost on the Sun, D.G. Jones
1957     The Transparent Sea, Louis Dudek
1957     Winds of Unreason, George Ellenbogen [McGill Poetry Series]
1957     The Carnal and the Crane, Daryl Hine
1957     Experiment 1923-1929, W.W.E. Ross
1958     A Lattice for Momos, R.G. Everson
1958     Meditation at Noon, Peter Miller
1958     Laughing Stalks, Louis Dudek
1958     En Mexico, Louis Dudek
1958     Crepe-Hanger's Carnival, Raymond Souster
1959     Sonata for Frog and Man, Peter Miller
1959     The Timeless Forest, Sylvia Barnard
1960     Fuseli Poems, E. W. Mandel
1962     Poems for All the Annettes, Alfred Purdy
1962     The Things Which Are, Alden Nowlan
1962     A Local Pride, Raymond Souster
1963     The Rising Fire, Gwendolyn MacEwen
1963     Jawbreakers, Milton Acorn
1964     Points on the Grid, George Bowering
1965     Moving in Alone, John Newlove
1965     Bridge Force, Frank Davey
1966     New Wave Canada, featuring Buckle (Marlatt), Coleman, Cull, Dawson, Gilbert,
             Gill, Hawkins, Hogg, McFadden, Nichol, Ondaatje, Reid & Wah
1966     The Circle Game, Margaret Atwood