Telltale of Two Cities

  • Trevor Carolan
    The Literary Storefront: The Glory Years: Vancouver's Literary Centre 1978-1985. Mother Tongue (purchase at
Reviewed by David Eso

The Glory Years and The Calgary Renaissance represent two distinct urban literary scenes in dramatically different fashions. Trevor Carolan’s Glory Years comprises a detailed cultural history of Vancouver’s Literary Storefront—its rise and fall—whereas Calgary Renaissance gathers writers who have orbited such experimental writing venues as Calgary’s filling Station and dANDelion magazines. Each book conveys the intimacy of grassroots literary communities; one tome emphasizes process, the other, product.

Carolan charts The Literary Storefront’s development into a bohemian “nerve centre,” which in part responded to the monopoly that Vancouver’s academic institutions had held over the city’s literary calendar. Founder Mona Fertig modelled the institution after Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books. By tracing the involvement of innumerable writers with the Storefront, the author shows how Fertig shifted Vancouver’s literary focus away from the male domination of the 1960s/1970s. Early leaders with the project included Jane Rule, Beth Jankola, Judith Copithorne, and Leona Gom. The book focuses on grant-writing and network-building labours that made the project a success in the 1970s (“chugging along indomitably toward the Word”), before turning to its dissolution. When Wayne Holder and Tom Ilves (future leader of Estonia) took over as new management, they focused on international names—Edward Albee and Czesław Miłosz, for example. Costs associated with hosting such iconic writers ultimately led to the grassroots institution’s collapse. Unfortunately, author Carolan falls prey to the same impulse that led to the Storefront’s closure. His narrative only passes over the involvement of Canadian writers (Purdy, Livesay, bissett, et al.), while it follows international writers (such as Stephen Spender and Tennessee Williams) through airports, taxis, restaurants, and hotels. In allowing these figures to draw his attention away from local talents who supported the Storefront for years, the author fails to heed the admonishments of Spender, who chastised the Storefront’s audience for preferring foreign literary gossip to poetry.

Contrastively, Calgary Renaissance runs short on details about the contexts that united a diverse range of writers, those on and off the experimental spectrum. This anthology includes well-known writers like Christian Bök and Weyman Chan alongside many lesser-known figures. Bök’s trans-species compositional methods (in “Colony Collapse Disorder”) and Chan’s mystically scientific synaptic leaping (in “Unboxing the Clone”) challenge our receptions of literary meaning. The book also represents Calgary writers who produce comparatively graspable work but who have participated in their city’s experimental writing community by helping to develop its nexus of venues and events—Jani Krulc, Sharanpal Ruprai, Naomi K. Lewis, and Aaron Giovannone. The narratives and verses of these writers stand in sharp contrast to the dense columns of texts by Nikki Sheppy, an evasively signifying opera by Larissa Lai, or a comedic lipogram by Susan Holbrook. Such diverse voices demonstrate that, like Fertig’s Literary Storefront, Calgary’s experimental writing community draws no strict borders around inclusion. Here, too, energies spent forging community far outstrip the camp-making distinctions between conceptualism/lyricism or postmodernist/romantic technique. Citing both Fred Wah and Aritha van Herk as important mentors in Calgary, editor rob mclennan reinforces this infidelity to expectation. Although the editors only briefly describe the institutions around which this community coalesced, poetic exchanges from Natalee Caple to Sandy Pool and Nicole Markotić suggest the intimate networks formed at local reading series and through the city’s universities. Calgary Renaissance offers an introduction to those contemporary writers who have sought to transform the resource-extraction-head-quartered metropolis on the prairie into a hotbed of language experimentation.

By welcoming non-experimental writers into the fold in Calgary Renaissance and by complementing chapters with chronologies of wider historical context in Glory Years, these books refuse any narrow sense of literary community. Reading them side by side, they demand a pairing, a mating, a hybridized love-child genre that would fuse the eclectic selections of literary anthologies with the context-revealing prose of cultural historians. As it stands, Glory Years contains only one creative piece: “An Evening Spent With Ferlinghetti” by Nellie McClung. That choice, of all literary materials performed at the Storefront, or reproduced within its newsletter, confirms the emphasis placed by Carolan on international figures. A greater sense of the work performed at the Storefront would usefully augment the fine intermural history that Carolan provides. Instead, extensive photographs and reproductions of promotional materials provide a sense of the Storefront’s happenings. beaulieu and mclennan, to a different effect, only hint at the mechanisms that led to the expansion of Calgary’s experimental writing community and at the traditional literary stratagem against which its writers compose.


This review “Telltale of Two Cities” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 133-134.

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