“Between the Lines” – Josh Quirion in interview with Philip Lanthier

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Q: When, and in what capacity, did you first get involved with creative writing in the Eastern Townships?

PL: I arrived in Lennoxville in 1972 as part of the second wave of appointments to the newly created Lennoxville Campus of Champlain Regional College. I had been appointed head of the English module (later elevated to departmental status) and quickly discovered that there was a talented bunch of colleagues in the department. We were also part of a growing critical mass of writers in the region, which included poets Ralph Gustafson, Louis Dudek, D.G. Jones, and Avrum Malus, and novelist Ronald Sutherland. John Glassco of Memoirs of Montparnasse fame was not far away in Knowlton.

The magazine, entitled Matrix: New Canadian Writing, was a collective effort on the part of interested members of the Champlain English Department. Our initial plan was to solicit writing from right across Canada and to embrace all aspects of the writing spectrum: poems, interviews, stories, reviews, translations, as well as film, television and stage scripts. At least, that’s what we said in our introductory editorial, and in fact over the fourteen years of publication, only film and television scripts escaped our editorial zeal. Before we embarked on the project, I was able to get the financial backing of the Campus Director, Peter Hill, and spent a helpful and convivial evening talking to Doug Jones who had been instrumental in founding the bilingual magazine, Ellipse, five years before. As the years went by, we also benefited from an annual Canada Council grant. The magazine became part of the Canadian Periodical Publishers’ Association where, for a while, I chaired a literary committee.

Matrix published twice yearly—there were exceptions when teaching workload overwhelmed the editors—until in the Fall of 1988, Issue 27, the last before the periodical was handed over to a group of teachers at John Abbott College in Montreal.  During those years, the literary critical mass expanded, and the area saw the arrival of poets Rob Allen, Steve Luxton, Michael Harris, Ian Tait, Rod Willmot, and others. Readings of poetry and prose flourished on the Bishop’s campus; The Seventh Moon Poetry Readings were a well-attended annual event in North Hatley. In fact, a subsequent issue of Matrix highlighted one of the readings with excerpts, sketches, and photographs of readers.

The whole process of editing a magazine I found fascinating and informative. Soliciting manuscripts, debating their worthiness with colleagues, carefully editing the texts, proofreading diligently, laying out the pages, finding illustrations—it was cut and paste back then—working with the printer, and then receiving delivery; it was all very satisfying.  I would occasionally involve students in the selection process. “Should we print this story/poem?  Why or why not?” The actual work of literary assessment dovetailed nicely with what worked in the classroom.  We never made any money. The price of our first issue? 50 cents, reduced from $1.00.

JQ: In November of last year, at the QWF’s (Quebec Writer’s Federation) annual awards ceremony, you were presented with the Judy Mappin Community Award for your contributions to creative writing in the Eastern Townships. What are the “contributions” for which the award was bestowed, and what did its bestowal represent for you?

PL: What the Judy Mappin award meant to me was that my love of literature was recognized beyond the confines of the Champlain College classrooms I taught in for nearly 30 years.  It was very satisfying teaching young people about the joys of reading, but it was particularly rewarding to reach out to the wider literary community through Matrix and through my work in editing the English portions of the Anthology of 20th Century Poetry of the Eastern Townships. Implicitly, I suppose, I was also recognized for my book reviewing, interviews with Rob Allen and Doug Jones, an introduction to a volume of Steve Luxton’s poetry, and an article on Jones as a translator which appeared in the anthology Language Acts. Once I retired, I had the opportunity to help start up the Knowlton Literary Festival, which celebrates writers both local and from out-of-town.  This has truly been a community effort involving about a dozen volunteers from the Knowlton area who for the last eight years have put together an increasingly successful and highly anticipated event each October. It takes a whole village to launch a literary festival; the support we’ve received from the Town would have made Judy Mappin very happy indeed. I was honoured and delighted to receive the award.

JQ: What can you tell me about this year’s edition of the KLF?

PL: Upcoming this October and highlighting the ninth edition of the Knowlton Literary Festival, participants can expect to meet Newfoundland writer Wayne Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams), crime writer Giles Blount, Globe and Mail sports journalist Roy MacGregor, and a panel of authors who appeared in the Montreal Noir anthology, including local author Johanne Seymour. We are also expecting confirmations from several other authors. As part of its opening night festivities, the Festival will host a version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, performed by the Knowlton Players. But, probably the most popular event will be the Thursday night literary cabaret featuring eight to twelve local authors. We already have confirmations from Jim Napier and Isabelle LaFleche. Our ongoing year-round project to get books into the hands of children attending local daycare centres continues to flourish.

JQ: What changes have you seen, in terms of creative writing, in the Eastern Townships?

PL: There’s been a shift from an emphasis on poetry to an emphasis on prose writing, particularly novels.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the presiding writers were poets John Glassco, Ralph Gustafson, Louis Dudek, and D.G. Jones. Other poets such as F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith had places in the Townships, while younger poets like David Solway, Michael Harris, Richard Sommer, Rob Allen, and Steve Luxton came later, some briefly, some for longer periods.  The Townships was largely a community of poets centered on the various universities and colleges.  In the 1980s, Mordecai Richler, who had a house on Lake Memphremagog, began to incorporate Townships locations in such novels as Joshua Then and Now and Solomon Gursky Was Here. By the beginning of the current century novelists Louise Penny and Anne Fortier were well established in the area. Louise Penny, in particular, her international reputation growing, has come to dominate the Townships literary landscape.

The Townships lost three literary magazines by the 1990s—Ellipse, Matrix and the Moosehead Review—with a consequent loss of literary focus on work from this region. There has been an inevitable shift from such print media to the internet and social media, where writers’ work can appear readily and reaction solicited. Writing activity has been dispersed throughout smaller communities such as Stanstead, Sutton, and Knowlton.

JQ: As a cultural metropolis, Montreal is recognized worldwide for its artscape. Is there an effort that is made to distinguish the Eastern Townships literary community from that of Montreal?; are there differences in identity and composition that you’ve witnessed, and that you believe have been important for local writers to preserve?

PL: An early issue of Ellipse considered whether there was a characteristic Townships poetry in English, but it announced no clear discovery. The fact that the editors asked the question, however, indicates a growing suspicion at the time that there might be a basis for identifying such an aesthetic. There was also speculation about a form of northern pastoral practiced by local poets such as D.G. Jones and Ralph Gustafson. This is still an open question, which will no doubt preoccupy literary historians in the future. Certainly, there is a pastoral theme running from Frank Oliver Call and Louise Morey Bowman, right through to Steve Luxton. Gustafson celebrated what he called the “local heart,” a space within the imagination, which responds intimately and feelingly to the world beyond one’s window in North Hatley. For D.G. Jones, who lived just down the street, the landscape, or garden world, is the fragile site, which operates as a receiving station for signals from hyperspace: “these flowers/drink news out of the air.” Luxton walks literally into the bush where his encounter with nature becomes a reciprocal experience: He does not merely observe bird-life.  He himself is “in the vision of birds.”

So, if there is a poetic identity which distinguishes Townships poetry, it lies in poets’ focus on the world of more or less tamed lakes, rivers, mountains, and valleys of the local terrain, an Appalachian sensibility rather than pre-Cambrian. This is a country world, a refuge perhaps from the troublesome world of the city (Montreal?), where traffic makes a condition of repose and mental self-sufficiency extremely difficult to evoke…

No doubt Townships writers will continue to reformulate pastoralism to fit the shifting and increasingly perilous times. But it is to Louise Penny that we owe another form of Townships identity, which distinguished us from that city back west on Autoroute 10. She has collated various locations throughout the Townships to create an ongoing fictional world fraught with murder and brutality. One can now take a tour of the Townships which visits some of the more important sites of her high crimes and misdemeanours. At the same time, her novels also focus on the strengths and intimacies of local communities and their inhabitants symbolized by the mythical village of Three Pines.  She has done for the Townships what Julia Spencer Fleming in her crime novels has done for Northern New York State and Archer Mayor for Vermont: she’s put it on the world literary map. Sooner or later, we may produce an Alice Munro.

What distinguishes writing in the Townships from that of Montreal, it seems to me, is a regional rather than metropolitan identity.  If Montreal, with festivals such as Blue Metropolis, fosters multi-lingual and multi-cultural interchange and brings in writers from all over the world, the Townships writing is more local, discovering its identity in the immediate circumstances of life. In the translation work of John Glassco and D.G. Jones, the Townships has been a site of vital interaction between French and English writers. Anglophone writers here tend to be on the periphery of literary events in Montreal, though they clearly do not cut themselves off from contact with fellow writers in the metropolis or elsewhere in the world for that matter. The literary map here is one of distribution of talent through Lennoxville, Hatley, North Hatley, Stanstead, Sutton, Mansonville, and Knowlton:  a constellation of writers and readers who gather from time to time in local bookshops, schools, libraries, and festivals. Most of us do not need a GPS to get around; we know the way already.

JQ: Are there any programs of support and mentorship at the disposal of aspiring writers in the Townships?

PL: Aside from creative writing courses at Champlain College and Bishop’s University, and the efforts of teachers in local elementary and secondary schools, there are a number of regional support programmes for aspiring anglophone Townships writers. Over the last several years, the Townshippers Association has sponsored the Our Story project, which helped writers in various communities to develop their personal stories with a view to publication on-line. This year, Townshippers launched a series of writing workshops mentored by Melanie Cutting, Etienne Domingue, and Jan Draper, the launch took place in North Hatley on June 2. The Knowlton Literary Festival has run well-attended writing workshops for the last eight years both for children and adults. A recent Haiku Canada conference at Bishop’s also brought together writers of that popular poetic form to participate in readings and creative workshops, including a haiku walk on Mont Orford.

***

Philip Lanthier was founding editor of the literary magazine Matrix published in Lennoxville, between 1975 and 1988.  He has published articles and reviews on English poetry in the Eastern Townships and conducted interviews with notable poets of the region.  He has a B.A. from Loyola College in Montreal and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.  Since his retirement from Champlain College, he has organized the Knowlton Literary Festival, now in its ninth year.  He lives in Bolton-Ouest.  

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