Founding Canada’s poetry magazine
~ heritage moment revealed by Arc co-founder Tom Henighan
In the winter of 1977 I got a call from Michael Gnarowski, a colleague in the English Department at Carleton University. I was invited to a meeting in Gnarowski’s office with Chris Levenson, a “secret” meeting, which felt a bit conspiratorial. We learned that Michael had come up with the idea of starting a poetry magazine, one with some relevance to the political currents of the time. Some years before, two other English Department colleagues, Robin Mathews and James Steele, had started a campaign to make Canadians aware of the supposed threat to Canadian identity posed by foreign scholars hired by Canadian universities. Foreign Academics, Mathews and Steel argued—in particular American and British—carried with them a baggage of intrinsically imperialist attitudes, and undermined the proper development of a vital and authentic Canadian culture.
Gnarowski, Levenson and I, although we had strong commitments to the development of Canadian culture, found the clarion call of an extreme left-wing Canadian “nativism” more than a little unsettling, given that we were, in varying degrees, outsiders, and were in danger of being tarred with a brush that seemed inappropriately and crudely applied. Gnarowski had been born in Shanghai of a Russian father, and had been in the thick of the poetry scene in Montreal; Levenson, born in London, England, had been connected with Cambridge poetry and with writers like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and had also studied in the University of Iowa creative writing program. I was born in New York City, served in the US Foreign Service and was largely educated in England. None of us could boast of being grassroots Canadian heroes exploited by an evil empire and suitable for canonization under the Mathews rhetoric.
Michael Gnarowski had the idea that it would be timely to create a poetry magazine that would counteract the burgeoning chauvinism. Open to contributions from all quarters, the magazine would not espouse Canadian nationalism as such, but would extend an “arc” to encompass Canadian contributions, while by no means shutting the door on any writer because of his or her background, origins, political or aesthetic affiliations. Gnarowski saw it as a magazine that would be inclusive, and we all agreed that all ideologies would be welcome, so long as we thought the poetry was worth reading.
Levenson and I no doubt seemed the perfect allies in Gnarowski’s quest. I had taught and published poetry in the US and Canada, and Levenson had made a commitment to Canada but had a solid British background. So Arc was born, and Levenson and I were joint editors.
Our tastes, however, were a little different. I was a friend and admirer of Robert Hogg, yet another poet in our department, who was a practitioner of Black Mountain modernism—not a school particularly favoured by either Levenson or Gnarowski—which is probably why Hogg was not invited to be a founder of Arc. I actually got on quite well with Mathews and Steele—I just saw Jim and his wife again a few months ago—and I went on to publish some of Robin’s poems. How funny that a few years later I myself was being denounced as a Canadian “super-nationalist!”
Arc did publish Hogg and other poets who were not part of the more genteel tradition, but Levenson and I argued constantly over those early submissions, and at last he told me he couldn’t put up with my constant advocacy of poets he didn’t want to publish, and suggested that it would be simpler if he took over the magazine. Normally, this would have resulted in precisely the opposite of what he intended, but at the time I was very preoccupied with other matters, both personal and professional, and decided to bow out. Levenson continued to edit the magazine and organized readings that helped keep the Ottawa poetry scene alive. Over the next few years, as a poetry editor elsewhere, I published Robin Mathews, George Johnston, Hogg, and many other seeming incompatibles. What happened in the end was really wonderful—Arc went on to become almost exactly what Michael Gnarowski had envisaged, a mainstream Canadian poetry vehicle, open to all kinds of viable poetry, one that moved very easily between far out and traditional, and above all, one that could easily accommodate strong poetry written from various perspectives—feminist, gay, variously ethnic, and even nationalistic!
To me that’s the real strength of Arc. It really did become an arc that included almost everything that was exciting in Canadian poetry.
Subsequent Arc editors have responded nicely to every challenge, and although serious poetry in Canada remains—in terms of the general culture—something of a marginal activity, poetry practitioners and readers are numerous, enthusiastic, increasingly diverse and much in debt to Arc for holding its steady course through the decades.
Tom Henighan has published some twenty books, including three influential studies of Canadian arts and culture, and two volumes of poetry, the most recent of which is Time’s Fools, which appeared in 2010. He is a founding member of the Stone Flower Press collective, which has published poetry by Daniel Boland, Robert Powell, and Christopher Levenson.