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Dennis Lee returns with a career-spanning collection

by

(Jim Ryce)

(Jim Ryce)

Dennis Lee shambles into the shiny new offices of House of Anansi Press, the publisher he directed in another life. After an interval of 14 years we greet each other warmly. At 77 he’s still totally, recognizably Dennis: he hasn’t so much aged as paled, the familiar beard turning as white as his rumpled, loose-fitting cotton shirt.

There’s always been something of the Baggins about Lee, something kindly and genial yet wary, watching. His words come hesitantly at first, thoughtfully seeking precision, revising themselves in mid-air, then accelerating into a quick and vivid stream as he taps into the vein of his thought. That’s when you glimpse the Gandalf in him, the “wizard of high degree,” as in his wonder-filled kids’ poem “The Cat and the Wizard.”

For most of his adult life, Lee has been both a wizard (that is, a poet) and an editor – two vocations using quite different areas of the brain, yet in his case perfectly complementary. Both vocations are abundantly on display in his new volume of collected poems, Heart Residence. Spanning half a century from 1967 to 2017, it’s a multi-level funhouse of a book complete with slanting floors and hidden trap doors, in which we see the poet, and ourselves, reflected and refracted from every conceivable angle, public and private, tragic and comic. You can get lost in it for days.

This landmark collection is extraordinary in several ways – not least in weaving gaudy swatches of Lee’s greatly beloved kids’ verse into its 402 pages and nestling them among dense, ruminative, angst-filled poems for adults. Combining children’s and adult writing between covers is risky business, yet Lee brings it off like a conjuror. His body of work is so various, travelling through so many different moods and modalities, that it generously makes room for the kids’ stuff. The inspired goofiness of Alligator Pie turns out to be at the heart of Lee’s grown-up poetic vision, crossing right over into the acrobatic wordplay of his later work.

Lee tells me he’d thought long and hard about doing a collected. But he was stumped by one question: whether to include any of his voluminous work for kids. Would mixing genres work for readers? He agonized over this until, in conversation with his wife of 31 years, writer Susan Perly, the word “omnibus” popped out of his mouth: “When I latched onto that term, my vision of the book clicked into place. It would foreground and make conscious the wild variety of the stuff I’ve written.”

Another reason Heart Residence is cause for celebration: its release kicks off Anansi’s 50th anniversary as an independent Canadian publisher. Lee co-founded the press in 1967 with the late Dave Godfrey, fellow writer, teacher, activist, and Canadian nationalist. He also authored its very first title, Kingdom of Absence, a few pieces from which appear in the new collection. For both the poet and the press, which passed into the hands of new owner Ann Wall after Lee moved on in 1972, the journey has been filled with triumphs, setbacks, and the occasional calamity.

Inevitably, Anansi has evolved into a very different company compared to the days when it originated – under Lee’s eagle editorial eye – early titles by Margaret Atwood (who also edited for the press), Marian Engel, Michael Ondaatje, Matt Cohen, Austin Clarke, Graeme Gibson, and other future CanLit stars. Small as it then was, Lee’s version of Anansi acted as “the sourdough starter of Canadian literature,” in the words of current president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan.

AprilCoverFeature_DennisLee_ArchivalPhotos-03At first Anansi operated out of the dank, low-ceilinged basement of Dave and Ellen Godfrey’s rented house; whenever the Spadina bus lumbered past, soot silted down onto whatever manuscript Lee was editing. As an editor with New Press, I worked feverishly with him to co-publish an instant book, The Bad Trip, a manifesto to stop an expressway that would have ruined downtown Toronto. It took eight days to produce from manuscript to finished book and sold like crazy until the expressway was cancelled. We’re both very familiar with that original Anansi basement.

Nearly half a century later, Lee’s gaze sweeps over the company’s new digs, located in a red-brick industrial building just south of the Junction, one of Toronto’s trendy resurrected neighbourhoods. “Just like the old days,” he says drily, “still not out of the basement.” It’s true – the press is partially underground, in the renovated lower level. There’s still a kitchen for the staff too, albeit far bigger and better equipped than the old one with its chipped Formica table. Shortly after moving in, the publisher even suffered flooding that ruined cartons of books, reminiscent of the calamitous Anansi warehouse flood of 1971.

In every other way, the current Anansi couldn’t be more different. When owner Scott Griffin plucked it from the ashes of the Stoddart bankruptcy in 2002 (Stoddart Publishing having bought the press from Ann Wall in 1989), Lee’s former stomping grounds had sales of $400,000 annually. Now, after acquiring award-winning children’s and YA publisher Groundwood Books in 2005, Anansi publishes 30 new titles a year (in addition to Groundwood titles), has combined sales of $7 million, and employs a staff of 30. It even boasts a street-front bookstore – a welcome revival of an old publishing tradition.

Griffin and MacLachlan, the former president of Publishers Group Canada, have stayed remarkably true to Godfrey and Lee’s founding vision. In addition to being a wealthy entrepreneur, Griffin cares deeply enough about literature that he founded the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. But he’s also determined to keep Anansi on track as a business. MacLachlan, her vice-president of publishing operations Matt Williams, and their management group exercise day-to-day freedom in running the press, operating under a broad mandate from Griffin that includes such mantras as, “We write off our inventory religiously.”

This year’s 50th-anniversary program will be both an homage to Anansi’s past and a rededication to its literary raison d’être. Its A List imprint will reissue early Anansi classics with new introductions – among them Northrop Frye’s The Bush Garden, Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Mermaids and Ikons, Helen Weinzweig’s novel Passing Ceremony, and the 1960s bestseller Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, a relic of the Vietnam War made relevant again in the time of Trump. There will be collections of new poetry by Lynn Crosbie and Kevin Connolly (see review, p. 26), stories by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and more. But the granddaddy of them all, without a doubt, will be Lee’s collected.

In planning the thick volume, Lee knew his lifetime output would have to be winnowed down (Heart Residence doesn’t include every poem he’s ever published), and he’d need a good editor. He’s too much an editor himself to think he could do without one; he wanted someone who shared his vision but also had the intellectual and intestinal fortitude to stand up to his strong convictions and parry them. His choice was B.C. poet, translator, and typographer Robert Bringhurst. When Bringhurst agreed, having designed Lee’s earlier collection Un for Anansi (and the 2014 reissue of Lee’s Brick Books collection Riffs), the two of them ended up putting “thousands of hours into getting the [new] book just right,” in Bringhurst’s words. Lee, the perfectionist and compulsive reviser, had met his match.

Bringhurst, who brought a fresh sensibility to bear on the book’s “architecture” (as both men call it), was familiar with Lee’s editorial rigour from a previous project, when their roles were reversed. Serving as McClelland & Stewart’s poetry editor in the early 1980s, Lee acquired Bringhurst’s The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972–1982. “Dennis’s editorial approach was always to urge you to do more, to go deeper,” Bringhurst recalls. At the time, Lee also tended to take up residence – sometimes literally – in the writer’s life. “I was living in a small apartment near Vancouver harbour,” Bringhurst says. “I gave Dennis my bedroom and slept on the sofa. We worked practically 24 hours a day. Dennis interrogated every word.”

AprilCoverFeature_DennisLee_ArchivalPhotos-01Now Bringhurst lives on the relatively remote Quadra Island, at the north end of the Georgia Strait, with his wife, the poet Jan Zwicky; on this book, he and Lee communicated mainly by phone and email. But Bringhurst was well prepared for what he calls, perhaps euphemistically, “our earnest discussions about which poems to include” – especially which kids’ poems, since their views on them sometimes differed. At the end of a year-long process, their correspondence fills four thick file folders. Bringhurst also brought his gifts as a book designer, which Lee values highly: “Robert is a master typographer, and my work varies a great deal visually, with many different line breaks and lengths. Robert combines an understanding of the poetry with an understanding of how to translate it into graphic design.”

Their modus operandi was to give Lee the final say on the words, Bringhurst the final say on design. But Lee had his own expectations of the visual presentation. He speaks of the “choreography” of his poems on the page, his attempts to “orchestrate as clearly as I can what I want the poem to sound like when read out loud. The challenge [to readers] is to approach the poems as you’d approach a piece of music.” The result is a book both men are intensely proud of. In his foreword, Bringhurst defines Lee’s substantial poetic achievement with ringing eloquence. And in his acknowledgements, Lee hails Bringhurst as “the patron spirit of this volume.”

What readers will take away from Heart Residence, after sharing one man’s soul journey across a vast expanse of artistic territory, is a promise that Dennis Lee isn’t finished with poetry any more than he’s finished with life. A new and previously unpublished sequence of poems on the theme of aging, “Autumnal,” signals that he fully intends to go on writing. New work is on the way.

Given Lee’s lifelong dedication to his art, that isn’t surprising. It isn’t as startling, certainly, as the final poem in that section, written so directly from the heart after all the verbal, intellectual, and emotional circumlocutions earlier in the book:

Tell the ones you love, you
love them;
tell them now.

Does the simplicity of these lines foreshadow another seismic shift in Lee’s poetics? Even he doesn’t know yet. “As a poet, I try to open myself up to as many different wavelengths inside me as possible.”

That remark recalls something Lee has written elsewhere: “What I want from a book is that it be a birthday party, to which all our selves are invited.” It’s an apt metaphor for Heart Residence, but also for the many sides of Dennis Lee: earnest teacher, dedicated editor, moralizing civic conscience, self-interrogating male, celebrant of carnal love, punning trickster, spiritual redeemer, and “friendly old Uncle Dennis,” as Atwood once described him. Like Anansi itself, Lee has evolved through many stages and emerged into a robust maturity. He and the publishing house he created are joyfully grateful to be back together again.