A Note on Origins

In 1970 I was a new and junior instructor in the English Department at Capilano College, not yet dreaming of a literary magazine. The department at its inception was staffed by a bright bunch of American expatriates, draft dodgers refusing to participate in their country’s war in Vietnam, and by a South African expatriate, my great friend Bill Schermbrucker and our department head, who was, among other things, separating himself from his country’s program of apartheid.

These rebels, new immigrants to Canada, were well educated and steeped in American and British literature, but had not yet read much Canadian writing. As the only Canadian-born faculty members with continuing positions, it fell to Jean Clifford and myself to convince our expat colleagues that there was a terrific body of Canadian fiction, poetry, and drama, and that we should offer a Canadian Literature course in our curriculum.

To do this Jean and I drew up reading lists in all the genres, presented them to the department, and argued that Canadian writers were producing important work. After some discussion and some resistance, they accepted our pitch. We then drew up an outline for a first-year course in Canadian Literature, and encouraged our colleagues to include Canadian writers in our other offerings.

Bill, however, challenged me to do something more: make a contribution, man, he said. And I knew immediately what that more should be.

Vancouver at the time was an epicentre of creativity in the arts in general: in poetry, visual art, film, and intermedia. Warren Tallman and the TISH group were influential and this was the work I’d come to Vancouver to get closer to, which was so different from the work in eastern Canada. I recognized the quality and courage of this work, and immediately thought of a way we could contribute to its making and recognition. I proposed to Bill and the department that we launch a “little magazine” that would publish the best contemporary literary and visual art we could find.

I’d already done The Georgia Straight and The Western Gate, and I wanted this new magazine to be just as unacademic, as radical, and as open to the new as they had been. I wanted the magazine to look and feel and read differently from the publications then coming from the universities, and also to contain the visual dimension I craved.

To my delight, Bill and my colleagues, most of whom were writers themselves, were open to the idea and asked me to draft a proposal for the department’s consideration. After much pleasurable work and thought I did. We had a great meeting, and at the end they voted approval of almost everything I proposed, except for the names I suggested. Their final vote gave me carte blanche to make editorial plans and lobby for the money to make the magazine a reality, as long as it was named after its host institution.

The last name I wanted was an academic one like The Capilano Review. I wanted the name to be different from the other publications coming from the universities: the review this, the review that. I wanted the name to be as provocative as I hoped its contents would be. I don’t remember all the names I proposed, but the one I remember and liked best was tatu, the Polynesian word for tattoo. Half in jest I proposed to have the word tattooed on my left hand in blue within a red circle. That would be the logo for the magazine—my left fist raised.

They didn’t buy it. Bill and my colleagues, rebels though they were in almost every other aspect of their lives, knew in their strategic bones the magazine would not be acceptable to the administration unless its name denoted academic responsibility. What could be more acceptable, then, than The Capilano Review? I reluctantly agreed.

I now confess, very early on I began to love the name—despite its academic ring it also had a certain elegance—and would fight for it and the magazine fiercely when I had to. Over the fifty years of its remarkable existence The Capilano Review has maintained its commitment to publish challenging, experimental writing and visual art, and to keep its antennae alert to the full spectrum of voices at play.

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