by Kim Moes
In the beginning there was an outhouse. Now, before you finish conjuring up the image that is formulating in your mind, let me help you out. Let’s go back, way back to the early seventies, when Vancouver Island University (VIU) was known as Malaspina College and was housed in the old hospital on Kennedy Street. Behind the hospital, there was a small outbuilding where one could go for a burger and a coffee, a wild party, a reading by a renowned author, an after-class workshop, and more.
This outbuilding was also the inspiration for the first Malaspina publication to showcase the talent of faculty and student creative writing. Kevin Roberts, an Honorary Research Associate of VIU since his retirement, remembers the first cover of the Outhouse - illustrated by Andy Mathisen – depicting the burger shack in all its glory. The Outhouse wasn’t around very long, and sadly, it is now lost to posterity.
Kevin Roberts and Ron Smith, another VIU Honorary Research Associate, were among the earliest creative writing professors at Malaspina – others included Bob Lane and Shirley Goldberg – who were instrumental in building the Creative Writing Department. Both Ron and Kevin began as professors in the English Department and stepped into the Creative Writing Department in about its third year.
At the time, the creative writing course mirrored the English curriculum – drama, poetry, and fiction – all in one semester, and one class! Later, the courses were split into separate genres, and students were encouraged to take at least two genres prior to transferring to the University of Victoria (UVic) or University of British Columbia (UBC) to finish their degree. Ron remembers letters and comments from UVic and UBC in which Malaspina was commended for the high quality students who transferred to those universities.
Ron and Kevin both recall John Marshall, Ken Cathers, Win Baker, the late Michael Carmichael, and even our very own Steve Lane (VIU’s Dean of Arts and Humanites) and Steve Guppy (currently a professor of creative writing at VIU). Steve Guppy remembers these students, too. He feels fortunate to have been a student at the same time as these other talented writers and to have had some enthusiastic instructors to learn from. Several of these students have become well-known authors, and many were first published in VIU’s student-run magazines.
Ron and Kevin offered a dynamic approach in their classrooms, geared to the practical side of writing as opposed to the analytical side. Kevin says, “It is not about telling the students this is wrong and this is right, nor is it about suggesting this is good and this is bad.” To truly uncover a student’s talent, a professor needs to imagine where the student’s piece could go, to “help the student find the potential.”
When Malaspina moved to the hill, the Creative Writing Department soared. Ron and Kevin increased public awareness by inviting renowned authors – Al Purdy was the first – to read in large public gatherings at Malaspina. With sponsorship from the Canada Council, Ron invited authors from across Canada, including Margaret Atwood, bp Nichol, Sheila Watson, and Dorothy Livesay.
The infamous Room 108 held up to three hundred people for these readings, and at times it was extremely cozy. The readings inspired people and catapulted Malaspina’s reputation, generating higher enrolment. With higher demand, new genres were added to the curriculum, and Malaspina needed to find professors who were publishing in those genres.
Our current professors are a testament to the high standard of hiring here. Collectively, they have published over seventy-five works and have earned more than twenty awards including the National Magazine Award, the Canadian Policy Research Award, the Scottish International Open Poetry Award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Edna Staebler Creative Nonfiction Award, the Governor General’s Award, the Chalmers Award, the BC Book Prize, the CBC Literary Award, and countless Canada Council and BC Arts Council Awards. In addition, they have either been nominated or shortlisted for another fourteen awards, including the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and the prestigious Orange Prize.
Just as the department grew and evolved, so did the student-run publications, the Outhouse, Omniverse, and the Stump being among the first. Portal was the first class-run literary magazine. The publication of these early magazines was quite different from the publishing process we practise today. Ardith Conlin, whom Kevin describes as “a gem,” currently works in the Human Resources Department of VIU, but remembers her role as secretary to the Arts and Humanities faculty as one of her favourites. She worked closely on these early magazines in the late seventies and early eighties.
Kevin would hand her the submissions, many of which were scribbled on looseleaf paper, and she would have the task of preparing the layout with a typewriter on 11 x 17 paper in landscape format. There were no computers to plan the layout, so she needed to envision the finished product. Once the layout was complete, she would send the original to the on-site print shop to be printed, folded, and stapled for sale.
As she leafed through a 1986 edition of the Stump, Ardith recalled working closely with its authors. Smiling, she shared why she loved working with the Creative Writing Department. “I felt inspired by all the creative people around me. There was an inordinate amount of thought put into everything [the department] did.”
The time allotted to completing the typing and layout was always generous. Deadlines were less important than putting out a quality publication. Perhaps there was pressure, but she admits she “was younger back then,” and remembers her role in the publications as a stress-free experience.
Eventually, Ron Smith began teaching a publishing course at Malaspina when the Stump was wrapping up under the care of Kevin Roberts and the Creative Writing Club. In 1991, the students in Ron’s class voted to change the name to Portal. It has remained Portal ever since. In 1994, Rhonda Bailey was hired to teach publishing classes. Rhonda was originally an English student of Ron’s, and he recalls her as an excellent student.
Later, she grew into a great editor who was passionate about her work – the text, the author, and the process. Rhonda, Ron says, was integral to the growth of his publishing company, Oolichan Books. When Rhonda was hired to teach publishing, she was asked to create two second-year courses covering book and magazine publishing.
The first semester, in CREW 230, Rhonda taught an intensive book publishing course modelled on the Banff Publishing Workshop, in which participants formed simulated book publishing companies. The second semester focused on magazines, and in CREW 231, the students put Portal together in thirteen weeks.
The workload of these courses was quite heavy for second-year students, and eventually, the Creative Writing Department decided to make them upper-level courses. Today, the two original courses have evolved into five. VIU offers Introduction to Publishing (CREW 230), Professional Editing (CREW 330), and Book Publishing (CREW 331), in addition to the Portal workshops (CREW 430 and CREW 431).
In the first semester, in CREW 430, we are introduced to the magazine publishing industry. We practise editing, proofreading, and yes, selling ads! By the time the second semester rolls around, we are ready to rock! In just thirteen short weeks, we create and publish our magazine in CREW 431. We do not accomplish this alone. Portal is published through a collaborative process in which student editors work with student designers.
Rhonda says she feels fortunate that each year since 1994, one of the Graphic Design instructors – Iris Churcher, Rick Conroy, or Ellen McCluskie – has agreed to make the Portal cover an assignment for their class and to give publishing students a real experience of working with graphic designers. Some years the page layout was also created in a class taught by Iris Churcher or Karen Hodgson.
For the past five years, a work-op student designer has prepared the layout, while a VIU Graphic Design class has continued to make the cover a class assignment. Our challenge for 2010 was to find our cover without the participation of a Graphic Design class.
Challenges are nothing new to Portal. In 2001, Rhonda recalls, just a few days before the launch, the boxes of magazines arrived in her office. Together with the marketing manager, she opened the box, only to find the cover was printed with small smudges on it. Yet, these smudges had not showed on the final proof. A tough decision had to be made. Should she call the printer and have them correct the cover, knowing the magazines would not arrive on time? Or should she accept imperfect magazines and have copies available in time for the launch? So that the students would have a magazine to be proud of in their portfolios, Rhonda decided to have the printer reprint the cover.
This was also a lesson in relationships. Portal‘s longstanding print-rep, Gerhard Aichelberger of PrintSmith Group, personally came to the launch and explained to the attendees why Portal was not ready. More copies of Portal were sold during that year than in any other. Rhonda remembers the feeling of “everyone coming together to support us.” Pre-orders were placed at the launch, and Aichelberger returned to deliver the boxes of reprinted magazines in a few days.
After fifteen years of producing Portal, Rhonda takes pride in her students and their accomplishments. Teaching publishing involves mentoring because publishing can only be learned through doing. Just as she learned by working with her mentors, including Ron Smith of Oolichan Books and Douglas Gibson of McClelland and Stewart, Rhonda hopes that others have learned through working with her.
Several of her former students are now employed in the publishing industry. Carra Simpson, a former student who held Portal positions of executive editor and advertising manager, remembers Rhonda really listening to students, and helping them find opportunities to best achieve their goals. Rhonda would “quietly suss out the skills of students and suggest responsibilities that would best suit their skill sets.” Rhonda’s mentorship led Carra to the SFU Master of Publishing Program and ultimately to the “very satisfying career” she has started. She is currently Assistant to the Publisher of Greystone Books in Vancouver.
Providing an opportunity to learn from a mentor is an integral part of the Creative Writing Department at VIU. As well as working closely with their professors, students can take an internship course that provides opportunities to gain writing and publishing work experience and get started along their career paths.
Renée Masur, a current student, considers Kevin Roberts one of her mentors, and his honesty is something she admires. “He’s a smart man who believes in great writing and tries to bring it out in his students. He’s assertive and fair, but doesn’t coddle his students.” Evidence of a continuum of mentoring can be glimpsed in the 1993 Portal, which was published entirely by the Creative Writing Club. Kitty Myara, managing editor of that issue, thanks Steve Guppy and Iris Churcher “without whose sage advice this issue would never have seen the light of day.”
Ask yourself this: if you wanted to learn how to skydive, would you rather learn from a professor who has read a book about parachuting, or one who has parachuted from a plane many times, and who believes you can do it? Of course you would choose the latter! Learning creative writing is no different. If you want to learn about poetry or fiction or journalism, you can learn from writers who have published within those genres.
Also, if you want to learn about publishing and editing, who better to learn from than our own Rhonda Bailey, who has worked in the publishing industry for thirty-one years. In the Portal class, we have learned how to publish a magazine from its edgy folio to its rooted gutter. We raised money, called for submissions, read and selected pieces, chose the layout, and figured out how to launch and market the magazine. These past two semesters have provided us with real-life publishing experience.
Our launch is held at the Royal Arbutus Room. If you have a chance, look out the window and try to spot the site of the old hospital. Imagine the outhouse, a place of inspiration, and be proud that forty-one years later we are still showcasing the talents of our students. We have grown, we have evolved, and yet we have retained the original spirit of creative writing.