Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Here are some photos from Stratford Central Secondary School‘s recent production of Mimi Lights the Candle, a Christmas play James Reaney wrote in 1943 when he was a student.

On Christmas Eve, Laura, Mimi’s long-absent mother, returns home.

Mimi:      But you came!

Laura:     Yes, because it was Christmas. My money was nearly gone,
but I managed to pay my fare here. And then Mimi’s candle drew me.

November 26, 2010: Stratford Central Secondary School students in a scene from Mimi Lights the Candle. Photo by Wilma McCaig.
November 26, 2010: Carollers from Mimi Lights the Candle, Stratford Central Secondary School. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

Stratford Secondary School dedication on November 26

Stratford Central Secondary School’s new James C. Reaney Auditorium

Thank you all for coming to Friday night’s ceremony at Stratford Central Secondary School to dedicate its old auditorium, now the school’s drama centre, in honour of alumnus James Reaney.

The students gave a wonderful performance of Mimi Lights the Candle, a Christmas play James Reaney wrote for the school in 1943. As well as the carols in Mimi, students also sang “The Girls at Swift’s,” a song from King Whistle!, a play James Reaney wrote for the school’s centennial in 1979.

Special thanks to Stephanie Nescier for her excellent direction, and to Anne Swerdfager and the other members of the original 1979 cast of King Whistle! for singing along.

Thanks also to Ron Dodson for organizing this event, and to Lois Tarr, James Reaney’s classmate, for keeping her copy of Mimi Lights the Candle all these years. We know Dad would have been thrilled to be honoured in this way and to see you all enjoying the play.

November 26: The play was performed on the main floor and the audience was seated on the stage and around the performers. (Photo by Leith Peterson)
James Stewart Reaney (James Reaney’s son) and his wife Susan Wallace
James Stewart Reaney with Lois Tarr

Marionette Plays

In 1965 James Reaney created three marionette plays: Apple Butter, an original work, and two adaptations, Red Riding Hood and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Leith Peterson describes how her mother, Jay Peterson, came to commission the plays and help create the marionettes. The plays were performed by James Reaney and friends at the Western Fair in September 1965 in London, Ontario.

Jamie and Jay Peterson’s 1965 Apple Butter Collaboration


Presentation by Leith Peterson for “Remembering Jamie,” July 7, 2008, Aeolian Hall. Prepared July 6, 2008 © Leith Peterson, 2003-2008

My mother, Jay Peterson, and Jamie [James Reaney] had a lot in common.  Both were highly creative people who were good at getting projects not only off the ground, but also seeing them through to fruition.  Mom, Jamie and Colleen teamed up on a number of adventures over the years, but the focus of this presentation will be Jamie and my mother’s 1965 Apple Butter collaboration.

In his 1990 Theatrum article entitled “Stories on a String,” Jamie said “…Jay Peterson was a cultural pillar of the town and she persuaded the Fair board to commission a marionette show from me…They actually gave me some money – one third of which went towards a tent, but the rest I salvaged to pay artists and manipulators for designs, puppets, theatre facades, as well as hours of gruelling work rehearsing, learning, and finally for ten days in mid-September, performing from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the fairgrounds…Most of the manipulators were my graduate students.  We still talk about those very happy, very busy days in the fall of 1965.”

From 1963 to 1970, my mother was a director of the Western Fair, so this is the fair Jamie is referring to.  Apple Butter was one of three marionette productions commissioned for the 1965 fair.  Greg Curnoe’s anti-Vietnam war piece called Red, and Jamie’s Aladdin rounded out the trio.  My mother saw these shows as not just entertainment for children, but for adults as well.

Jamie described his Apple Butter effort as a “new venture.  What I wanted to do in this fairy tale – where an orphan boy triumphs over the cruelties of his guardian – was to create a puppet hero for Southwestern Ontario similar to Russia’s Petrouchka and France’s Guignol.”

Hester Pinch, Solomon Spoilrod, and Apple Butter. (Inspired by the original set designed by James Anderson.)
Victor Nipchopper from Applebutter makes an appearance in the prologue to Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood says: “You’re not in my story, Victor Nipchopper!” (The Red Ridng Hood marionettes and set were designed by Greg Curnoe.)

The Apple Butter marionettes were made at my grandfather’s old print shop at Leith, Ontario.  In his diary entry for August 23, 1965, Jamie chronicles my mother driving the Reaney family up to stay at the Peterson cottage, which was close to the print shop.  Then on August 29, Jamie pens that his sister Wilma picked up the Reaneys and took them back to London.  There is a wonderful photo of the Reaney family, including John and Wilma, on the front steps of the Peterson cottage.  Jamie is holding Apple Butter.

The Reaneys with Apple Butter, August 1965. Photo by Jay Peterson.

I was at camp at the time the Reaneys were at Leith.  However, Colleen, James, and Susan have provided details.  In addition, I have asked my brothers, Stuart and Donald, for their input.  Stuart remembers the Reaneys being at Leith and hanging out with James and John, but his only clear recollection is of James trying to convince him that the Dave Clark Five were better than the Beatles.

My brother Donald was just six at the time, but he enjoys reminiscing about “the making of Apple Butter and Moo Cow and how amazingly creative an effort it was.”  He recalls all the Reaney children being there, including Susan, who was closest in age to him.  What really stuck in his mind was Apple Butter and company hanging on the clothesline to dry.  He described the whole experience as “pretty amazing.”

Jamie created Apple Butter, Treewuzzle and Rawbone.  My mother made the heads as well as the papier-mache hands for the adult characters.  Mom also designed Moo Cow — an impressive-looking bovine, with the map of Canada on one side, built into the Holstein’s black and white markings.

Leith Peterson shows off Moo Cow, August 2008. Photo by Susan Wallace.

Jamie said that at the Apple Butter production in the Western Fair tent, “babies who cried for everything else shut up for Moo Cow, while backstage visitors enquired after Rawbone with a great deal of respect.”

Apple Butter went on to further acclaim in other locations.  After the Woodstock production, Jamie enthused that “children practically accompanied Apple Butter right to the station.”  In his 1968 biography of Jamie, Alvin Lee noted that Apple Butter was an adaptation from a simple folklore story “with a built-in appeal to the young, as the enthusiastic responses of hundreds of children have shown.” And there was also a built-in appeal for adults, including my mother and Jamie, who had so much fun bringing it all together.

James Stewart Reaney, James Reaney’s son, adds this news of Apple Butter and friends:

January 15, 2009

Apple Butter and Friends are on their way to the Canadian Museum of Civilization

I’m happy to know other people love Apple Butter, one of the marionettes created by my father in 1965, as much as I do. Apple Butter and several other marionettes from the 1965 play by dad were collected today & are en route to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. One of the marionettes, Moo Cow, was created by the late Jay Peterson, who helped clear the way for these remarkable characters to play the 1965 edition of the fair. The marionettes, including Apple Butter himself, have undergone some modifications since they first put their strings in front of the public. But it’s a real honour to see such interest & I know dad would be proud.

My only regret is that Jim Anderson’s magnificent set for Apple Butter disappeared somewhere over the years. It was a classic look at a Souwesto home.

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

Stratford Secondary School dedication and special performance

On November 26 in Stratford, Ontario, please join us for a gala celebration at Stratford Central Secondary School to dedicate the James C. Reaney Auditorium. The evening will begin with a brief reception at 7:00 p.m. and the program will begin at 7:30 p.m.

James Reaney attended Stratford Central from 1939-1944. To honour his achievements as a poet and playwright, the school made him its first inductee into its Arts Hall of Fame on May 6, 2010.

As part of the evening’s celebrations, students will perform a scene from Mimi Lights the Candle, a school Christmas play James Reaney wrote in 1943 when he was a student. Thank you Lois Tarr, a former classmate of James Reaney’s, for preserving your copy of the script all these years!


Admission is free, but seating is limited. Please reserve a seat by sending an email to or calling 519.271.4500 and asking for Diane Yausie, Head Secretary.

Stratford Central Secondary’s address is 60 St. Andrew Street, and the auditorium is located on the second floor near the front entrance to the school.

There is limited parking behind the school, and there are quite steep stairs at both the front and back of the school. Hope to see you there!


The Champlain Society’s The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta back in print


As part of its mission to increase public awareness of, and accessibility to, Canada’s rich store of historical records, The Champlain Society has reprinted The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, in a special paperback edition.

The monograph, edited and introduced by James Reaney, recounts the story of The Biddulph Tragedy of February 4, 1880, where “a body of men, blackened and masked, entered the dwelling of the somewhat notorious Donnelly family and murdered the inmates, the father, the mother, one son, and a girl, a niece”* in Biddulph Township near Lucan, Ontario.

James Reaney heard about the tragedy as a child: “The effect of my first hearing this story was paralyzing… It was my first glimpse of evil close to home.”**


*London Free Press Weekly, 12 February 1880 (See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xv and page 118)

**From the Introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xxiv.

James Reaney Memorial Lecture held on October 17 in Stratford

Thank you all for coming to the lecture on Sunday afternoon to hear Colleen Thibaudeau, James Reaney’s widow, talk about their early days together and read from some of his works.

For those of you who were unable to attend, Stratford Beacon Herald reporter Mike Beitz reports on Thibaudeau’s talk here.

Our thanks also to the organizers of the lecture at the Stratford Public Library, Charles Mountford, Anne Marie Heckman, and Sam Coghlan. Colleen Thibaudeau especially appreciated all the help she has had from her family and others; she couldn’t have done it without you.

One of James Reaney’s poems that Colleen Thibaudeau read was “White Grumphies, white snow” from Souwesto Home, published by Brick Books.

“White Grumphies, white snow…”

The students of Agricultural Diploma, their fathers
Grow square miles of blue flowering flax near
Pilot Mound and square miles of yellow mustard which
I saw as I drove out from Minnesota,
Well knowing that in the fall, in the autumn,
We would be teaching them Robert Penn Warren’s
Understanding Poetry, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,
Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Emily Dickinson.

As I climbed the stairs to their classroom
Over the Rupertsland Agricultural Auditorium,
Prepared to teach them “I heard a fly buzz when I died,”
I heard them splitting desk into kindling
For a bonfire in a waste paper basket where they
Burnt the texts on the course one by one,
Rainbow-coloured poems and prose they burnt,
Book by book, as I taught them.
As verbal virgins they were tougher
Than such pastoral nymphs as Diana or urban ones
Such as Athena.

However, a day or two later, taking a random stroll
Across the winter campus, I saw,
Around the corner of the Swine Barn, a herd
Of white, white pigs being driven into the barn
By my Aggie Dip students each with
A very proper and even beautiful pig-driving stick.
Was it their mid-term test in pig-herding?
It must have been.

The whiteness of the piggies against the whiteness of the snow
Presented them with optical problems.
They had trouble seeing me as well.
In fact not one of them did, for I
Was wearing this poem.

James Reaney, 2005.

My editor, Stan Dragland, wishes me to explain “White Grumphies, white snow.” They are white pigs herded by agricultural students on a snowy day.

James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau near Stratford, Ontario, 1982.

Colleen Thibaudeau to talk about James Reaney on October 17 in Stratford

Join us on October 17 at 3 pm at The Stratford Public Library Auditorium in Stratford, Ontario, to hear poet Colleeen Thibaudeau speak at the first annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture.

Colleen Thibaudeau and James Reaney, 1949

The annual lecture is a new project being developed by The Stratford Public Library and Poetry Stratford; it will feature a talk by a person who is knowledgeable about the life and work of Stratford poet and playwright James Reaney and of writing in the Southwestern Ontario region, which is such a strong element in Reaney’s writing.

Colleen Thibaudeau, Reaney’s widow and a poet and short story writer in her own right, was born in Toronto and raised in St. Thomas, Ontario. Educated at the University of Toronto, her M.A. thesis was on contemporary Canadian poetry. She married Reaney in 1951. Her books include Lozenges: Poems in the Shapes of Things (1965), Ten Letters (1975), My Granddaughters Are Combing Out Their Long Hair (1977), The Martha Landscapes (1984), The Artemesia Book (1991) and The “Patricia” Album (1992). Her involvement with all aspects of Canadian Literature has been long and deep. She has been associated with Canadian small presses and The League of Canadian Poets since the mid 1960s. Thibaudeau lives in London, Ontario.

James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau near Stratford, 1982. Photo by C.H. Gervais


The Stratford Public Library is located at

19 St. Andrew Street,

Stratford, Ontario

N5A 1A2

One-Man Masque at Nuit Blanche tonight in Toronto

If you’re in Toronto tonight, there will be a special reading of James Reaney’s One-Man Masque as part of the Nuit Blanche performances at St. Thomas’ Church. Larry Beckwith, Artistic Director of Toronto Masque Theatre, sends this update:

I am writing with an update of information about my involvement in Saturday night’s Nuit Blanche performances at St. Thomas’ Church as part of the “Pillars of Fire” exhibit.

A number of artists and performers are showcasing their work from 6:57 pm on Saturday to sunrise the following morning. Muscians and TMT friends involved include Alison Melville’s “Bird Project” the Windermere String Quartet, Brass Conspiracy, Ashiq Aziz’ “Classical Music Consort”, the Larkin Singers and the Sonore Percussion Trio.

I will be giving a special reading of James Reaney’s One-Man Masque at approximately 12:30 am. (This performance has been moved up from the previously-announced 2:00 am slot!).

I hope to see you there!

Pillars of Fire

Saint Thomas’s Anglican Church

383 Huron Street

scotiabank nuit blanche

Oct 2, 2010: 6:57 pm to sunrise

Zone A Independent Project – Scotiabank Nuit Blanche

Light emerges from darkness, as the mesmerizing beauty of fire allows us to transcend the night. See video, installation, performance and interactive artworks inspired by the transient and eternal nature of fire. Come celebrate your creative fire!

Happy 50th, Alphabet!

Fifty years ago this month, James Reaney published the first issue of Alphabet, a literary magazine featuring poetry, stories, art, essays, and reviews. Reaney edited Alphabet: A Semi-Annual Devoted to the Iconography of the Imagination from 1960-1971. He published poetry by Margaret Atwood, Jay Macpherson, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, bp Nichol, and Joy Kogawa, among many others, and kept in touch with writers across Canada.

Here is the cover of the first issue, which was designed by Allan Fleming.

Alphabet Number One, September 1960

Contributors to the first issue were John Robert Columbo, Daryl Hine, Edward Kleiman, Hope Arnott Lee, Jay Macpherson, M. Morris, Norman Newton, John Peter, Richard Stingle, and Colleen Thibaudeau.

Here is the first editorial James Reaney wrote for Alphabet:


Perhaps the drive behind this magazine might be found in the following cluster: (a) The most exciting thing about this century is the number of poems that cannot be understood unless the reader quite reorganizes his way of looking at things or ‘rouses his faculties’ as Blake would say. Finnegans Wake and Dylan Thomas’ ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ sonnet sequence are good examples here. These works cannot be enjoyed to anywhere near their fullest unless one rouses one’s heart, belly and mind to grasp their secret alphabet or iconography or language of symbols and myths. A grasping such as is involved here leads to a more powerful inner life, or Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’s wall.’ Besides which it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It seems quite natural, then, in this century and particularly in this country, which could stand some more Jerusalem’s wall, that there should be a journal of some sort devoted to iconography. After all Ernst Cassirer defines man as a symbol-making animal.

But (b) there had to be more than this general feeling of our time. There had to be the particular pressure of friends, teachers and even scoffers also interested in symbolism in one way or another. I can remember about twelve years ago at Toronto feeling the final clutch of the so-called scientific world. Metaphors seemed lies. Poetry seemed to have no use at all. The moon looked enchanting through the trees on Charles Street, but the enchantment was really nothing but an illusion of clouds and fantasy covering up a hideous pock-marked spherical desert. When I told this part of my problem to a friend, whose work appears in this issue, he showed me a passage from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell which had the effect of starting me back to the belief I had held as a child that metaphor is reality. Those were the months when young men and women sat up all night reading Fearful Symmetry which had just come out. I think I have been present at more conversations about the Fall than even Adam could have thrown a certain withered apple core at, and assuredly more speculations concerning Leviathan than Job scratched his boils to. Here in your hands lies one of the effects of those conversations — a small secret looking book devoted to the proposition that it is very interesting mankind should answer the terrors of the inner and the outer world with a symbolic fruit and an iconic sea-beast. Interest increases with exploration. This attitude is to me one of the most stimulating areas of intellectual life in Canada. A traveller from abroad would immediately pick it out. Ils ont parlé toute la nuit de baleines blanches! So base a mag on this fact, actually personally observed, this fact of our cultural life. It’s a sturdy fact too; why else so much opposition? The tactics of the anti-symbol, anti-anagogy gang could only be described by making up titles for their mags, such as: Anti-Rot, ExeJesus, Values, The Lampman Review and True Feelers. However.

And (c) there was the desire to do the same delightful thing I had watched here and now, also Northern Review, do: publish real poems and real stories in a format and an area of subtle zoning that created a memorable effect (as distinct as a taste) on readers and also ‘placed’ the poems and stories to their advantage. This must by one of the happiest of civilized activities, akin to the proper arrangement of flowers. It was Kleiman’s story I first felt I must see published; it was so imaginative and no one was doing a thing about it. No really live focus appeared to put the story in until a juxtaposition, mind and social, occurred: Jay Macpherson read a paper on myth at the English Club (part of it appears on pages within) and afterwards there was a party at an apartment on Yorkville. Here Hope Lee told the stories about being a twin that we’ve also printed. It suddenly came to me that here was proof that life reflected art. The myth of Narcissus reaches out and touches with a clarifying ray the street scene where the two human beings glide by also in the toils of reflection. That’s how poetry works: it weaves street scenes and twins around swans in legendary pools. Let us make a form out of this: documentary on one side and myth on the other: Life & Art. In this form we can put anything and the magnet we have set up will arrange it for us.

Two years later (printing lessons, typesetting, waiting for t’s to come from Toronto, balancing trays of type on buses rolling in blizzards) here it is.

Winnipeg, July 1960.

Happy Birthday!

James Reaney was born today on September 1, 1926 in South Easthope Township near Stratford, Ontario. He died on June 11, 2008, in London, Ontario. He would have been 84 years old today. Dear Jamie, we remember you always!

James Reaney’s birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario, Summer 2010.

Here is a poem by James Reaney from The Essential James Reaney, a collection of poems available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

The Gramaphone

Upon a lake
At Gramaphone
A beastly bird
Sits on the bank
And dips its beak
Of sharpened bone
Into a haunted
That ripples with an eternal stone.

When the ladies descend the stairs,
Some eat their fans
And others comb their hair.
But Miss Mumblecrust
Picks up that beastly bird
And dips its beak
Into that round lake
That ripples with eternal stone
And dips its beak of sharpened bone
Into a pool of a young man singing
‘I’m all alone
By the telephone!’

James Reaney, 1947

James Reaney at home: age 4, Summer 1930

(Hart House Library at the University of Toronto has dedicated a display of several of James Reaney’s books this month.)