Alpha Centre 1967: Monday June 9 at 7pm

Join us on Monday June 9 at 7 pm at the London Public Library for a lecture by James Stewart Reaney (James Reaney’s son) about the founding of Alpha Centre, an arts space devoted to drama where many of James Reaney’s “Listeners’ Workshops” were held. James Reaney described the new space and the activities there in Issue 13 of Alphabet (June 1967):

“[…] Just out of range — that part of Talbot Street across Dundas where a newly painted green door has appeared leading to newly founded Alpha Centre — in part a fulfullment of the editorial for Alphabet (4) — devoted to drama in Canada. This is “the bare long room” up above a store — it’s an old Legion Hall. Here Listeners’ Theatre Workshop has been meeting with its new kind of play theatre — children and young people pretending to be mirrors chromosomes marionettes, trees, rivers, — the Victoria Boat Disaster. Here Jack Chambers has been working on his Viet Nam film [Hybrid (1966)] transposing images of roses with those of burnt children.  Here all of Paradise Lost and all of Blake’s Jerusalem were read at a sitting — experiences that showed me new depths in these poems….” [Alphabet Issue 13, June 1967, Editorial, page 2]

Note from Susan Reaney: My brother James is the first speaker in the library’s new series of local talks — Terrific Tales of London and the Area. If you remember the green door at 389 Talbot Street, come to the Stevenson & Hunt Room at the London Public Library (Central Branch) on Monday June 9th at 7 pm to share your stories. (The Alphabet Press printing shop was not far from Alpha Centre on the second floor of the Dixon Building, 430 Talbot Street.)

James Reaney and family in 1965 in Leith, Ontario. Standing left to right are the adults: Colleen Reaney, Wilma McCaig (Jamie’s sister), and James Reaney. The children are John Andrew Reaney, James Stewart Reaney, and Susan Reaney (beside Applebutter). Photo by Jay Peterson.


Devil’s Artisan 72: A new home for Alphabet’s Nolan proof press

Devil’s Artisan Issue 72, Spring/Summer 2013

Issue 72 of Devil’s Artisan features Gasperau Press owner Andrew Steeves’ account of his journey in September 2012 from Black River, Nova Scotia to Linotype U, a symposium on the art of linotype printing, in Denmark, Iowa. On the way there and back he visited as many letterpress print shops as he could, including The Porcupine’s Quill in Erin, Ontario.

Tim [Inkster] took me over to the PQL warehouse (located in the basement of the building next door) to show me what he felt should be the first press photographed on my journey. Not his own Heidelberg KORD 64 offset press (the model also used at Coach House Books in Toronto and at Gaspereau Press), but rather a small Nolan proof press that once belonged to the poet James Reaney. Reaney is perhaps best known as the editor of Alphabet, an innovative literary journal he published in London, Ontario, between 1960 and 1971. Early issues of the publication were set and printed by Reaney himself, though it is doubtful that this particular little press was used in the production of the journal for anything besides proofing type. I was glad of Tim’s suggestion, for it would turn out that Nolan proof presses would keep popping up everywhere along my route.

James Reaney’s Nolan proof press at The Porcupine’s Quill in Erin, Ontario

Andrew Steeves is the co-owner of Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia. Tim Inkster of The Porcupine’s Quill is the publisher of several titles by  James Reaney, including A Suit of Nettles, The Box Social and Other Stories, and The Essential James Reaney.

Illustration by James Reaney from Twelve Letters to A Small Town (1962)

James Reaney’s Alphabet celebrated in Devil’s Artisan

Issue 71 of Devil’s Artisan, A Journal of the Printing Arts, celebrates James Reaney’s magazine Alphabet (1960-1971) with “A Brief History of Alphabet Magazine” by D.I. Brown.

Devil’s Artisan, Issue 71, Fall/Winter 2012

The essay is a revised and updated excerpt from D.I. Brown’s MA thesis, ‘A History and Index of Alphabet Magazine’, which he submitted to the Department of English at McMaster University in April 1973.

“… But, like all of Reaney’s work, the idea of Alphabet was never abandoned. It became absorbed into the collective body of his imaginative output, and many of the ideas tried in the magazine became parts of Reaney’s new work.”
(Devil’s Artisan, Issue 71, page 60)

Alphabet Number One, September 1960
James Reaney printing at the Alphabet Press print shop at 430 Talbot Street in London, Ontario (mid-1960s). Credit: London Free Press/Sun Media Corporation.

As part of his research, D.I. Brown conducted taped interviews with James Reaney in the fall of 1971. The full version of Brown’s thesis can be viewed online at:




Alphabet Number 11 and Poems by John Hirsch

From Alphabet Issue 11 (1966), here is John Hirsch’s poem “My Grandfather”:

My Grandfather

Old men love the sun.
My Grandfather, eighty four,
in black bowler,
black overcoat,
in the same chair
through Spring, Summer and Fall
always against the same white-washed wall
sat soaking up the sun.
Hands spread on his knees—
Skin like dried guts
cracked with veins like the indigo ink
he dipped his pen in to write
in velvet covered, silver-locked ledgers.

Dozing in the sun
his skin drew the heat
till he seemed to glow
like a black swathed mummy
of a gold-leafed Pharaoh.

John Hirsch, 1966

John Hirsch (1930-1989) lost his family in the Holocaust and came to Winnipeg, Canada as a war orphan in 1947. With the help of his foster family, he pursued his love of the theatre and became one of Canada’s most renowned directors. John Hirsch directed James Reaney’s play Names and Nicknames at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg in October, 1963.

Earlier this summer at the Stratford Festival, Alon Nashman performed his one-man play Hirsch, a tribute to this inspiring director. For more about John Hirsch, see A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson.

Jay Macpherson 1931-2012

We are sad to learn of the passing of Jay Macpherson, who was a longtime friend of James and Colleen Reaney and their family. Jay was a poet and University of Toronto professor who first came to know the Reaneys in the 1950s. She passed away on March 21, 2012.

Jay Macpherson, 1931-2012

Jay Macpherson will long be remembered for her kindness and intelligence, and her brilliant poetry. Here are two poems by Jay Macpherson that James Reaney published in the first issue of Alphabet in September 1960.

The Love-Song of Jenny Lear

Come along, my old king of the sea,
Don’t look so pathetic at me:
We’re off for a walk
And a horrid long talk
By the beautiful banks of the sea.

I’m not Arnold’s Margaret, the pearl
That gleamed and was lost in a whirl,
Who simpered in churches
And left him on porches,
But more of a hell of a girl.

Poor old fish, you’re no walker at all,
Can’t you spank up that elderly crawl?
I’ll teach you to hurdle,
Led on by my girdle,
With whalebone, elastic and all.

We’ll romp by the seashore, and when
You’ve enough, shut your eyes and count ten.
I’ll crunch down your bones,
Guts marrow and stones,
Then raise you up dancing again.

Love-Song II of Jenny Lear

Were I a Shakespearean daughter,
Safe restored through fire and water,
You the party in the crown
—Someone get the curtain down.

Jay Macpherson, 1960

“Six Toronto Poets”, Folkways Records, 1958

Jay Macpherson won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1957 for her book The Boatman. She can be heard reading her poem “The Boatman” on “Six Toronto Poets,” a recording made in 1958 on Folkways Records. (James Reaney also reads his work on this album, along with Margaret Avison, W.W. Eustace Ross, Raymond Souster, and Anne Wilkinson.)

Here is part of James Reaney’s appreciation of Jay Macpherson’s The Boatman from Canadian Literature No. 3, Winter 1960:

Perhaps the best way to conclude what should be said in praise of The Boatman is that it shows you how to get from “here to there”. If “here” is this world and “there” the world of Eternity, then this book of poems shows the reader all the necessary steps of the way. These are steps that I am sure an increasingly great number of readers and writers in Canada are going to find very exciting to take.

(Excerpted from James Reaney, “The Third Eye: Jay Macpherson’s The Boatman“, published in Canadian Literature, Issue No. 3, pages 24-24, Winter 1960, page 34.)


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.