#286 Endpiece: Recalling New Orphic
April 13th, 2018
Here Margrith Schraner recalls her twenty years as Associate Editor of The New Orphic Review. “I now conceive of Endpiece as a caboose—a railway wagon attached to the end of a train. The lights at the back of the caboose may point to the existence of the wagon, but they do not indicate the destination of the train.”
by Margrith Schraner
The sun is a tomato red safari disc afloat in a sky of dusky grey. Kootenay Lake is cast in bronze, surrounding hills flattened, a two-dimensional moonscape of ghostly yellow mottled with bleach.
Staccato voices of crows are calling out to each other across the refracted light; a raucous cry, amplified: an angry cough, a harsh complaint.
Locate the past: “Look back twenty years,” you say to encourage me. “Write a nostalgic piece; go back to The New Orphic Review in its infancy.”
My nostrils sniff the air in hopes of catching a whiff of memory: Incredibly soft, the mossy green of woodsy enclaves, of shady coves bordering the Pacific.
1996 was the year New Orphic Publishers released my first book, Black Snow: an imaginative memoir (co-authored with Ernest Hekkanen). Recalling 1997; the year we both turned fifty, the year we both called Vancouver ‘home’, the year we crossed the Atlantic and Ernest met my Swiss family. The year Ernest presented a paper at the North American Studies Conference in Tampere, Finland. A fertile time—The New Orphic Review, our love child, then still a twinkle in his eye.
By spring of the following year, the first issue of our literary magazine was born…
Start with where you are: I am reluctant to reckon with the past, to detail events related to our publishing lives, afraid that if I start looking back twenty years, I’ll get sucked under, pulled down into a mire of murky detail, or worse get caught in the proverbial brambles of nostalgia, blinding me to what is of relevance. Moreover, I’m troubled by the thought that something significant—something that has influenced our lives to such a large degree—will reach a terminus, a final point. Gate closed.
The year so far has taken endurance, tenacity. Health issues have zapped our élan vital, set us back. We’ve both come away from various medical tests unscathed; emerged from the acute stages of whatever it was that assailed us this spring. The fire season appears to have laid much of our enterprising spirit to rest.
In the West Kootenay, we’ve been holding our breath for weeks now. We wake up sneezing, suck in air laden with smoke, our vision blurred. Hot winds tear at majestic maple trees. Small airplanes now unable to take off or land due to particulate matter in the air. Limited visibility; temperatures rising above 35 degrees Celsius. Helicopters trailing buckets through the air, skirting the flank of Elephant Mountain, carrying gallons of water to dowse flames old and new. Fire updates; fire risks; fire reports.
Whatever happened to our creative engagement? Where is the spark we have come to expect that used to drive us on?
“How do I prepare for where the path leads next?” The question, selected at random from No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering, by Clara Bensen, found on a library shelf recently, led me to envision a new direction, a possible way of moving forward, even if to do so might necessitate going back—after breakwater a new wave, a process of divination, seeking the sort of guidance offered by a Tarot card.
My present writing—isn’t it connected to the writing I have done over the past twenty years—and therefore, am I not grateful to the Editor–in-Chief of The New Orphic Review for his encouragement?
I can see it now from where I stand: A nod of acknowledgement to Pythagoras, and a generous thank-you wave to Ernest, the founder of New Orphic Publishers; a gesture of gratitude from the bottom of my heart. He gave me a chance to develop as a reader, but also as a writer—the kind of writer I imagined I could be. He stood by my side, encouraged me—employed what he jokingly referred to as the carrot-and-stick method—writing in red ink the words, ‘Keep going’ at the top of the single-spaced draft I would write, followed by numerous re-writes, which I would diligently type out on his I.B.M. Selectric, while he went out to earn a living as a self-employed renovator.
And when I was ready to handle more feedback, he offered it gently—saying that what my work lacked primarily was something called architecture, before going on to suggest how I might shape the body of my inchoate material (possibly in the manner of Maxwell Perkins, whose suggestions had helped shape the unwieldy outpourings of many a famous writer, Thomas Wolfe among them, although I’m fully aware that a Thomas Wolfe I’ll never be).
Next to his typewriter, each workday morning, I would find a couple of newly-produced pages of his writing, read them over with interest, marvel at his prodigious talent, catch misspellings, and pencil in some suggestions or corrections of my own. I was starting to harbor jealousy toward his Muse, who seemed to demand an inordinate amount of his time, when one fine morning, months later, when I sat down to do some typing of my own, I found a yellow rose that he had left for me.
Decisive moments, utter beginnings, pivotal events: An inkling, from the time I was twelve years old—a Swiss girl reading teen novels borrowed from the village school library, and a born romantic from the start—that what I wanted more than anything was to meet a real-life writer in the flesh. I was forty-one when it happened: Here, in my lap had landed the work of the published writer, Ernest Hekkanen. I loved the quality of his imagination, his quirky humor. I recall the day I rode the city bus from Horseshoe Bay back to Vancouver with my teenage daughter, laughing tears while reading a passage to her from his short story collection, The Violent Lavender Beast.
At the funeral of a playwright we had both known, listening to Ernest read a selected passage from the playwright’s work, I instantly fell in love, was smitten with the timbre of his voice. “It’s dangerous,” one of my girlfriends cautioned me. “A man is not his work, you ought to know that.” And when I continued to sing Ernest’s praises, she sighed dramatically and pleaded, “Tone it down.”
Ernest took me along to the launch of his second book in Burnaby, offered me a ride in his yellow truck. I put my Swiss embroidery skills to work; decorated the front of my long-sleeved tank top with what I then conceived of as a daring slogan: “Sleep with an author—Buy a book,” inspired by utter coup de foudre.
A few weeks later, he invited me to accompany him to a Writers Union of Canada meeting, followed by a potluck, held at the home of Jan Drábek. “Hi, I’m Ernest,” he said, heading for the kitchen with his frying pan, “but I’m not earnest all the time.” He garnered a few knowing smiles, set the squid he had prepared, afloat in a tomato sauce and spiced with caraway seeds, down on the stove for later reheating. He wore shorts and sandals then, black polyester dress socks that reached up to mid-calf. “I’m not kosher—I’m even gaucher than I was before,” he remarked upon hearing me read this passage. He introduced me to the cadre of published writers that were present. Assuming that I was a writer, they proceeded to question me about the subject of my book. I fibbed, and when they inquired whether I was receiving PLR payments I replied in the affirmative, although I had no idea what PLR referred to. Ernest, who had two books to his name, came to my rescue. “We’re a couple of retreads making a new run at it,” he said. I liked his self-effacing humor; it seemed indicative of a certain flexibility of mind. He was comfortable, unapologetic. His outspokenness and devil-may-care attitude were some of the qualities I felt had been trained out of me by my Swiss upbringing. They were a welcome antidote to the repressive climate, which I would describe as a kind of inbred seriousness. People were hard-working yet humorless. Entrenched attitudes, unspoken assumptions and parameters kept everyone in line—restrictions against which I instinctively rebelled, and which may have contributed to my desire to leave Switzerland. Ernest, having grown up in North America, knew no such constraints. I found his authenticity inspiring, started to give myself permission to explore, experiment. I started writing. My valiant attempt to get even, to level the playing field with my internal censor and my internal critic, is evident in Black Snow: an imaginative memoir.
On our third get-together, I shared with him my long-held wish to come face to face with a rare creature. I had never seen a rhinoceros. I envisioned a treasure hunt of sorts; hoped to come away from it with a sense of awe. To facilitate my meeting with the near-miraculous, he agreed to drive me in his quarter-ton pickup truck to a game farm near Abbotsford, where I stood, saddened by the sight of two rhinoceroses, a mother and baby held in captivity, huddled together on a patch of dirt. We ended the day with a burger at the Red Robin on Broadway. After many years of vegetarianism, I was starting to crave meat. More accurately, I was possessed by a desire to sink my teeth into more than literature.
One of our first squabbles was about literature—less a debate and more like a passionate exchange of views—mine, an argument informed by years of academic training; his, stemming from decades of writing, a vocation grounded in the writer’s craft. “I’m not doing too badly for an incompetent,” he would often assert. And while I felt competitive, bent on winning the argument with him, his view was disarming. In the end, neither of us won; we both recognized that we would need one another, resolved to pull together for better or for worse. We began to share our limited resources, moved into a townhouse on Victoria Drive; saw ourselves obliged to sublet two of the bedrooms in order to come up with the monthly rent. Among our friends in Vancouver’s East End were many artists whose passionate pursuits were in theatre, art and literature. The nineteen-nineties were a helter-skelter time. We were getting used to taking risks: Our house became an informal venue for poets, writers and sometimes musicians to come and present their work. The ‘Living Room Series’ was an idea hatched by poets Chad Norman and Catherine Owen, who organized these monthly gatherings. Ernest, who was also a visual artist, and whose paintings and woodblock prints hung on our walls, carved and painted a wooden shingle that announced the New Orphic Gallery, which would hang from the portico of our townhouse on such nights. Our circle of literary acquaintances kept expanding. Ernest continued painting. I took courses in darkroom and photography. Featured among the contributors to the inaugural issue of The New Orphic Review were many who had taken part in our monthly soirées. Although our abode was a far cry from Gertrude Stein’s salons, the company of gifted writers inspired us, kept us busy, buoyant.
Submissions to The New Orphic Review began to arrive. We made room; managed to fit a bi-annual publishing schedule into our busy lives. Ernest took care of all the facets of publishing: he typed and photocopied, then collated individual pages; he did lay-out and designed the magazine covers; hand-bound each copy using glue and thread; took care of all correspondence with the authors, took care of distribution and accounting, too. The noble tasks of copy-editing and proofreading fell to me.
The selection of contributors for each issue of the NOR was not an arbitrary process; it evolved over time in an intuitive and organic fashion. The content was relevant and fresh, reflective of the varying influences of the times, the multitude of concerns, pursuits and intellectual preoccupations of the Editor-in-Chief, and to a lesser extent, mine. We pushed to meet the publication deadline every Spring and every Fall, the fury of production year after year usurping all our attention. Forty issues will soon be arrayed on the bookshelf in his upstairs office. Twenty years: Three in Vancouver, the rest in Nelson, B.C.
Many other interests in our messy lives have vied for our attention, but New Orphic Publishers has maintained a central place. Ernest to date is the author of forty-seven books. Hanging on our walls are paintings and photographs, salon-style. Our home, the abode of New Orphic Publishers and the New Orphic Gallery, is a Literary Landmark, due to the efforts of BC BookWorld’s Alan Twigg. We can be located: We have internet presence; we are # 123 on the Literary Map of B.C.
Now that we are in the throes of readying the final issue for publication, I realize that what I have written is a far cry from the chronology I had once envisioned. It is a sketch, not a tidy, little history of The New Orphic Review. It is not a linear account, based on entries in my numerous notebooks, and neither is it a matter of sorting out cause and effect. From the moment I began to write this article, it changed—clearly a matter of observer affecting that which is observed. On any given day, I would recall new facets of the NOR’s history. The manner of my recounting changed along with it. What I have written is impressionistic, mirroring the unique way in which memory works.
In view of the fact that the vast NOR chapter of our lives will soon reach a conclusion, I have discovered that significant moments are not unlike the luminous dots that speak of the presence of stars in a night sky. As such, they share a momentary connection, some relatedness only we can see. It is neither the result of linearity nor logic. These, the highlights in our shared publishing history, belong to a different order. They may speak of the contributors to our literary journal as affinities, as echoes, fractals in a Fibonacci spiral, even. The creative work that has filled the pages of The New Orphic Review over the past twenty years testifies to our interdependence: Our literary magazine is the physical manifestation of what Ernest sees as his ephemeral community. The community has essence; it endures, cannot be lost. The tongue-in-cheek summation of our mandate, I would say, is that New Orphic is the cornerstone of co-dependent publishing.
We find ourselves at a juncture—but we are not at the end. The adventure and the risks we take will continue in other ways.
I now conceive of “Endpiece” as a caboose—a railway wagon attached to the end of a train. The lights at the back of the caboose may point to the existence of the wagon, but they do not indicate the destination of the train.
Locate the future: What matters now is that the wind will shift and rain will come. The fire season will soon be over. And, yes—we all know the signal lantern will be raised. There will be waves good-bye; the train is bound for places yet unknown. New and exciting narratives will soon consume us, and as per usual, the train moves on.
Born in Switzerland, Margrith Schraner came to Canada at age 22 and gained her English degree from Simon Fraser University. Her short story ‘Dream Dig’ which first appeared in the New Orphic Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, was selected for inclusion in The Journey Prize Anthology 13 (2001).
She has been Associate Editor of the New Orphic Review since its inception, in 1997. Her writer husband Ernest Hekkanen is the Editor-in-Chief of the review. Margrith Schraner co-wrote Black Snow: An Imaginative Memoir (1996) with Ernest Hekkanen. Tolstoy’s wife wrote nine versions of War and Peace for her husband; Margrith Schraner has published The Reluctant Author: The Life and Literature of Ernest Hekkanen (New Orphic 2006 $25), a lucid and surprisingly objective appraisal of her husband’s remarkable output. We learn that Hekkanen originally intended to become a playwright but realized he wasn’t a very sociable person, a quality that struck him as essential for the theatre world. “I would contend that much like Kafka,” she writes, “Hekkanen has erected his own Great Wall of Fictional Defense….” But unlike his role model, she says, Hekkanen revises his short stories and novels for each new edition. She has described her pivotal impressions of him at the Burnaby Art Centre in 1988. Since then the Nelson-based couple operated their own art gallery, literary periodical and publishing imprint. On May 17, 2013, Ernest Hekkanen and Margrith Schraner celebrated the ‘Sweet 16’ anniversary of New Orphic Review at the Oxygen Art Center in Nelson, B.C.