Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

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Profile on Karl Jirgens’ Rampike, with a few questions

Karl Jirgens (Photo credit: Edward Niedzielski)

By rob mclennan

Originally founded in Toronto in 1979 while he was a student at the Ontario College of Art + Design, literary journal Rampike is edited and published by Karl Jirgens, and now in its 34th year of publication. Appearing twice a year, the journal is currently produced out of Windsor, Ontario, where Jirgens serves as an associate professor with the University of Windsor’s English Language, Literature and Creative Writing Department. As he explains to Judith Fitzgerald in an interview for The Globe and Mail’s book blog (posted November 10, 2009), the journal originated in “my basement in Toronto before it moved with me to Northern Ontario when I landed the job at Laurentian University prior to it accompanying me to my position as head of the English Department at the University of Windsor.” Even as the geography has shifted, the editorial scope has become more expansive, and the strength of the journal continues to be the mix of interview, review, poetry, concrete/visual poetry, fiction, criticism and visual art. Over the years, Rampike has long prided itself on producing an eclectic journal of “international art, writing, and theory,” and most issues include lists of dozens of contributors from numerous countries around the world. In an interview with Joe Haske on American Book Review, Jirgens says:

I’d say that Rampike is a kinetic historical archive. We move with changes in the aesthetic field, and are on top of them almost as fast as they happen. But we’re selective and seek those kinds of expressions that we think will be historically significant. So, we’re choosy, but open-minded. As an editor I find the job of selecting articles requires discriminating taste, and a very fine balance.

Karl Jirgens emerged from literary Toronto in the midst of a small press explosion, as he explains in his “12 or 20 questions” interview (posted January 26, 2008), even to the point of near self-dismissal: “I was one of the literary denizens of Toronto, where I was born and raised, and where I lived most of my misspent youth.” He has since published two works of fiction — Strappado: Elemental Tales (Coach House Press, 1984) and A Measure of Time (Mercury Press, 2003) — as well as two short folios for ECW Press (on bill bissett and Christopher Dewdney), co-edited an issue of Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory, published a book on Jack Bush for Coach House Press and edited the critical selected Children of the Outer Dark: The Poetry of Christopher Dewdney (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007).

During the period the journal began, Jirgens was one of many young writer/publishers emerging out of Toronto during that period, including jwcurry, Gary Barwin, Lillian Necakov, Daniel Jones, Daniel f. Bradley, Beverley Daurio and Kevin Connolly, all of whom also started some form of publishing, predominantly small chapbook presses, but also the occasional journal and trade publisher. During this period, Toronto enjoyed the emergence of publishing entities such as Proper Tales Press, Yak, Aya Press, The Pink Dog Press, Wolsak and Wynn, Surrealist Poets Gardening Association, Underwhich Editions, Streetcar Editions, Room 302 Books, WHAT! Magazine, Mondo Hunkamooga, crash magazine, The Mercury Press and Rampike, most of which have long since stopped production, or shifted hands from the original editors/publishers. At a recent event hosted by Arc Poetry Magazine at Ottawa’s poetry festival, VERSeFest, Arc managing editor, Monty Reid, discussed the difficulty and rarity of literary enterprise lasting into the multiple decade, mentioning the 35 years of consistent publishing they’ve enjoying through various editors over the years. Considering this, what becomes even more impressive is the fact that Rampike has not only lasted as long as it has, but thrived, while still run by its founding editor. Given the wealth of literary journals across Canada, there are extremely few that can make that kind of claim (Winnipeg literary journal Prairie Fire is another exception, helmed by founding editor/publisher Andris Taskans, as is Frank Davey’s Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory, closing in on five decades of publishing). American critic Michael Basinski had this to say of the journal, in a review of an issue in The Small Magazine Review #76-77 (January-February, 2000):

Rampike, edited by Karl E. Jirgens is a progressive champion magazine of aggressively promoting tomorrow’s fashionable poetry Ritz. Another pioneer in the vis-po game, Rampike has consistently been a port for diverse adventures in poetry. It is a magazine to intermingle, intertwine, co-habitate and fuse — forms, styles, ideas, and a sport to meet new writers. […] It is hard to find a magazine with such a sophisticated, yet narrow, but open program of writing.

Further in his interview with Judith Fitzgerald, Jirgens says more specifically:

The function of the magazine has always been to introduce new and emerging talent alongside the more established or experienced. It’s proven a winning strategy.

I believe, at any rate, it’s a strategy that provides a valuable service to the community (whether we speak of local, national or global issues); however, given its international recognition, the “community” Rampike now serves has expanded from the local (namely Windsor, Toronto and Ontario) to the whole of Canada and far beyond it.

Part of what makes the journal unique, perhaps coming out of his time at OCAD, is in the physical size of each other, currently sporting a 7-by-11 inch format, as Jirgens explains in his “12 or 20 questions” interview:

So, for me, concept and structure need to be integrated. That’s why I initially published Rampike magazine in its tall format (6 inches wide by 17 inches tall) because it permitted long hunks of text to be read without interruption. And it fit neatly on the back of a toilet seat in one’s private “library.” But recently the major chains refused that format claiming it was too difficult to handle so they forced me to switch to a more conventional shape or they’d refuse to carry it. In many ways business and creativity can find themselves at odds. I guess one of the challenges facing any artist is to resolve that oddity.

rob mclennan: How and when was RAMPIKE originally founded? What do you see has changed about the journal over the years?

Karl Jirgens: Thanks kindly for asking, rob. I started Rampike in 1979, because at the time I felt that the publishing scene in Canada didn’t allow for enough versatility or range in literary form. I was also interested in the applications of text in other media, including the visual arts, performance, installation art, sculpture and so on. Most literary magazines at the time were publishing what Phil Hall calls little, square-shaped poems. We were more interested in textuality itself, as well as the page as site of literary action. For several years, I paid for the publication of Rampike out of my own pocket and it was a financial strain, given the fact that I was a starving student at the time. After three years in print, the Canada Council came to our aid. Nonetheless, I still have to chip in a good hunk of money out of pocket to help pay our contributors. We got lucky right from the start, and from our first issue, we were able to garner top-name international talent. The mag was quick to document digital texts, as in our “Electricity” issue (1981), and onward. Rampike has always featured progressive international art, writing and theory. Our original shape was 6 inches wide by 18 inches tall (and that shape ensured excellent sales). However, in more recent times, “big-box” megastores refused to carry the publication unless we adopted a “standard” format. So, we revised to a 7-by-11 inch format which is still a bit unusual, but we’re rather miffed that our format is being dictated by massive business corporations. The original shape was based on the Bauhaus mandate of “form follows function” (long narrow pages are ideal for showcasing poetry and fiction). Format matters aside, the publication is a kind of “kinetic archive” moving quickly to document progressive developments by artists and writers who are directly engaged with the medium of language itself. In that sense, we’ve become something of a “lighthouse” for innovative developments, recording them as they arise. Rampike has a history of covering top authors, artists and critics from around the world, including established talents next to exciting emerging voices. Some of our many contributors include: Paul Auster, Kathy Acker, Vito Acconci, Reed Altemus, Laurie Anderson, Rae Armantrout, Russell Banks, Charles Bernstein, Clark Blaise, Nicole Brossard, Chris Burden, William Burroughs, Joseph Beuys, Christian Bök, George Bowering, George Elliott Clarke, Leonard Cohen, Christopher Dewdney, Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Modris Eksteins, Martin Esslin, Raymond Federman, Judith Fitzgerald, Vera Frenkel, Pierre Joris, William Gibson, Phil Hall, Tomson Highway, Dick Higgins, Susan Holbrook, Linda Hutcheon, Richard Kostelanetz, Julia Kristeva, Robert Kroetsch, Clarise Lispector, Norman Lock, Alistair MacLeod, Daphne Marlatt, Steve McCaffery, Richard Martel, Marshall McLuhan, Dennis Oppenheim, bpNichol, Joyce Carol Oates, NourbeSe Phillip, Harvey Pekar, Al Purdy, Nino Ricci, Jerome Rothenberg, Gail Scott, Roland Sabatier, Michel Serres, Josef Skvorecky, Philippe Sollers, Ronald Sukenick, Rosemary Sullivan, David Suzuki, Carol Stetser, Fred Wah, Anne Waldman, David Foster Wallace, Darren Wershler, Michael Winkler, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and of course yourself, rob mclennan, to name only a very few. Over the years, we’ve steadily gained recognition among literati, and Rampike has been praised by both Canadian and international critics such as Judith Hoffberg, Marjorie Perloff, Frank Davey, Michael Basinski and Phil Hall, among others. Our profile is attracting increasingly international attention.

rm: You seem very fond of theme issues, listing some topics in your interview with Judith Fitzgerald, including “erotica, violence, propaganda, ontology, electronic media, First Nations peoples, [and] the 400th-anniversary of Quebec City.” Since then, you’ve produced the two-issue “Poetics” issues as Volume 21, and the current “Pre-recorded Histories” as Volume 22, Number 1. What is it about theme issues that appeals, and what do you consider the social role of the literary journal?

KJ: Yes, that Globe and Mail interview refers to the fact that through our themes we offer statements on significant socio-cultural topics. In the past we’ve covered subjects such as “Dreams,” “Food,” “’Pataphysics,” “Ecology,” “First Nations” and so on. Our “Wood” issue is significantly self-reflexive in that it refers back to paper and the print medium itself. One of our upcoming issues is going to be on “Conflict & Concord,” and that will include expressions on areas such as war and social strife, which appear to be increasingly prominent. We select themes that relate to issues of the time, and which open into dialogical debates. For example, our “Cultural Mischief” issue was launched at Livewords in Toronto during the G-20 summit, and we did interviews, including on CBC radio, supporting the role of the arts in reference to political-economics. On the other hand, we also do issues dedicated strictly to new developments in literary form. Our two recent “Poetics” issues presented both Canadian and international pioneers. And, more recently, we did a special issue dedicated to “Fictions,” including members of the Fiction 2 collective out of the U.S.A. Our current issue, “Re-recorded Histories” (Vol. 22, #1), features authors and artists who respond to historical events while recontextualizing them, often with deliciously ironic results, as is the case with Diane Schoemperlen’s remarkable text and visuals, in the latest issue. If it is through our stories and artistic expressions that we define ourselves, then, I hope that in some small way, Rampike nurtures some sophistication in our evolving cultural identity.

rm: A large part of the function of the journal is seeking out work beyond Canadian borders. I’m fascinated by the wide-ranging scope, from the numerous countries regularly represented within its pages to the inclusion of concrete/visual poetry and other more experimental forms. How do you maintain the diversity of the journal, and how important is it for you to maintain it?

KJ: Over the years, we’ve been fortunate in establishing a stable of authors and artists from across North America and around the world. And yes, not long ago, we released an issue dedicated purely to Visual Poetics, as a precursor to The Last Vispo collection just published by Fantagraphics (California). Many of our Vispo contributors appear in the Fantagraphics edition, and we feature visual poetics specialists in every issue. Our primary base is Canadian, but we don’t want to reduce ourselves to provincial representations of literary expression. So, to recall A.J.M. Smith’s views from the previous century, we’re very cosmopolitan in our outlook, as is our readership which is spread out over roughly four continents including North and South America, Europe, India and the Pacific Rim, including Australia, New Zealand (Aotearoa) and Japan. Rampike is a publication that caters largely to artists and writers themselves. We are not a mass-market publication, and we like to interact with and feature authors arising from some of the exciting small presses out there, such as Redfoxpress, Wilfrid Laurier, Coach House, Talon, BookThug, Quattro, Wesleyan Press, Teksteditions and so on. We’re working on a small collaboration right now with Exile Editions, regarding the Tarragon Theatre’s production of Automatist Claude Gauvreau’s The Charge of the Expormidable Moose, presented by Adam Seelig’s One Little Goat Theatre Company, based on Ray Ellenwood’s translation of that remarkable play. And, as you may have noticed, we’ve also featured a number of the fine authors that you’ve published through your own above/ground press. We cover authors arising from the Banff workshops, from the International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront, as well as BookFest Windsor, which brings about three dozen top writers from across Canada to Windsor each autumn. And, we interact with other periodicals such as filling Station, Jacket 2 and Open Letter. For example, we’re doing a collaboration with the forthcoming surrealism issue of Open Letter, except that we’re dubbing our issue, “Sur-Texts” which is a play on words alluding to surrealism, as well as to what Raymond Federman of the New York Fiction Collective once called “Surfictions” (or texts that attend directly to the medium of language itself). So, that double-edged meaning of “Sur” will be our starting point, and we’ll being going beyond that in our upcoming issue. I think it’s fair to say that there’s a McLuhanist edge to our editorial direction, and so, in this digital age, we are very much part of a global artistic and literary “village.”

rm: How has the journal affected your own writing?

KJ: Well, it has taught me a great amount about literary form and literary theory, and I’ve been able to pass on a lot of knowledge to fellow writers, as well as my students at the University of Windsor. I’ve had the opportunity to meet, talk with and interview some stellar talents. So, happily, I’ve acquired a fairly vast storehouse of knowledge, and can almost instantly recognize literary voices, techniques and stylistic strategies. On the other hand, as someone who has dedicated as much time to blogging, editing and publishing as you have, I’m sure you recognize that time itself cannot be retrieved, and that time spent editing the works of others, takes away from time spent on one’s own writing. So, I’d say that my experience as an editor has both refined and constrained my writing. I’m currently working on a collection of short stories, and a novel. I’ve also been publishing a series of scholarly essays on the influence of digital media in language-based performance and have articles printed in publications like Canadian Literature, and the upcoming Festschrift in honour of Barbara Godard (Wilfrid Laurier Press). My essays on digital culture will eventually be assembled into a book. I’ve also written articles on post-colonial culture with reference to my own Baltic (Latvian) background for international publications such as World Literature Today. And, my poetry was recently published in a limited broadsheet edition along with George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Marty Gervais, Maxine Gadd, Judith Fitzgerald and Leonard Cohen, titled, Six of One (designed by Alison Dilworth and edited by Judith Fitzgerald). So, I guess I’ve done ok, but I would like to do more. Overall, I’d say the frequency of my own published works has somewhat decreased, but I’d like to think that the quality has increased. As I’m sure you know, editors across Canada are in many ways, the unsung heroes of Canadian literature. Editors help to introduce, nurture and showcase emerging talent, and they ensure that audiences can keep up with new developments. Norman Levine once said, “We all start in a little magazine.” My job at Rampike is to try to keep our readers abreast of contemporary developments, and so I think of editing as an important contribution and service to our national and global literary community. Looking back over three and a half decades, I’m pleased to see that Rampike provides a unique historical archive, documenting nearly 35 years of ground-breaking Canadian and international talent. So, I guess in some ways, the effort was worth it.



Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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