LITERARY LOCATION: New Orphic Gallery, 706 Mill Street, Nelson. Directions: Near the intersection of Mill and Hall, four blocks from Selkirk College.

Ernest Hekkanen's intimidating versatility and productivity have increasingly defied easy categorization and marketing. Although Hekkanen is clearly one of British Columbia's most remarkable writers, his work is seldom recognized in mainstream publications and Canada's literary festivals have consistently overlooked him. Library systems and bookstores depend on established conduits for ordering books, leaving staunchly independent producers such as Hekkanen out in the cold. His work frequently points to dark but universal recesses of the mind. As a sophisticated do-it-yourselfer, Hekkanen has gradually outpaced Adolf Hungry Wolf as British Columbia's most prolific and serious self-publisher. He and partner Margrith Schrander (in photo) also operate the New Orphic Gallery and New Orphic Review from their home. He announced the final issue of New Orphic Review would be published in 2017.

ENTRY: Born in Seattle on April 27, 1947, of Finnish heritage, Ernest Hekkanen waited until his 47th book, False Memories, to describe a pivotal event in the Seventh Grade, at Lynnwood Junior High School, which would strongly influence him for the rest of his life. He later condensed the story:

"I found myself in a block class full of misfits, underachievers and emotionally disturbed children. When I surveyed my fellow classmates, I couldn't fathom what I was doing among them. Our teacher, Tiny Thorton, ruled the class with an iron fist. He began the school year with an illustrated lecture, one that necessitated putting a 'guinea pig' on display. That year the role of 'guinea pig' fell to me. He strapped me into a straitjacket and proceeded to lecture us on how our bad attitudes had come to straitjacket our lives. According to him, most of us would end up failures of one kind or another, if we were unable to shirk the attitudes that had come to confine us. My role was to demonstrate how difficult it would be to get out of the straitjacket each and every one of us had come to wear. Were I to get out of it I would be allowed to smoke in class for the rest of the school year, but were I to fail, the other kids were given permission to throw spit wads and crumpled balls of paper at me... Needless to say, I didn't get out of the straitjacket, and needless to say, I swore I'd never be put in one ever again."

Fast forward to 1969 when, after deciding to move to Canada as a draft evader in 1969, Ernest Hekkanen was dropped off on Main Street in Vancover by a friend. "I wasn't of the Quaker faith or any other religious tradition opposed to the war," he has written. "I simply objected to the Vietnam War, and the atrocities being perpetrated on our behalf."

With his first wife and children he lived in Port Moody, working at job he hated in die-casting foundry, often writing on an old Underwood typewriter between three and seven in the morning before going to work. After eleven years in his adopted country, he applied for Canadian citizenship, partly out of pragmatism because he hoped he might be able to gain access to some fellowships or bursaries that would enable him to obtain an MFA in creative writing.

Hekkanen lived in Vancouver as an independent contractor/carpenter and gradually shed an early affiliation as a writer with magic realism. Hekkanen's early fabulist fiction was compared to that of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Samuel Beckett after the publication of Medieval Hour in the Author's Mind in 1987. With Gothic overtones, his second collection of stories revealed the angst of contemporary domestic lives.

In the 1990s, Hekkanen turned his hand to self-publishing under his New Orphic imprint. The press also prints books by other writers and manages the New Orphic Review, a literary journal that publishes twice a year without any government support. New Orphic covers sometimes feature artwork and collages by Hekkanen or his long-time partner Margrith Schraner, who co-authored Black Snow: An Imaginative Memoir.

Before moving to Nelson, Hekkanen was also active in a short-lived Vancouver chapter of PEN International.

Upon relocating to Nelson in the Kootenays, Hekkanen and Schraner began co-curating their home-based New Orphic Gallery. As well, the New Orphic Review has been published continuously from Nelson since their relocation to the Kootenays.

The range of Hekkanen's writing is easily appreciated by looking at any handful of his titles. For instance, Man's Sadness delves into the deadly destruction of an Army Math Research Centre in Wisconsin. It's a tale of intrigue in which a Ph.D. student collecting oral histories at the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver uncovers the fugitive Jerry Rantala, alias the Rant Man of the radical Weatherman movement in the United States during the early 1970s. In another instance of art imitating life, theatre director Jay Hamburger's true tale of interviewing theatre director and performance artist Peter Reade for Vancouver's Co-op Radio, wherein Reade took off all his clothes during their conversation, prompted Hekkanen to write The Radio Interview featuring 'Jay Jabberwocky' and a nudist named Jeremy Pan.

Hekkanen has drawn from Lord of the Flies and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to create an allegorical novella Dementia Island, a place where madness and hurricanes pose an equal threat. Hekkanen's 23rd book is a one-act passion play, The Lambing, originally written in 1983 for an intended performance on Mayne Island at Easter. "Although there is an obvious allusion to things religious in the play,"; says Hekkanen, "it does not require the audience to be knowledgeable of Christianity or to understand rituals that involve sacrifice. Indeed, if one were to travel beyond the boundaries of the city and out into the countryside, one would discover that this passion play is performed every spring, wherever sheep are raised for food or wool."; Hekkanen's novella The Island of Winged Wonders is a fable about a fisherman who catches a luminous silver egg. Hekannen simultaneously released a collection of essays, Sometimes I Have These Incendiary Dreams. Professor and feminist Pamela Dresdahl has it all--a wealthy husband and a Range Rover--but she suffers a shattering loss of confidence in The Last Thing My Father Gave Me.

In Hekkanen's oddly titled novel Up and Coming (In Seattle), a third-generation Finnish-American art professor in Seattle is recovering from the death of his mother and the loss of his wife to a lesbian relationship when he learns his impotent father Harry is about to marry beautiful 39-year-old named Rosemarie Venturini. In this comic tale, the father attempts to cure his problem with the installation of a 'pecker pump', inspiring his son to create a huge sculpture near the Seattle Opera House called Please, Dad, You Don't Have to Show Us. The title story of Ernest Hekkanen's 34th book, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street is inspired by a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. A prosecuting attorney observes a girl rolling a bicycle hoop down a cobblestone street only to be drawn into a Robbe-Grillet-like mystery. There are comical shades of Kafka throughout these 12 stories set in six identifiable countries of Hekkanen's fervent imagination. Kafka reappears prominently in the novella, The Life of Bartholomew G., in which a former ESL teacher has spent more than 20 years on his M.A. thesis about Franz Kafka. Burdened by family expectations, the Finnish-Jewish Canadian protagonist remarks, "I've come to think it isn't good enough to simply study Kafka. In a manner of speaking, to better know him, one must become the man." But Hekkanen himself is not an unabashed admirer of Kafka. His 37th title, Kafka, The Master of Yesno, concludes that "Kafka took the easy way out through tuberculosis and death rather than fulfill his promise as a truly great writer." This iconoclastic study also criticizes how scholars "have turned Kafka into an industry at universities around the world."

Shadows on a Cave Wall is an amusing and fascinating character portrait of a former prize-fighter, musician and fiction writer, Sebastian Salo, undertaken by a fictional chronicler, Jacques Dupuis, after Salo's body has been discovered two months after his death. As Dupuis gathers the myriad of views of Salo from members of a West Kootenay town, Hekkanen simultaneously provides a sly and revealing study of the town itself through the voices and prejudices and emotions of its citizens. The concert of opinions and personalities that comprise Shadows on a Cave Wall was possibly prompted by Hekkanen's leading role in promoting the favourable recognition of American draft resisters in Canada in 2006 against the wishes of small-minded and fearful citizens in the Kootenays who failed to understand why peaceful, anti-war sentiments ought to be respected.

The aforementioned cultural clash between the Chamber of Commerce types in Nelson who were anxious about their tourism industry and the Kootenay area's left-leaning back-to-the-landers and transplanted Americans, such as Hekkanen, who saw the world in larger political and moral terms, was the basis for Hekkanen's novelistic memoir, Of a Fire Beyond the Hills (New Orphic, 2008). History happens in the wink of an eye. There is much to be said for recording it while memories (and wounds) are fresh. Although Hekkanen has elected to subtitle his story "a novel based on news stories," this narrative reads like a frank rendition of the truth, as well as a cathartic and self-preservational upchucking of an extremely unpleasant experience. After right wingers from across the United States sent a barrage of hate mail to Nelson, protesting the possible erection of a War Resisters Monument, Hekkanen ended up being the spokesperson for the idealists. "What does the monument mean to me--to me personally," he advised the media, "For me, it's a middle finger salute to the White House, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and all the other right-wing morons who determine foreign policy down in the United States." As his role became fundamental in news stories from CNN, ABC, FOX, CBC, Los Angeles Times, Vancouver Sun, New York Times, and Globe & Mail, etc., he found his private life rapidly eroding. After the Doukhobor Museum outside of Castlegar failed to provide an alternate sanctuary for the monument as hoped and planned, Hekkanen reluctantly provided its refuge in his own living room--and his wife was far from thrilled. Neither was the mayor his town council who requested Hekkanen get a business license because he was not otherwise allowed to have a sign on his house saying New Orphic Gallery. Reading Tolstoy's Patriotism: The Slavery of our Times, back in 1967, helped Hekkanen take a stand. Hekkanen fought city hall and won. In the late spring of 2007, as a forest fire raged outside the town (giving rise to the title), Hekkanen had put his money where his mouth is, but also paid a heavy personal price for it. Having born the brunt of hostility from the conservative Chamber of Commerce types, he has struck back with his considerable writing talents, providing a frequently brilliant and often funny local history of the wave of fear, patriotism and hysteria that effectively blew the lid off Nelson's image as a 'laid-back' and idyllic community. Hekkanen likens this strange book to Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night, but it's more journalistic and confessional. "Now I wear a beard similar to Abraham Lincoln's," he writes. "I don't look anything like Lincoln. I look more like I could play the role of one of the apes in Planet of the Apes--without any facial putty." Of a Fire Beyond the Hills resonates not as an advertisement for his bravery so much as a defense of it. Somebody has got to stand up to the madness, even if it sometimes means standing alone. "I didn't take the death threats very seriously," he writes, "knowing how my former compatriots, especially those on the political right, loved to bravely puff up their pigeon chests."

Ernest Hekkanen has continued on the offensive since the controversial memoir, Of a Fire Beyond the Hills, was launched at the Oxygen Art Centre in Nelson, likening the climate of intimidation he faced to the repression of free speech in Nazi Germany and the political landscape that has shaped U.S. foreign policy under George Bush Sr. and Jr.

"The U.S. made it very uncomfortable for people on the left to express their opposition to war," he told the Nelson Daily News, "making it seem like they were unpatriotic. I saw the same things occur in Nelson. I couldn't help writing about it.... We have a lot of politicians willing to compromise our freedom of speech in order to buddy up to Americans and the almighty dollar." This book was one of three books shortlisted for the 5th annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in 2008.

Seriously comic, fabulist, theatrical, iconoclastic and shrewd, Ernest Hekkanen is a literary outsider by temperament and necessity but probably not by choice. He has done too much, too well, too fast, too independently, too far away from Ontario, to be fashionable.

The 880 pages and 73 stories of Volume One and Volume Two of The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern (New Orphic $28 each) represent an astonishing range and depth over forty years of highly original storytelling. None of the stories in the twin compilation escaped editing, and a few were extensively re-worked. After 41 books, he wrote, "My history as a writer has been that of believing in myself and my work, in the face of near anonymity-which, rather early in my career, after my first few books were published, became my modus operandi. Indeed, working in solitude and anonymity became a kind of discipline for me. For a long time, it was my belief that a writer should write as though he didn't desire to be read, for, in the end, when our solar system performs its final feat of collapsing, all the words in all the books on the face of the earth won't be words enough to animate the human tongue.";

Medieval thinking clashes with modernity in Ernest Hekkanen's 30th fiction release, a novel, Heretic Hill (New Orphic 2013), his 45th book since 1987. Hoping to prevent the primitive execution of his friend, Dr. Sadhar Badhar, in an unnamed Middle East country, New York Times correspondent Aki Kyosolamaki, the narrator, risks his own life when he is permitted to visit Badhar in the Reeduction Center for Misinformed Individuals, ostensibly to convince Badhar to confess his sins against Islam.

Bill Gaston has dubbed Hekkanen Canadian literature's "most resolute maverick." Possibly Hekkanen would agree. Meanwhile this iconoclast will just have to do his life over again before tastemakers will recognize his value.

Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime--to his long-suffering brother who was the only person who consistently loved him and supported his work. After his death, the artwork of van Gogh has generated billions of dollars for commercial enterprises around the world, such as the ever-popular van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the collective value of his separate paintings made over a ten-year period is beyond calculation. The disturbing Kafka-esque genius apparent in Ernest Hekkanen's novella I'm Not You (New Orphic 2014) brings van Gogh's fate to mind. Is it possible that one hundred years from now people will be reading this existentialist allegory and wonder how it could have gone unrecognized during the artist's lifetime?

Like van Gogh, who sold one painting, Hekkanen has only been published (twice) by one commercial press. For his 46th title, he introduced a nameless character who is discovered beaten almost to death in the woods of Manning Park. Brought to a hospital in Abbotsford, he cannot recall his name, or his past. He draws a complete blank, much to the consternation of the police and medical authorities. The man-who reluctantly accepts being addressed as 'Sir' in lieu of anything else-sometimes has a nagging voice in his head that questions his thinking, but he is helpless in his efforts to cooperate with other humans who are thoroughly perplexed by his amnesia. In great pain, Sir eats again, he defecates. He is very frightened when he sees a face in the mirror. He does not recognize what everyone else insists must be his own reflection. He doesn't know himself; so he only knows that he is not other people. Mostly he wants to get his clothes back. It is humiliating to be held prisoner in a hospital as a mere victim of circumstance. There is no indication that he has committed any wrongdoing. Finally he escapes down the elevator only to be dragooned by three nefarious men in a black van. They drive him back to the woods in Manning Park and they start beating him... The opening paragraph of I'm Not You is repeated, word for word. Is that giving too much away? Well, hardly anyone is going to read it for another one hundred years anyway...


1. Medieval Hour in the Author's Mind (stories), Thistledown Press, 1987. 0-920633-31-5
2. The Violent Lavender Beast (stories), Thistledown Press, 1988. 0-920633-45-5


3. From A Town Now Dreaming (novel) 1995. Dr. Koski of the Seven Arrows Clinic in Blazon, Wyoming keeps a journal to record the bizarre behaviour and dreams of the townspeople. 0-9699162-0-5
4. Black Snow: An Imaginative Memoir (fictionalized memoir with Margrith Schraner), 1995. $23.95 0-9699162-1-3. The married authors seek to recount a shared experience "only to discover how differently and inventively they remember the past."
5. The Wedding Cycle (poetry), 1996. 0-9699162-3-X
6. Journeys that Bring Us Here (stories), 1996. This collection illuminates men who live on the periphery, eternally on the road or in jobs they dream of escaping. $15. 0-9699162-2-1
7. Turning Life into Fiction: An Aesthetic Manifesto (essay), 1996. 0-9699162-4-8
8. Beyond the Call (one-act play), 1997. Produced at The Havana theatre in Vancouver by Theatre in the Raw, it's a drama about emotional fallout and generational conflicts that arose from the Vietnam War. $12. 0-9699162-7-2
9. The Soul You Call Your Own (stories), 1997. $18. 0-9699162-6-4
10. Chasing After Carnivals (novel), 1997. This story examines the lives of two brothers who come of age in small town America during the Vietnam War. 0-9699162-5-6 $20
11. The House of Samsara (novel), 1997. This is the fictional version of the play Beyond the Call concerning Trevor Knight's trip around America. In seeking to learn why his father left the U.S. in the late 1960s, the protagonist finds Alex Koivula, an intimidating Vietnam veteran who lives in the squalor of a Seattle rooming house. $14 0-9699162-8-0
12. You Know Me Better Than That (novella), 1998 0-9699162-9-9
13. Those Who Eat at My Table (stories), 1998. [See review below.] $18. 0-9682800-0-5
14. Bridge Over the Tampere Rapids, and Other Finnish Stories (stories), 1998. These stories and essays concern ethnic identity pertaining to those of Finnish origin. 0-9682800-2-1
15. The Last Thing My Father Gave Me (novel) 1999. "On returning from North American Studies Conferences in Finland and Estonia, Pamela Dresdahl, once the youngest tenured professor in Canada, suffers a shattering loss of confidence. A feminist who has attempted to excel in the academic world, she suddenly finds that she is a nervous wreck--on a roller coaster ride of emotion that has something to do with her past and the last thing given to her by her father." $20. 0-9682800-1-3
16. Dementia Island (novel) 1999. 0-9682800-3-X
17. My Dog Is More Than Just A Dog To Me (novella) 1999. Dialogue between two dog owners in an East Vancouver park, a political cartoonist and an ESL teacher, reveals their life stories as intimacy emerges. 0-9682800-4-8
18. Good Ol' Boy: Willis V. McCall (novel, with Ed Roy). 1999. 0-9682800-5-6 [See review below.]
19. Straying from Luminosity (poetry)
20. Sometimes I Have These Incendiary Dreams (criticism and essays) $18 0-9682800-7-2
21. The Island of Winged Wonders $15 0-9682800-8-0
22. Man's Sadness (novella) $15 0-9682800-9-9
23. The Lambing (play) $15 0-9687317-0-8
24. The Well (play)
25. Harbinger of Fall (play)
26. The Clown Act (play)
27. The Radio Interview (play) 2001. 0-9687317-4-0
28. The Misadventures of Bumbleberry Finn (novel). With outrageous characters and plot lines, Hekkanen pokes fun at the Finnish community. 0-9687317-5-9
29. Exhuming Carl Jung (play)
30. The Shipwrecked Heart (stories) 0-9687317 $15
31. The Expulsion, Or Goodbye, Chubby Chickens, Goodbye (play). 2002. "After an absence of seventeen years, Rose comes home to New Eden to introduce her husband and son to her parents, only to have her parents deny that they are related to her." 0-9687317-9-1 $15
32. Up and Coming (In Seattle) (novel) 2003. $25. 1-894842-03-0
33. The Big Dave and Little Wife Convention (novel) 2004.
34. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street (stories) 2004. 1-894842-05-7
35. The Life of Bartholomew G. (novella) 2005. 1-894842-06-5
36. Heretic (essays) 2005. $18. 1-894842-08-1
37. Kafka, The Master of Yesno: A Critical Study of the Writer and His Work (non-fiction) 2006. $25 1-894842-09-X
38. Shadows on a Cave Wall, 2007. $20. 978-1-894842-11-2
39. Of a Fire Beyond the Hills, 2008. $25. ISBN 978-1-894842-13-6
40. The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern, Volume One ISBN 978-1-894842-17-4, 427 pages, $28. New Orphic Publishers, 2010
41. The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic, Surreal & Postmodern, Volume Two ISBN 978-1-894842-18-1, 457 pages, $28. New Orphic Publishers, 2010
42. Wintering Over: Poems Strewn on Snow. New Orphic Publishers, 2011 ISBN 978-1-894842-14-3
43. All Night Gas Bar. New Orphic Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-1-894842-20-4. Combination of stories with memoirs.
44. Flesh and Spirit: The Rasputin Meditations, with a commentary by the author. New Orphic, 2012. ISBN 978-1-894842-22-8
45. Heretic Hill. New Orphic Publishers, 2013. ISBN 978-1-894842-23-5 $22
46. I'm Not You, a novella. New Orphic Publishers, 2014. $18 978-1-894842-24-2
47. False Memories and Other Likely Tales. New Orphic Publishers, 2015. $18 978-1-894842-26-6
48. The Ventriloquist's Dummy Tells All: A Politically Incorrect Novel, New Orphic Publishers, 2019, 242 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1-894842-27-3
49. I Seem to Recall This (New Orphic Publishers, 2021) $20. Stories, 129 pages ISBN 978-1-894842-28-0


The Flat Earth Excavation Company (New Orphic $23) A surreal fiction anthology 'spanning the length and breadth of surreal fiction--from automatic writing, or thought's dictation, to stories that are fabulist, mythical, alchemical and even postmodern'. 1-894842-00-6

PHOTO: Ernest Hekkanen and Margrith Schraner at the 'Sweet 16' New Orphic Review anniversary celebration, held at the Oxygen Art Center in Nelson, B.C. (May 17, 2013). Photo by Liba Zdrazil.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2019] "Fiction" "Literary Criticism"


Graffiti, Canadian Style

By Ernest Hekkanen (in 1999)

It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. And it was twenty years ago that Ernest Hekkanen wrote this diatribe about why Vancouver public art is so gawdawful, why Canada’s granting agencies can be foolish or corrupt and why he rejected a contract from a respected “trade” publisher when asked to help finance his novel’s publication.


IN CANADA, the majority of writers and visual artists are little more than glorified purveyors of graffiti. We might as well be spray-painting our texts and images on buildings and underpasses, because, for the most part, what we produce is given hardly a glance of appreciation and certainly it is deemed about as important as graffiti by members of the larger society. We might desire greater appreciation, but a brief glance is about as much appreciation as we can expect; after all, this is a meat-and-potatoes sort of country, the values of which are encoded in the metaphor time is money, and let’s face it, we have barely crawled out of the bush here in Canada. The majority of us wouldn’t recognize what comprises good art and literature, even if it were wagged rather flamboyantly in front of our faces. This is a difficult situation for most writers and artists to endure, let alone survive, but it is our lot in this country, and in many regards we deserve it and even contribute to it, for we are in the habit of serving up what is expendable, what is disposable.

In a postmodern world where form and structure deconstruct and are then folded back into the greater flux of things, it is almost a given that we will be able to produce little more than disposable art and literature — or, if you will, graffiti. We artists and writers have been so affected by this postmodern dilemma, we have shrugged our shoulders in defeat or have willfully capitulated to it, declaring for all to hear: “Well, if rubbish is what they want, rubbish is what I will given them.” I guess we could blame the movement that elevates rubbish to the level of fine art on the Dadaists and on icons of modern culture, figures like Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, all of whom made it look as if anyone capable of producing a mark or uttering a sound could become an artist or writer; but that seems a trifle too easy to do, and anyway, we would be widely missing the mark, now, wouldn’t we?

In the current issue of The New Orphic Review, Hrothgar Malach attempts to understand why there is such a proliferation of terrible public art in Vancouver; however, I don’t think she goes far enough in her examination. She decries the abundance of pathetically rendered murals in this city, as well as the artistic standards that give rise to them, which is all well and good but which only scrapes the surface of what is going on. Our city and provincial fathers, whose taste in art and literature is about as well-developed as that of chickens, have deemed art, literature and theater to be of some importance to our quality of life; however, the aesthetic yardstick they use to determine the quality of a work has but two marks: 1) the art must be disposable, and 2) it must be accessible to the hordes.

In this city, developers are allowed higher density levels as well as exemptions from certain planning rules if they include in their developments little artistic concessions; however, what qualifies as art is so pathetic, so sub-standard, our city and provincial bureaucrats might as well do away with the clause that allows for the proliferation of this sort of crap-art. You might have run across the kind of art I am talking about. I am sure you have walked down the street and have seen tiles inscribed with words set in the sidewalk: words like salmon, nature, coho and waterfall. Or, perhaps, you have seen lookalike impressions of leaves pressed into the concrete. Or maybe, you have seen the tiles signed by Commercial Drive residents and offered up for viewing as you walk across the bridge that spans the Cut. This lowest common denominator crapola fulfills the art mandate of the city. The wonderful thing about art of this sort is that you can take a jackhammer to it, break it up, use a front-end loader to hock it into a dump truck and haul it away before anyone notices — which is what should happen to most of this public art; it should be trashed. The foremost aesthetic criterion used to determine the acceptability of such public art is that it be disposable.

In our parks you might have come across another form of public art: little artificial footstones with pebbles pressed into the concrete, mimicking children’s art — if, indeed, it isn’t children’s art. The primary determining factor for acceptability of such public art is that it be level with the lawn so lawnmowers can be driven over it. Perhaps, too, you have taken in such events as Illuminaires, The Mad Hatter Tea Party or the All Saints Festival in the East End of the city. The organizers of such events (largely the Public Dreams Society and the Fools Society) actually think they are contributing to community culture; they actually think they are presenting something novel and indeed interesting — for kids of all ages, as the advertising goes; however, if you have ever been to any of these events (or happenings) you probably realize that they amount to little more than hundreds and sometimes thousands of people milling around a pond or strolling in costumes through a park, sometimes holding masks or lanterns aloft. Above all, these events must be accessible to one and all and have as little form as possible; indeed, many of the individuals who ‘organize’ and promote these events think that form is totalitarian in nature, because form, for them, is dictated by some perceived authority whom they distrust. Many of the organizers and promoters of these events actually despise authority (for the most part, authorities should be despised, for they are little more than puppets whose strings are being pulled by cronies in business or labor unions) and yet the organizers and promoters of these events and this type of expendable art have no problem going to those very same authorities and begging to be given little hand-outs in support of their highly questionable artistic endeavors.

It is all a lot of muck and malarkey! As soon as a writer or artist approaches the government for financial support to engage in his endeavors, he has already become a defeated figure — a buffoon, a squirming maggot who survives on the carcass of the state; he has already capitulated; he has already compromised his artistic and literary integrity. In The Rebel, Albert Camus begins by saying: What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying “no”?

He means, for example, that “this has been going on too long,” “up to this point yes, beyond it no,” “you are going  too far,” or, again, “there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.” In other words, his no affirms the existence of a borderline.... Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right.... [The rebel] demonstrates, with obstinacy, that there is something in him which “is worthwhile....”and which must be taken into consideration. In a certain way, he confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.

A rebel, in other words, believes that there is something of value in himself that must not be trampled upon or treated in some fashion that is reprehensible. My feeling is that writers and artists operate more or less out of the same modus operandi; they insist that there is something of value in them that the society as a whole should take notice of — that should be appreciated, that should not be demeaned; and yet many of our artists and writers regularly demean themselves by begging for handouts that granting bodies only reluctantly give. Which brings me to the Canada Council and such organizations. Back in the late 1960s, the government decided to encourage artistic and literary endeavors by offering a plethora of grants. In no time at all we saw an amazing number of galleries and publishing houses spring up across the country; many of these were artist-run galleries and writer-run publishing houses, the existence of which was subsidized by the governments of the day. Bureaucrats, urged on by artists and writers, perceived that it was good for Canadians to have their images reflected back to them, because, apparently, Canadians would not be able to otherwise identify themselves as Canadians. Artists and writers coagulated like globs of cold grease around these artistrun galleries and writer-run publishing houses, many of which survive to this day and continue to suck down grant money as if it were twenty-year-old Irish whiskey. Many of the artists and writers who got in on the ground floor of this scheme are now prominent members of the artistic and literary community; however, the majority of us continue to struggle in near-anonymity, probably with good reason. Canadians didn’t exactly beat a path to galleries and bookstores in order to purchase the offerings spewed up by the artists and writers who benefited from the above federally-and-provincially funded schemes. Nor do they today. Very few Canadians buy Canadian art or literature; indeed, such art and literature is perceived to be inferior, whether rightly or wrongly. Most Canadians don’t go out of their way to invest in such stuff of their own accord and there is no reason why they should. Consequently, only very few writers and artists rise like scum to the surface of the Canadian cultural pond; the rest remain bottom feeders, without distinction, without acknowledgment, forever raging about their anonymity.

In the 1970s, Canadians became almost neurotically involved with the question of their identity; but it was all a sham, it was all a put-up job, promoted by the government and the media, apparently for nationalistic reasons. However, back then, if you got off the main highways of Canadian culture and ventured forth into the hinterlands, the folks there didn’t have any identity problems; they knew who they were and what they were all about. For the most part, they were hardworking schmoes who were more than content to be compost for the next generation; they were people who didn’t deign to sit and gaze at their navels or mess with their heads — indeed, for the most part, they were unimaginative dullards. Unimaginative dullards, unfortunately, don’t buy art and don’t buy literature; they can do very well without it, thank you. Give them a highway; they can understand that, they can wrap their imaginations around that. You see, it became a force-feeding sort of situation; higher-ups were trying to cram art and literature down the gullet of the masses, and that is still pretty much the case today.

Canadian art and literature don’t have a very wide base of financial support among the great, unwashed citizenry, and so art and literature has to be propped up on every side by government-funded crutches. The result is that artists and writers have gathered around the federal and provincial funding bodies and a whole government-funded industry has come into existence. Those artists and writers who got to the pig-pile first became government agents who in turn dispersed funds to friends and acquaintances and this sort of graft has been going on now for decades. Juries of like-thinking peers determine which projects will receive funding support and which projects are to be deigned unworthy. If you really want a grant, make sure you have the proper references or know someone on the adjudicating body. Places like the Banff School of Fine Arts are little more than clearing houses for those who wish to get grants; fledglings attend the Banff School in order to make contacts — to get references. Indeed, today, there is often a lot more artistry and literary skill displayed in the filling out of application forms than there is in final projects. The art of filling out application forms and knowing the right people who can help you along the way is often more important than the talent you display.

Am I simply being cynical? No, I don’t think I so, because, you see, I was once the recipient of a Canada Council “B” Grant. Annually I filled out the application form and dutifully sent it off to the Canada Council — without ever receiving a grant. One year, I decided to forego this fruitless activity, but magically an application form appeared in the mail. On perusing it, I discovered that certain passages had been highlighted by a yellow marking pen. The highlighted passages were of little significance; what was of significance was the fact that someone had gone to the effort of highlighting the passages and sending me the application form. It indicated that someone on the adjudicating body was familiar with my work. To test the situation, I filled out the form for a project that had been rejected the previous year for not having sufficient merit and, lo and behold, I received a “B” Grant. Another such instance of government largesse going to the correct applicants is typified by a certain high-profile artistic director in the Vancouver theater scene. He sits on the board of the B.C. Arts Council, but “steps” out of the room when other board members vote on whether or not to give him over $200,000 of grant money —  which, of course, he is never denied; indeed, the amount he receives usually goes up every year. None of his cohorts on the council would have the temerity to deny him this funding, for they in turn might be denied theirs.

Does this sort of thing smack of incestuousness or what? I believe it does.

Very few people in Canada read my books, not because my books are badly written, but rather because they aren’t promoted by the CBC, because they aren’t highly touted by the press, because they aren’t part of the academic curriculum and, let’s face it, because they are a little too weird for the taste of most Canadians. Which is all well and good. Except for the lone “B” Grant I received over a decade ago, I and my work are not being funded out of the public trough, unlike the majority of literature and art being produced in this country. Most novels and collections of short stories are produced in runs of a thousand to fifteen-hundred books. The production costs of such books are more or less written off by block granting funds. Once the publisher has sold as many copies of a book as he possibly can to libraries, he tends to lose interest in selling the remainder of the run, because Canadians simply don’t buy very many Canadian books. Half, if not more than half, of every run ends up sitting in a warehouse, until the books are finally shredded or end up in a landfill site or are sold to the author at a reduced price. On being sold to the author, the books usually end up occupying a dark corner in a basement — in the form of terribly depressed stock. If authors refuse to buy the remainder of their books, they usually find it a lot more difficult to get subsequent books published by that house.

You see, the difficulty is that too few Canadians buy too few Canadian titles to justify an entire industry and that industry wouldn’t exist if not for government largesse. Government largesse has created a dozen or so publishing fiefdoms across the country, and the Lords and Knights who rule these fiefdoms cry foul very loudly and persistently when their kingdoms are put in jeopardy through lack of funding. They play the cultural trump card over and over again, insisting that we need Canadian venues for Canadian voices. However, the vast majority of Canadians never hear the voices that are apparently crying to be heard in the wilderness that is Canada. The situation is enough to give new meaning to the old conundrum, if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around, does it make a sound? My contention is that if all the little voices comprising Canadian literature fell silent today, Canadians wouldn’t be any better or worse off for it; Canadians wouldn’t care, they wouldn’t give a shit. They prefer highways to literature and art, so why not give them more highways. Our writers and artists can spray-paint their texts and images on the highways. I am sure that way many more Canadians would likely view what has been wrought by the art-lit set.

I’m the sort of artist and writer who is in favor of non-funded, spontaneously-arising graffiti; indeed, some of that graffiti can be quite artistic. It often expresses a lot of anger, energy, dissatisfaction and disaffection and that is why the majority of us find it difficult to entertain. It is the anarchistic expression of the rebel, the angry young woman or man who isn’t on the program and isn’t likely to be, not in the near future, certainly. These graffiti artists produce texts and images in defiance of the metaphors time is money and property is worthy of respect. They exhibit a lot more stealth, cunning, courage, and entrepreneurship than most of the “legitimate” artists and writers working in Canada today. Self-publishers such as I have more in common with graffiti artists than we do with government-sanctioned artists and writers. We ask nothing from the government, and yet we produce work regardless, in the tradition of Camus’ treasonous rebel. Furthermore, we aren’t obliged to write or produce images in the proper Canadian style and we don’t have to suck up to the Lords and Knights who rule the cultural fiefdoms. In addition to that, we don’t have to pretend that we are producing “significant” literature and art in the oh-so sanctified Canadian tradition, which is staid, stodgy and proper to the point of being anally retentive.

Let’s take a brief look at our hallowed cultural fiefdoms. How do they operate and are they really free of the taint of self-publishing or self-financed art. My novel Chasing After Carnivals was supposed to be published by Stoddart back in 1985. On the eve of the publishing date, my editor informed me that Stoddart had run into some financial difficulties and would not be able to bring out my novel by the specified date, even though it had reached the bound galley proof stage and had been reviewed. Six weeks later, I was told the same thing; and three months after that, I received a similar reply. “What will it take to bring out my novel?” I naively asked my editor. “Well, Ernest, if you’ve got a few thousand dollars you can put into this venture, I’m sure it would come out in no time at all.” In other words, I was on the wrong end of a shake down. Rather than submitting to such terms, I asked to have my contract nullified.

This practice is still going on, and most of the time it is used on first-time authors. I’m not against authors defraying the costs of book production; however, the practice of touching up authors for money in this manner is not supposed to be going on at “legitimate” houses which receive funds from the government for producing books. It amounts to little more than blackmail.

Many Canadian writers and publishers decried the takeover of Random House and Doubleday Dell by the huge conglomerate Bertelsmann. I would submit that the reason most writers and publishers feared this takeover has more to do with them fearing that their government- subsidized fiefdoms might not be able to operate as usual. Myself, I am all for the takeover by Bertelsmann. I am all for busting up these little self-aggrandizing publishing fiefdoms, which are so thick from inbreeding they have put into jeopardy their élan vital. In fact, they are so wan they deserve to expire.

By the way, most authors in this country receive around a dollar per book in royalties. Five to six hundred books are normally sold (usually to libraries), which amounts to a very small royalty check, indeed — that is, if the author is able to get the publisher to write him or her a check. No writer can survive on such chicken feed. He or she might as well be producing graffiti; it would be just about as financially rewarding.

In the current issue of The New Orphic Review, the theme is One Person’s Graffiti / Another Person’s Art. Many of the pieces stretch the idea of what a poem or a story is; indeed, some of them might irritate you, our gentle, cherished reader. But not to worry. The pieces herein have not been published at public expense. They have been produced out of necessity and have been moved by spiritus mundi to a greater or lesser degree. They have been created in defiance of the prevailing rules and are marked by a disregard for what is so doggedly Canadian. Art and literature, if it is to survive in this country, must never lose the underpinnings of self-sufficiency, otherwise art and literature will become weak and devitalized, hobbies practiced by sycophants.  The works herein represent a kind of graffiti in that they have been executed in defiance of the prevailing cultural mandate and have not come to your attention because of a government agency that has benignly distributed some alms.