Jay Macpherson, Emblem Books

Jay Macpherson died earlier this year (21 March 2012) at the age of 80. Her death was met with a surprising silence in its immediate wake (with a handful of exceptions). Macpherson is known primarily as a poet. Her reputation is built on a small number of collections in the 1950s, culminating in a Governor General’s Award in 1958 for The Boatman.

My own research interests have turned up her name in the margins of a variety of fantastic projects in the history of modern Canadian poetry. She was an early reader at the Contact Poetry Reading Series, appearing on 13 November 1957, generating some of the earliest national press that the series received in the Globe and Mail; Macpherson is described as being “considered by many Canadians our finest young poet” (“Arts in Toronto Spurting Ahead at a Great Pace.” 12 November 1957. p.13).

In an Ottawa connection, she completed part of her high school education at Glebe Collegiate.

More interesting, and more relevant for this blog, she started a small chapbook press in 1954 called Emblem Books. According to the One Zero Zero virtual library of English Canadian Small Presses, Emblem ran from 1954-1962, producing eight books. Authors include Macpherson herself, Dorothy Livesay, Daryl Hine, Violet Anderson, Heather Spears, Dorothy Roberts, Alden Nowlan and Al Purdy. The Nowlan and Purdy books, Wind in a Rocky Country (1960) and The Blur in Between (1962) respectively, were designed and published by Robert Rosewarne, who we have already discussed here.

These two books are surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century. To my mind, they stand alongside the two books of poems produced by Avrom Isaacs’ Gallery Editions. A footnote from my M.A. research describes Gallery Editions as follows:

Avrom Isaacs’ Gallery Editions Press is one of the tangible products of the reading series. Although it only existed for a few years (1960-1962), Gallery Editions produced three books: Eyes Without a Face (1960), poems by Kenneth McRobbie with art by Graham Coughtry, Place of Meeting (1962), poems by Raymond Souster with art by Michael Snow, and Sketch Book: Canadian and European Sketches by Tony Urquhart (1962). Michael Torosian, writing in Toronto Suite, states “they are among the most elegant Canadian books of their day” (66). George Bowering, in an insightful review in The Canadian Forum, takes care to connect the books with their Gallery source: “I have never seen the Isaacs Gallery on Yonge Street except in photographs, but judging from the finesse with which that establishment has moved into the publishing business, I would be prepared to argue in their favour at the drop of a beret” (44). The books remain valuable documents of the interaction that occurred between poets and artists in the Greenwich and Isaacs Galleries.

Raymond Souster, Place of Meeting
Kenneth McRobbie, Eyes Without a Face

I cannot scan the insides of either of these two without damaging the spines. If you have an opportunity, flip through both to truly understand their remarkable beauty.

Rosewarne’s work on these two Emblem books is astonishing. He pairs Purdy and Nowlan’s poems with the sort of abstracted, colourful images that we have already seen in his work with Bill Hawkins. Below is a poster he designed for a reading by Hawkins in 1962.

I’ll reproduce, without comment, a handful of images from inside each book below. My scanner is not always large enough to accommodate the entire spread, apologies where pages are cut off. I have tried to keep at least the images intact.

Nowlan, Alden A. Wind in a Rocky Country. Toronto: An Emblem Book, 1960.

Purdy, Alfred. The Blur in Between: Poems 1960-1961. Toronto: Emblem Books, 1962. [The edition I am using for this, borrowed from the University of Ottawa Library, has 1962 struck out, replaced with 1963].

The Purdy is especially notable for Rosewarne’s work. The Nowlan book does not acknowledge Rosewarne’s contribution. The Purdy book lists him on the title page, as well as includes further information on the colophon:

This book was published in one edition of 300 copies. It was designed by R.V. Rosewarne. The text was hand-set by Axel Harvey in 10 point Light Gothic leaded with a strip of light cardboard. The book was then hand printed on a press of the Washington variety by The Blue R Hand Press (Ottawa Canada).

The Washington press in question is surely (without any proof) the same one used by Rosewarne’s Nil Press to produce the Hawkins poster poems. Rosewarne is operating the press in the detail from an Ottawa Citizen article below. These two books are contemporary with the poster poems, and it is difficult to imagine Rosewarne having access to two different Washington presses in Ottawa in these years. Seeing these, it is a shame that Rosewarne did not produce a series of chapbooks under his own imprint.

I have a soft spot for poets who print and distribute work by others. It is important work and is largely unheralded, certainly rarely acknowledged in a way commensurate with the time and labour invested. When you read and remember Macpherson, think of Emblem Books as well.

[I do not own the rights to Emblem Books. I have reproduced the images above with respect and admiration for the work of Macpherson and Rosewarne. They represent only a small portion of larger books. I will gladly remove the images if the estate of either requests it. I encourage everyone with the time and means to seek out these books to further understand the work of both.]

Published by Cameron Anstee

Cameron Anstee lives and writes in Ottawa ON where he runs Apt. 9 Press and is pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Ottawa.

2 thoughts on “Jay Macpherson, Emblem Books

  1. Thanks for this post, Cameron–it’s a needed corrective to the general silence around Macpherson’s work (Tanis MacDonald’s new book being a notable exception) and her publishing activities in particular. If you ever get a chance to check out the two chapbooks that Macpherson handmakes and illustrates for herself in 1956 (they’re held at the Victoria College library), I think you’ll really enjoy them. I’ve got photographs of both, if you’d like to see them.

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