A Shelf of Small Press Books: a list by Theresa Kishkan

Given the economics of contemporary publishing, it strikes me as something of a miracle that so many small presses continue to publish such interesting and beautiful books. Often they are books that would not be picked up by the larger houses yet they find loyal readers and contribute significantly to literary culture. Sometimes it’s hard to find them. Most small presses can’t afford full-page ads in the nation’s newspapers or publicists. But word travels by mouth, by the passing of these volumes from one hand to another. They’re worth the search.

Dragonflies, by Grant Buday: This brief novel is an account of the period during the Trojan War when Agamemnon asks the crafty Odysseus to come up with something ingenious to bring the bloody conflict to a conclusion. The reader is taken into the heat and sweat of the Greek camp outside the gates of Troy, and into the claustrophobic interior of that iconic horse as the warriors wait for their moment. Superbly written and designed.

The Nettle Spinner

The Nettle Spinner, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: An elegant weaving of fairy-tale elements and contemporary narrative, this novel is a perfect combination of style and substance. Think of nettles and birds, a camp of rough and competitive tree-planters, deep water, a baby born in a forest hut, a hungry bear scratching at the door, and you will have some idea of the magical setting of this marvellous book.

Stranger Wycott’s Place: Stories from the Cariboo-Chilcotin, by John Schreiber: The cover of this book features a photograph of a worn cabin in a golden field, huge sky overhead. In the far distance, a blue hill. The language of the book is as open and filled with the specific details of places unknown to many of us, the homesteads and fencelines of the vast grasslands of the B.C. Interior. Schreiber goes in search of William Wycott, an early settler on the west side of the Fraser River, and returns with stories. The reader is taken back to Churn Creek and the Native gatherings to dig spring beauties in the Potato Mountains, the air alive with sand-hill cranes and coyotes.

Curious Masonry

Curious Masonry: Three Translations From the Anglo-Saxon, by Christopher Patton: A gorgeous object in itself, with deep blue cover blind-printed with phrases of text, this is small press production at its finest. Patton has offered versions of three poems from the Exeter Book, the 10th c. codex: “The Earthwalker” (often translated as “The Wanderer”), “The Seafarer”, and “The Ruin”. Going deeply into the heart of these magnificent texts, Patton provides us with durable poems for our own troubled times. Interested readers should also seek out the glorious Anhaga, the late Jon Furberg’s own retelling of “The Wanderer”, recently reissued by Arsenal Pulp Press as part of Vancouver’s 125 celebrations.

Singing Away the Dark, by Caroline Woodward, illustrated by Julie Morstad: This picture book follows a child’s journey from home in the pre-dawn darkness to meet the school bus a snowy mile away. The text and illustrations are beautifully matched and the language is just poetic enough to make reading aloud a delight. “The cattle block the road ahead. / The bull is munching hay. / I softly sing to calm myself / and plan the safest way.” The child at the heart of this book is resourceful and brave, singing her way through a wooded landscape towards the welcome lights of the bus at the end of the long scary walk.


Saudade:The Possibilities of Place, by Anik See (Coach House Books, 2008): Coach House Books is an incarnation of the seminal Coach House Press, founded by Stan Bevington in the mid-1960s. Saudade fits neatly within the Coach House tradition of innovative and engaged writing; the book was designed by See herself, a printer and book restorer. Ostensibly meditations on travel and landscapes far and near, the essays seek a balance between what we long for and what we can never return to. See wears her influences – Sebald, Berger, Kapuscinski – with a serious and original elegance.

Windstorm, by Joe Denham:

(There is no language

for what it will mean to live once the final pelagic spawn

sifts down to the depths, dead as stone;

no name for those still living as though there will be and is

nothing for which to atone.)

Windstorm is a long poem addressing climate change and environmental degradation, a father’s love and concern for his young children facing a world without the natural abundance he has known, and why this book isn’t on every shelf is a mystery to me. This is poetry as sinewy and beautiful as anything I’ve read, “...the old song/recycled and rescored/in discord...”

The Crow Who Tampered With Time

The Crow Who Tampered With Time, by Lloyd Ratzlaff : I love the essay form and in Lloyd Ratzlaff’s hands and heart, it achieves something wondrous. Imaginative (who else would writing so movingly about releasing moths from his dead father’s slippers?), convincing in their fierce conviction (I’m not a Christian, yet I am intrigued by the author’s own spiritual life), and surprisingly tender (weasels, foxes, gophers, and crows appear in these pages, lovingly observed and recorded). These essays are finally so rich and wise that I remembered them long after putting the book aside. I dreamed of crows and moths -- and the unforgettable scene of the author’s baptism.

House of Spells, by Robert Pepper-Smith: Is this a novella or a short novel? I can’t decide. It’s brief –165 pages – but contains a fully-realized community, almost hidden from the larger world. A man makes paper which he bleaches by burying it in snow, a childless couple hovers ominously while a young girl awaits the birth of her baby, and in a fire-tower, another girl watches for forest fires, “electricity zinging around the aluminum eavestroughs”. The book is nicely designed, small enough to put in a pocket.

Measure of the Year

Measure of the Year, by Roderick Haig-Brown: I’m grateful to TouchWood Editions for bringing this small classic back into print, with a lovely foreward by Brian Brett. Haig-Brown is well-known to fly-fishers and environmentalists who read; in the 40s and 50s, he worked hard to bring attention to conservation issues on Vancouver Island and elsewhere. This book is a chronicle of one year at Above Tide, his farm on Campbell River where he and his wife Ann raised children, grew a garden, tended an orchard, and where H-B observed the world around him with astute and generous eyes.

Theresa Kishkan

Theresa Kishkan's latest book is Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. She came to national attention with her first novel, Sisters of Grass. A true "writer's writer," she has been steadfastly championed by her peers as a writer against whom others measure their own work. She is an enthusiastic organizer and participant in regional literary events. Kishkan's poetry and essays have appeared in many periodicals and journals and in five book-length collections. Today, she lives on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia with her husband, the poet John Pass.


January 19, 2012
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