The Evolution of Atwood: The Role of the Small-Press in Atwood’s Early Works

Margaret Atwood, recipient of numerous awards such as the Governor General’s Award and the Booker Prize, is touted as being “Canada’s most eminent novelist and poet” (British Council web). Atwood emerged onto the Canadian literary landscape in 1961 with a chapbook, Double Persephone, published by Hawkshead Press. Five years later, she won her first major award, a Governor General, for The Circle Game poetry collection, published by Contact Press in 1966. The title poem of this collection was previously published as a limited-edition series of lithographs in collaboration with Charles Pachter, by the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1964. However, scholarship largely ignores the chapbook and lithograph series when considering Atwood’s early works. In this essay, I trace the publication of Atwood’s first works, Double Persephone, The Circle Game series of lithographs, and The Circle Game poetry collection, to establish the role that publishers played in building Atwood’s celebrity. I will begin with a discussion of Double Persephone’s materiality and context of production, followed by an exploration of small-presses in Canada, focussing particularly on Contact Press. I will conclude with a comparison of various editions of The Circle Game collection, including the lithograph series.

Atwood entered the literary scene with the chapbook, Double Persephone. Published in 1961, this collection came out during the period of an “invisible literature… [which] people in the country had no access to” (Gibson 105). Canadian literature was not being taught in schools or universities then, but students like Atwood, who was attending the University of Toronto, were producing it at the time (Staines web). Atwood self-published this collection. She not only “handset the book herself with a flat bed press, [and] designed the cover with linoblock,” but also assembled the book herself (Atwood web; Abe Books). Double Persephone had a print-run of about 220 and was priced at $0.50 (Toronto Review of Books web; Wilson 448). The price and print-run both suggest that she wanted this book to be visible and accessible to a large number of readers, in contrast to the ‘invisible literature.’ The edition at SFU contains handwritten note to bill bissett, a poet intending “2 rage out in nu direksyuns in writing painting n living” (bissett web). Given that bissett is one of the intended readers of this work, even if the note was written in 1970, it suggests a larger audience of Canadians interested in unconventional poetry.

Top left: Double Persephone front cover. Bottom left: Double Persephone back cover. Right: Dedication to bill bissett.

Despite orienting itself towards an audience interested in the unusual, Double Persephone was awarded the EJ Pratt Medal in Poetry at University of Toronto. While this award granted it some prestige, ultimately its form as a chapbook prevented it from making a significant impact in the literary landscape. Raymond Souster notes, ‘the Chapbooks, little 12-page things, could hardly be considered as books. You can’t make any kind of dint on anybody with a book like that, nobody would pay any attention to it’” (Tracey 162). Perhaps the insignificant impact of Double Persephone was due to its small size (a mere 16 pages and 5×6¾ inches), or the fact that there was no biographical information about Atwood on the publication itself. It fails to establish Atwood as a writer of significance or importance. Double Persephone is hardly mentioned in introductions or biographies to Atwood online – the British Council website states that “Her first publication was a book of poetry, The Circle Game (1964), which received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry (Canada).” Without the backing of a large publishing house, Atwood may not have had the resources to produce and market enough copies of Double Persephone.

A similar small-scale production comes in the form of The Circle Game lithographs. Charles Pachter, a Toronto-based artist at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, was inspired by Atwood’s poem: “Margaret Atwood sent me a typed manuscript of her longer poem, The Circle Game. I read it once, and was overwhelmed. My mind raced” (Pachter web). Pachter’s thesis at the time was on the methodology of illustrating poetry. He creates images to run alongside the text. Much like Double Persephone, the lithograph series is edgy, experimental, and unusual. Only fifteen copies are produced; this miniscule print run ensures that the series was not a mass-market product meant for wide distribution, but rather a collector’s item meant to be admired.

Image accompanying section i of The Circle Game poem. Copyright belongs to Charles Pachter and Margaret Atwood.

Pachter’s contribution goes unnoticed on Atwood’s official website, where The Circle Game (1964) is attributed only to Atwood and the “Cranbrook Academy of Art.” Perhaps this has something to do with Pachter’s attitude towards his images are merely supplementing the text: “The more poems she sent, the more I wanted to create handmade books as handsome frameworks for them” (Pachter web). Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that even small-presses were unwilling to publish poetry and artwork as experimental as this piece. The presentation of Atwood’s poetry changes even with the Contact Press edition in 1966, where it appears without the artwork.

The market for poetry in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s was booming. Cameron Anstee notes that “literary reading as a phenomenon in Canadian poetry in the 1960s and 1970s developed in concert with the rise of little magazines and small presses” (87). Both the little magazine and the little press were “form[s] of resistance against the conservative commercially-driven publishing practices demonstrated by large depersonalized organizations that have controlled the publishing industry in Canada since the 1920s” (Tracey 2). Firms like McClelland and Stewart would only publish “proven writers,” meaning that first-time authors of chapbooks, like Atwood, would be unlikely to be signed by these houses (Tracey 14). Contact Press, which published The Circle Game in 1966, and its sister Contact Magazine were “expression[s] of literary revolt…[and] a means by which new and experimental poets could find their voice” (Tracey 161). For a modern poet like Atwood, Contact Press provided the opportunity to publish their literature – one that was fresh and relevant.

It follows that Atwood would move from a self-publishing operation to a press that prized writers. Contact Press “transformed literary life and small-press activity in Canada by its openness to a variety of poetic styles and its assertiveness of the poet’s role in the production of his own work” (Gnarowski web). Atwood was still very much involved in the production of The Circle Game, having set the cover using “Letraset and legal dots” (Atwood web). Contact Press was operating on the following principles, outlined by Louis Dudek:

“First, it was a self-conscious response to the popularization of commercial media; second, it strove to remain faithful to literary and artistic traditions; and third it was inspired by the new and creative which is both universal and implicit in the spirit of modernism” (Tracey 20).

Since Contact was only publishing work that would be ignored by commercial media, Dudek wanted to reject Atwood’s The Circle Game manuscript. He argued that “if we allow ourselves to become another prestige-giving institution of dull but excellently written poetry then to hell with it. We might as well fold up” (Tracey 205). Dudek didn’t find Atwood’s poetry collection to reflect the modernism of poets of the 1940s, but was unable to convince his colleagues, who believed that this material was what readers wanted. Unlike Double Persephone, which was published on the basis of the poet wanting the work ‘out there,’ The Circle Game was printed for a pre-conceived demand in the work. The Circle Game (1966) was Contact Press’ last published title before it was disbanded in 1967, and went on to win the Governor General’s Award in 1966.

The 1966 publication of The Circle Game propelled Atwood’s career, as she became the youngest person to win a Governor General’s Award (incidentally, this book was the first small-press book to win the award) (Bemrose web). The win led to her signing a contract with Oxford to publish future collections of her poetry, but more importantly, led to John McClelland’s agreeing to publish her first novel, The Edible Woman (Staines web). Now a proven writer worthy of M&S’ list, Atwood is welcomed by McClelland, and is also signed by the House of Anansi Press, which is now one of Canada’s most reputed firms for literary fiction and poetry.

Top left: Contact Press edition, 1966. Top right: House of Anansi edition, 1967. Bottom left: House of Anansi edition, 1998. Bottom right: House of Anansi edition, 2012.

House of Anansi Press picked up the title after it won the Governor General’s Award. Tracey explains, “By the time the award was announced the small printing was exhausted and not one cloth copy remained to hand out to bigwigs. That’s why House of Anansi reprinted it the next year” (167). Anansi’s edition of The Circle Game, published in 1967, contains a large sticker on the front cover marking the book as award winning. Priced at $1.95, it was slightly cheaper than the Contact Press editions, which were priced at $2 for softcover and $3 for hardcover. This points to both editions being mass-market products, meant for the consumption of a large public. The Anansi edition signals to buyers that this book is worth reading, given that it has won a major award. It also contains blurbs by Michael Ondaatje and AJM Smith, and introduce Atwood to an audience who is unaware of her. The 1998 edition of The Circle Game, also published by Anansi, looks nothing like the Contact Press and 1967 editions. Its cover is muted and dignified, and the Governor General award win is no longer a major selling point of the book. By the time we get to this edition, the boldness, and the uniqueness inherent in Atwood’s poetry is lost from the materiality of the book. Atwood is no longer a new writer on the circuit who needs an introduction; rather, she has become an established voice in the canon.

This essay has traced Atwood’s early beginnings as a self-published poet to a canonical figure in Canadian literature. By delineating the role of Canadian small-presses during the 1960s, and the types of works that they were publishing and promoting, I have shown how Atwood’s early works (Double Persephone and The Circle Game lithographs) fit into a genre of experimental poetry. Although, Contact Press’ publication of The Circle Game transforms it into a mass-market product, it is relevant to remember its beginnings in 1964 as a lithograph series. Contact Press’ recognition of Atwood as an author of significance is the driving force behind her career, as I have outlined in her changing status post the Governor General win. With Atwood’s increasing celebrity, her “books would become a staple of college courses” (Schiffrin 29). However, they would “ironically [lose] most of their popular audience as they became elevated in the canon” (Schiffrin 29). Atwood’s Double Persephone and The Circle Game lithographs were meant for an audience interested in unconventional poetry, whereas The Circle Game (1966) was meant for a mass-market audience. The 1998 edition of The Circle Game, complete with an introduction by an academic, is meant for students of literature, and proves precisely Schiffrin’s point. As Atwood status in the canon becomes more solidified, her audiences change from mass-market to those increasingly elite.

Works Cited

Abes, Trevor. “Canada’s Small Presses Hold Court at the Fisher Library.” The Toronto Review of Books, 10 Nov. 2013, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Anstee, Cameron. ““Poet and Audience Actually Exist”: The Contact Poetry Reading Series and the Rise of Literary Readings in Canada.” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 49, no. 1, 2015, pp. 73–94. ProQuest, doi:10.3138/jcs.49.1.73. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

Atwood, Margaret. “Canadiana.” Double Persephone, Hawkshead Press, Toronto Soft Cover, 1st Edition. – Lord Durham Rare Books (IOBA), Hawkshead Press, Toronto, 1 Jan. 1961, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

—. “AbeBooks.” Atwood, Margaret: Hawkshead Press, Toronto Softcover, First printing. – Steven Temple Books, Hawkshead Press, Toronto, 1 Jan. 1961, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

—. Double Persephone. Toronto, Ont.: Hawkshead Press, 1961. Print.

—. The Circle Game. Toronto, Ont.: Contact Press, 1966. Print.

—. The Circle Game. Toronto, Ont.: House of Anansi, 1967. Print.

—. The Circle Game. Toronto, Ont.: House of Anansi, 1998. Print.

—. “The Publisher’s Pie.” YouTube, O’Reilly Media , 16 Feb. 2011, Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

Atwood, Margaret, and Charles Pachter. The Circle Game. Toronto, Ont.: Cranbrook Academy of Art. 1964. Print.

Atwood, Margaret, and Mary Ellis Gibson. “A Conversation with Margaret Atwood.” Chicago Review, vol. 27, no. 4, 1976, pp. 105–113. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/25303482. Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.

Bemrose, J. “How she manages to have it all.” Maclean’s, vol. 111, 1998, pp. 56-57. Proquest. Accessed 02 Feb. 2017.

bissett, bill. “bill bissett : Biography.” Canadian Poetry Online | bill bissett, University of Toronto Libraries , Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.

Gnarowski, Michael. “Contact Press.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12 Mar. 2012, Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

“Margaret Atwood.” Literature, British Council, 1 Jan. 1970, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Pachter, Charles. “Atwood-Pachter duet | Charles Pachter.” Atwood-Pachter duet | Charles Pachter, 23 Nov. 2013, Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.

Schiffrin, André. The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates took over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. London, Verso, 2001.

Staines, David, and Coral Ann Howells. “Margaret Atwood in her Canadian context.” The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Cambridge, New York, pp. 12–27. ProQuest Literature, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Tracey, Collett. “The little presses that did a history of First statement press, Contact press and Delta Canada, and an assessment of their contribution to the rise and development of modernist poetry in Canada during the middle part of the twentieth century.” Université de Montréal, Sept. 2001, pp. 1–336. ProQuest, Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

Wilson, Milton . “Poetry.” University of Toronto Quarterly, 4th ed., vol. 31, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1962, pp. 432–454. Project Muse, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

One Reply to “The Evolution of Atwood: The Role of the Small-Press in Atwood’s Early Works”

  1. Excellent! You’re asking productive questions here that will take you in interesting research questions, particularly as you think about the real history of Canadian publishing and the way that history has been reshaped or obscured by our fixation on particular kinds of literary celebrities (which is perhaps a symptom of how we sell authors, not publishers?). I encourage you to keep thinking laterally about the final project. For example, what contemporary publishing models might be the equivalent of the kind of experimental publishing scene Atwood was participating in in the 60s and 70s?

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