Wednesday, December 14, 2005
A Catalyst for Saskatchewan Writing
One of a series commissioned by Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
In grade four in Moose Jaw, Robert (Bob) Currie wanted to write Oz-inspired stories for boys under the title Boisterous Boys in Oz. His desire to write may have been spurred by the wish to correct a magazine’s rejection of a story his mother had written, which Bob thought was wonderful. But he didn’t complete the Boisterous Boys.
Later in elementary school Currie traded short stories with a buddy, Ken Masonchuck. At the United Church Sunday school Robert discovered Canadian Boy magazine, submitted stories and received first and second prizes in their contests. Clearly he was a writer.
After high school he set himself on a career path into pharmacy, but it was really the writing bug that drove his choices. In the pharmacy program at University of Saskatchewan, along with a fellow student, he started the magazine Tonic. It was newsy, and contained a bridge column and humorous pieces about pharmacy students. It was printed on the forerunner of the Gestetner machine.
In his fourth year of pharmacy he applied for an arts elective – a creative writing course with fiction writer Edward McCourt. To demonstrate his interest Currie slipped a story under the door of McCourt’s office and soon received a letter that said, “English 265 is a very difficult class; however, you may take it if you wish.” When Currie showed up for the first class in his pharmacy jacket, McCourt asked him if he was in the wrong class. Bob blurted, “You took me.” He stayed and loved the course.
Near the end of the course McCourt told him, “I hardly ever say this, but I think some day you’ll get published.” Currie would prove him true before too long. And one of the stories Currie wrote in that class was published later in his book Night Games.
In 1963 Currie made a crucial decision – he decided to get an English degree, figuring that if he was going to teach, he would teach something that he loved, and that was English Literature. He completed this degree and in 1966 followed that with an Education degree.
A key moment happened in 1965, when he found a cheap copy of A Red Carpet for the Sun in the university bookstore. This led him to the Canadian Literature section of the library where he discovered Raymond Souster. Souster’s work inspired Currie to start writing poems.
Though he didn’t know it then, Robert Currie was about to become present at some of the key moments in the development of contemporary Saskatchewan literature.
He had his first poem selected by Al Pittman for publication in a magazine called Intercourse, in the mid-sixties. And soon Currie was teaching English at a Moose Jaw high school.
Magazine publishing caught Currie’s fancy. Feeling cut off in Moose Jaw, from the rest of Canada’s literary scene, he decided in 1969 to reach out by publishing his own magazine called Salt. He received and published poetry by Raymond Souster, Alden Nowlan and Raymond Fraser. Salt was a mimeographed effort which also contained book reviews. Currie typed, collated, stapled and mailed it. It was reviewed in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and found its way into many university libraries across the country. Over its seven-year life Salt published Glen Sorestad, Lorna Crozier, Robert Kroetsch, Fred Cogswell, Anne Szumigalski, Carol Shields and many more.
Around the time of Salt’s initiation, Currie encountered Gary Hyland, another Moose Jaw high school English teacher. Currie had seen his poems in a teachers’ newsletter. A long-term friendship and collaboration began. Together they found their way to library conventions where they promoted Saskatchewan writing. A trip in 1973 to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild conference to talk about Salt got Robert elected as chairman of the then fledgling organization. One of his first acts was to hire Caroline Heath to become the editor of the newly founded Grain magazine, the literary journal that is still thriving today, and setting standards for Canadian literary periodicals. Heath took the reins of the second issue – the first issue had been edited by Ken Mitchell – and she carried on for seven years.
Currie continued sending out poems and in 1970 he had five poems selected for a slim volume, Quarterback # 1, published in Montreal by Louis Dudek’s Delta Press. Around that time he was also thrilled to have the opportunity to give Dudek a ride from the University of Saskatchewan to the Delta Bessborough Hotel. And that year Currie and Hyland had chapbooks published.
At a Saskatchewan Writers Guild event in 1974 guest writer Hugh Hood – judge for an SWG writing contest – told Currie and some other writers, including Barbara Sapergia and Geoffrey Ursell: “You should start your own small press here on the prairies.”
The challenge was taken by Currie, Hyland, Sapergia and Ursell, who settled on the name Coteau Books for their publishing collective. By the way, Currie was awarded second prize by Hood in the writing contest. Barbara and Geoffrey were Coteau’s production unit and Bob and Gary were the mailing department. Bob’s wife Gwen later became a part of the team, running the office, once they could afford one. The rest, as they say, is history. Coteau still thrives today.
Bob kept writing and in 1977 his first ‘real’ book – Diving into Fire – was published by the prestigious Ottawa press Oberon Books. His writing was aided by half-time sabbaticals he took from teaching on three occasions. In 1975 he began going to the Moose Jaw library to write, and he was eventually given a corner in the stacks where today he still keeps a small writing desk, and shows up there five days a week to write.
Along the way, Robert has had many influences – those peers already mentioned here. He also credits Ken Mitchell as an example of a writer who was already writing and achieving publication and reputation. In 1977 Currie attended a class with Robert Kroetsch at the Saskatchewan School of the Arts. There he also met Eli Mandel. Many years later, in 1994, Robert found himself again a student in a Fiction Colloquium given by Janice Kulyk Keefer at the Sage Hill Writing Experience, where he says, “My feet hardly touched the ground.” Then in 1998 he was fortunate to work with Don McKay in Sage Hill’s Poetry Colloquium.
Robert and Gary Hyland too have maintained their connection on several fronts, not the least of which is the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw, founded by Hyland in 1996. Bob has had many roles there, from driver, to schlepper, to host, reader and board member.
Robert Currie has now published three books of fiction, including the 2002 novel Teaching Mr. Cutler, and four books of poetry, including Learning on the Job. This fall his new poetry book will appear – his first poetry collection in fourteen years – entitled Running in Darkness.
Currie says he’s trying to do just a few simple (though not simple) things – “trying to get it right”; or quoting a recent speech he heard by Yann Martel, Currie says he’s “bearing witness.” He adds, “I’m trying to write the line that is so simple and so direct that everyone can get it emotionally.” He cites writer James Dickey who once spoke of “poetry of the dazzlingly simple statement . . . the simplicity that opens out deeper into the world and carries us with it.” Currie acknowledges that to achieve this absolutely “is impossible. But because it is impossible I keep trying.”
Though he’s working in the realm of the impossible, Robert Currie’s dedication to writing, to literary art and to its production has helped make, and make possible, in Saskatchewan, a vibrant literary culture now regarded highly across Canada and beyond.
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.
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