House of Anansi turns 45

By Corina Milic

“The first sound I make,” said Graeme Gibson, as he commenced reading the opening lines of Five Legs, “you have to realize is an alarm clock. I’m not very good at alarm clocking…Ring.”

Gibson set the tone for Thursday night’s round table recognizing the House of Anansi Press’ 45thanniversary. It was a funny and poignant romp through the publishing company’s history, which began in 1967 with Dennis Lee, David Godfrey and 12 bottles of beer.

Dennis Lee and Nick Mount at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Lee joined the round table, along with Gibson, whose experimental Five Legs was the first novel Anansi published in 1968. In honour of its anniversary, Anansi has rereleased the title, along with several other classics. Along for the ride were Lynn Crosbie (Life is About Losing Everything) and president Sarah MacLachlan. Nick Mount, author and fiction editor at The Walrus, moderated.

Lee credits his partner for starting the press, by insisting they publish Lee’s book of poems, Kingdom of Absence. In the year that Godfrey was part of the company, he also brought in Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.

Anansi formed during a time when young, Canadian writers were mostly working alone, said Lee. Anansi provided a place for an “extraordinary process of writers emerging at the same time, becoming aware of each other and creating community.”

Gibson said he too wrote in isolation—in the eight years he spent working on his first novel, he didn’t meet a single writer.

He added that at that time small press mentality defined Canadian writing, and came to define the type of work Anansi published. “We knew we wouldn’t make money. There was no advance, no expectation of royalties. It created an intense, emotional ferocity.”

Sarah MacLachlan, Graeme Gibson and Lynn Crosbie at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Lynn Crosbie joined the House in 1996 with her book Pearl. She said it was a logical choice, because Anansi “did and still does take a risk on writers.”

That is something that hasn’t changed much over the years. Anansi is known for publishing books on the edge of the mainstream (moderator Nick Mount joked, wouldn’t just selling Fifty Shades of Greybe a better bet?). The authors on stage agreed the house maintained that focus, even as Anansi faced bankruptcy in the early 2000s, was purchased out of oblivion by Scott Griffin, founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2002 and expanded with Sarah MacLachlan at the helm from three to 27 employees.

“I think its important for us to keep publishing things that are on the edge, that take risks,” said MacLachlan. Later she added, “We make a pact with writers: we aren’t going to give the biggest advances but we’re going to stick with you. This is a vocation, not an occupation.”

From the early days when Gibson and his friends papered Toronto with 800 posters of Five Legs to several years ago when Anansi got its first button maker, MacLachlan says they haven’t lost their folksy touch.

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.
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