Born in Vancouver on August 7, 1943, Ron Smith received his BA from the University of British Columbia in 1969 and his MA from the University of Leeds in 1970, before becoming a professor at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, where he taught English and Creative Writing between 1971 and 1998.
In 1974 he founded the publishing company Oolichan Books in Lantzville, and from 1988 to 1991 he was the fiction editor for Douglas & McIntyre. He was also instrumental in helping establish the first aboriginal press, Theytus Books, in 1981. With Stephen Guppy he co-edited the first anthology of Vancouver Island fiction, Rainshadow Stories from Vancouver Island (Oolichan/Sono Nis, 1982).
In 1984, Ron Smith released a suite of poems, Seasonal, about his daughter and about which Robert Bringhurst wrote: “It’s a wonderful book….There are not many sequence of poems being published these days which it is cleansing to read, but this is one.” He followed this with a long poem entitled A Buddha Named Baudelaire (Sono Nis, 1988). Since then he has published two more books of poetry, a collection of fiction, What Men Know About Women. [See Review], an illustrated children’s book with Ruth Campbell, Elf the Eagle (2007), a biography, Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story (2011), about one of Canada’s most outstanding athletes, and, most recently, a memoir, The Defiant Mind: living Inside a Stroke (2016), based on his experience as a stroke survivor.
Upon his retirement from teaching, Smith was named the first Honorary Research Associate of the Faculty of Arts and First Nations Studies at Malaspina University-College. He has given reading and lecture tours in the U.S., Italy, Albania, England and across Canada. In 2002, a selection of his poetry was translated by Ada Donati and published in a book-length bilingual edition, Arabesque e altre poesie, in Italy (Schifanoia Editore). In 2004 his play, The Boarder, was selected for a “process reading” as a part of the New Play Festival at the Playwright’s Theatre Centre in Vancouver.
Ron Smith received an Honorary Doctorate, D. Litt., from the University of British Columbia in the spring of 2002. In 2005 he was the inaugural Fulbright Chair in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He lives with his wife, novelist Pat Smith, near Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island. Smith has played an essential role in the growth of literary, historical and public policy publishing in British Columbia. In 2011, he received the Gray Campbell Distinguished Service Award presented annually by the Association of Book Publishers of B.C. to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the book industry in the province. [See speech below]
1993, Bumbershoot/Weyerhauser Publication Award as publisher.
1995, Runner-up Bridport Prize competition for short fiction.
1995, Finalist for CBC fiction competition
2002, Recipient of D.Litt., (Honorary Doctorate) from UBC
2005, Inaugural Fulbright Chair in Creative Writing at Arizona State University
2008, Short-listed for BC Book Prizes, Christie Harris Award
2009, Finalist for Shining Willow Award, Saskatchewan Young Readers
2011, Recipient of Gray Campbell Award for contribution to publishing in BC
2017, The Defiant Mind long-listed for The George Ryga Award
2017, The Defiant Mind won the Independent Publishers, IPPY Gold Medal for memoir/autobiography
Ron has also been the recipient of several writing grants from the Canada Council and the BC Arts Council. Between 2008 and 2012 he sat on the Board of the BC Arts Council.
HONORARY DEGREE SPEECH
Chancellor, Madam President, Honored Guests, Graduates, Family and Friends
First, I want to express my gratitude to the University of British Columbia. I can’t begin to tell you how astonished and delighted I was to receive Dr. Piper’s letter last Fall informing me of the Senate’s decision to confer this honour on me. I was born in Vancouver, raised in Kerrisdale, adjacent to the endowment lands, and I graduated from UBC, all of which make this recognition particularly special and meaningful. As a young boy, UBC had a strong pull for me. I used to bike through the trails of what is now called Pacific Spirit Park to the old farm at the eastern end of the campus. While the barn and animals have disappeared and the ground is now covered by playing fields and residences, this has always been a great landscape to explore. As I grew up, I had all sorts of dreams about the things I would do when I got here, from mixing concoctions in chemistry labs to playing sports to discovering the mysteries of Wreck Beach; none of those dreams, by the way, included making this speech. UBC has a special place in my heart, as I’m sure it does in yours.
Next, I want to congratulate the graduates and their families. All those receiving degrees have achieved something quite profound. Although it may not seem so at the moment, what you have endured and accomplished is of major significance. But if I remember my own feelings correctly, after my last exam in fourth year I simply felt enormous relief and a keen and unquenchable desire to party. I imagine most of you feel that way as well, so I shall keep this speech brief.
When I was asked if I’d be willing to deliver a few inspiring words at Congregation, I agreed, and then thought, my God, what will I say. I must confess that I feel neither old enough nor wise enough to contemplate giving anyone advice. And for any writer, the idea of delivering a speech to an audience of a few hundred people, English and music graduates in particular, is a daunting and humbling task. But then, I argued, I have six months in which to prepare this speech. No problem. Immediately I fell victim to Ghandi’s wonderful insight, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” So, as I did in my student days, I embraced two of my favorite adages, “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” and, with a slight modification, “We’ll get to that bridge when we have to cross it.” Or as the Irish proverb says, “When God made time, He made plenty of it.”
At 1:30 in the morning on May 1st, the eve of my thirty-third wedding anniversary and only twenty-one days before this occasion, I was once again adding notes to the many beginnings I had written for this address. Alas, I realized this was all I had: several beginnings, only the hint of a middle, and not an inkling of a conclusion. So I offer you my beginnings, which it occurs to me is the significance behind this occasion in the first place. Completing your degree is not an end to something, but rather the beginning. As much as this honorary doctorate recognizes my past contribution, it also initiates a new stage in my life. New writing projects continue to present different challenges.
I started the publishing company, Oolichan Books, in 1974, printed the first four titles myself, and in the Spring of 1975 set off by train with thirteen cartons of books for Calgary. One of the four new titles was the first poetry title by the novelist Robert Kroetsch. My plan was to follow him on a reading tour across the prairies, from Calgary to Winnipeg. He would fly, I would drive with my newly minted stock of titles. But the journey began with a one night stopover in Calgary where I slept on a bed in Bob’s study. Tacked to the wall was a chart or map of his new novel, what was to become What The Crow Said. This metre by two metre sheet of paper was divided into forty-nine squares, seven rows of seven. Into one of these squares, he had written the word “doubt” in big, bold letters. A few other unreadable notes had been scribbled into other squares, but it was doubt that stood out and under which I slept. Through the night the word shouted out at me, as it did for the remainder of a successful sales trip. We sold out of his book. And doubt became the basis of a lifelong credo, for doubt lets the chaos in, and when you let chaos in you are no longer bound by other people’s expectations or limited by what you know. Artists like Schonberg and Beckett understood this. Doubt is the source of our honesty. It is what defines our originality. If certainty kills hope, doubt legitimizes it, thus allowing us to live, as the Italian writer Calvino once wrote, in the “best of impossible worlds.” Doubt combined with a sense of humour is a pretty good recipe for confronting the world we live in. As Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
I have spent a life in language, as someone who collaborates, as a teacher, editor, writer and reader. As a teacher, I got paid to read books I loved and to talk to people like yourselves about them. What a privilege! As a writer, I got to scribble down ideas and experiences and to share them with other people. And as a publisher, I got to edit books by people whose work I admire. In other words, everything I’ve done in my life has been a collaboration for which all those other participants in my life, in particular my wife, Pat, my daughter Nicole and son Owen, who is graduating here today, deserve equal recognition. What a gift! I’ve been able to combine the passions of avocation with the responsibilities of a vocation. I think we are truly blessed when we are able to blur the lines between work and play, when we are able to do what we love and love what we do. Garcia Marquez, the Columbian writer, said in an interview, “I write because I want more people to love me.” The honesty and simplicity of this statement is echoed in the short poem written by Raymond Carver at the end of his life. “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?/I did./And what did you want?/ To call myself beloved, to feel myself/ beloved on the earth.”
May you find this blessing, this joy in your own lives.
Let me leave you with this one final thought: The human imagination is only capable of conceiving the possible. Thank you and good luck.
Gray Campbell Award acceptance speech by Ron Smith, Arbutus Club, Vancouver.
I want to thank the Gray Campbell family for their support. And I want to thank Margaret Reynolds and the Association of Book Publishers of BC for this honour. When I received Margaret’s call last month, I was both surprised and delighted. When I look at the list of past recipients of this award I like the company.
I also want to thank Alan Twigg for nominating me for the Gray Campbell Award. To receive this acknowledgement from one of my peers is very special indeed.
I want to congratulate Ralph on his award. I’ve always admired New Star Press, in particular the uniqueness of its vision. And, in particular Ralph’s commitment to that vision in the face of increasingly sinister and compromising market forces. To be guided by your conscience and, I might add, consciousness, is rare these days.
I’m pleased to be sharing this evening with my family; especially with Pat who has been at my side through all the highs and lows of this wonderful journey and who deserves to be up here as much as I do. Her counsel has always been wise and I would be much the wiser had I heeded her advice more often. But then I am male and apparently we rarely take directions! And my two children, Nicole and Owen, now 35 and 30, have lived with my addiction for their entire lives. Sometimes, I fear, I might have let the word get in the way of action.
What does receiving this award mean to me? I want to rant for a minute or two here. While I have some reservations about prizes and awards for publishing and writing, the fact that these two are given in a spirit of celebration and are not based on competition, seems to me to get things the right way round. I’m always happy to celebrate someone’s achievement but I’m a little less comfortable with the spectacle of the horse race mentality that has become the basis of so many of our literary prizes. I’m happy to see writers and publishers receive money for the risks they take but I fear the inevitable loss, creative and imaginative, that come with the sorts of restraints competitions imply and often impose. I fear the width of the track gets narrower and narrower. But this was not a race and has forced me to reflect on how lucky I have been to be a part of this wonderful industry for close to forty years.
When Margaret informed me that I would be expected to make a speech, something longer than thirty seconds she advised me, I wondered what I would say. Then I remembered seeing a Knowledge Network programme on Takao Tanabe a couple of nights earlier. Suddenly I was thinking about how I got into publishing and reflecting on who were some of my early literary influences. I remembered meeting Tanabe but I couldn’t remember where or through whom. So if you don’t mind I would like to pay tribute to some of the people who were influential, in my role as publisher and writer. You see, I view this as an award not so much for what I’ve accomplished but for what I’ve received over the years.
It all began when UBC quite rightly asked me to leave the university as a student. I had spent my first two years on campus as a Phys Ed student and for the most part had only learned the rules of bridge and how to perform a somersault in mid air. Oh, and I also played on the rugby team. As an academic I was a total failure. After a summer of working up north, I returned to Vancouver and through contacts managed to land a full-time job at the UBC Bookstore. I had connections. As the new academic year began, this was 1962 or 63, three rather disreputable characters were assigned to help me. They were temporary staff. They were also better paid but presumably I had security. At the time I was naïve enough to accept this explanation for my lousy salary. Now those three individuals were Claude Breeze (the painter), Jamie Reid and John Newlove. I don’t remember if it was through one or all of them that I met Tanabe or if it was through Bill Duthie or later through Dick Morris that I met this remarkable artist and book designer. Connecting all the dots is sometimes difficult. But John and Jamie became very important early influences.
First of all, John and Jamie turned me on to books. I know, there are lots of other things they could have turned me on to, but I’ll claim those as self discoveries. John talked about poetry and history, recommended books I should read, and Jamie talked politics and constantly reminded me of the many ways in which I was being exploited. In the basement of the bookstore, I built a little hideaway out of duotang cartons. I piled them up to the ceiling, leaving a small space inside where I hid a chair and ashtray. I could slip a carton out and crawl into my space. Often I would hear John shuffling past, calling Ron, Ron, there’s a truck to unload or an urgent order to fill. Where the f… are you? Surprisingly he never saw the smoke winding up and along the floor joists above me. There in my den I would sit, smoke and read. But John did more than just recommend books, he wanted to talk about them. And we talked. Mostly, though, I listened. And what an education. A few weeks before he died, Pat and I were in Ottawa and spent a day with John?we had remained friends for all those years?and I told him about my little hideout. He laughed and confessed he had never figured out where I had disappeared to. When I told him how important he had been to my growing passion for literature, he expressed surprise. I only published two of John’s books but The Green Plain remains one of my favourites. He told me he wished he’d published more with Oolichan. At least you wouldn’t have put a fucking elevator on the cover, an embarrassing cliché, and certainly not one from Alberta! No, I said, I would have made sure it was from Saskatchewan.
Over the next few years I hung out on the edges of things, going to readings etc, and then going back to university to get my degree in English. I had the good fortune to hear some amazing writers, all of whom “turned me on” to the craft of writing in some way. Leonard Cohen came through with his guitar and gave a concert in the new Education Building. Eventually I would hear Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Basil Bunting, and Seamus Heaney. There were many other writers brought in by Warren Tallman and George McWhirter all of whom nurtured my growing interest in the word. As a doctoral student I met Jon Furberg whose energy and enthusiasm for poetry was infectious, and who along with a few friends had started a small publishing venture, Pulp Press. As early as this, 1971/72, the idea of publishing intrigued me.
About this time I wrote a letter to Robert Kroestsch, whose novel The Studhorse Man I had just read. It did all sorts of things other Canadian works didn’t do and I rushed to tell him so. One year later I was teaching at Malaspina and he was one of my first guest readers. Over the next four years I arranged fifty-two events at the college, most of them literary, although I did invite Leona Boyd to play her guitar and Maurice Good, an Irish actor, to do his one-man, west end-of-London show based on Samuel Beckett. I had done my thesis on Beckett, so this was an obvious engagement for me. The list of poets and novelists who made their way to Vancouver Island still surprises and pleases me, but I want to mention two who became hugely influential in my publishing life.
Bob Kroetsch and I became good friends and remain so to this day. He is my daughter’s godfather but in a curious way also my godfather. At the time he was running an important avant garde journal called Boundary 2 out of Binghamton, New York. In 1974 he was visiting and, after a few drinks, convinced me I should start a publishing company. As an incentive to get into publishing, he told me he would give me his first book of poetry, The Stone Hammer Poems. Little did I realize what I was getting into, nor did I appreciate how lucky I was to have this as a first title. The other person who had been a part of the reading series and who immediately came to my aid and provided me with unwavering support was Robin Skelton. He also offered me a title for publication. I owe Robin a great debt. We spent many evenings over a bottle of Jamesons’ Irish whiskey discussing the plight and pleasures of publishing. There were many evenings when I wouldn’t have been able to complete that somewhat alliterative sentence.
I took a semester off from teaching and printed the first four Oolichan titles in the evenings on the Malaspina College press. But I had no idea how to bind the books so Robin suggested Morriss Printing in Victoria. Very quickly Dick Morriss became a dear friend and did much to help me learn the printing and publishing businesses. By the way, this is where I first met Margaret Reynolds. Too quickly we forget those who have made major contributions to our culture and I would like us to remember Robin and Dick this evening for all they did for the literary arts in BC.
Writers are clearly the life blood of publishing and I am indebted to all the authors who have submitted manuscripts to Oolichan Books down through the years. Yes, some have been a pain in the ass, but I suspect a few feel that way about me. There is no doubt, though, that Oolichan owes its success to a long list of very talented people. At different times, Rhonda Bailey, Ursula Vaira and Hiro Boga were instrumental in keeping the operation going on a day to day basis. In recent times, David Manicom, Bill New, P.K. Page and John Pass have brought the press national attention. Now under the leadership and guidance of Randal Macnair, Oolichan Books will continue to publish and in the process discover its destiny. Already Randal has brought new life and vision to the press. I feel blessed to have been the recipient of so much good fortune. Thank you for the award, although it makes me feel as though I may have got away with an act of piracy.
Introducing Ron Smith
Ron Hatch of Ronsdale Press provided the following introduction for Ron Smith at the presentation ceremony for the 2011 Gray Campbell Award to “the publisher who put Lantzville on the literary map.”
It would take all night to list Ron’s many accomplishments as a publisher at Oolichan Books and why the Association has honoured him with the Gray Campbell Award. Let me list a few:
1. He has published a whole packet of important authors – a who’s-who of Canadian literature: John Pass, Robert Bringhurst, Robert Kroetsch, Sharon Thesen, Joe Rosenblatt, David Manicom, Ralph Gustafson, John Newlove, Marilyn Dumont, Bill New, and on and on. I have it on authority that there is a letter in his files that states: “Ron is the best editor of poetry in Canada today.”
2. He has published many important award-winning regional histories about BC: Jan Patterson’s Twin Cities, The Albernis, Cathedral Grove, Journeys Down the Alberni Canal; Gladys Blyth – Salmon Canneries of BC; Lynne Bowen – Three Dollar Dreams; and my favourite – Boss Whistle; Hector Richmond – Forever Green – a book about BC forestry practices that my daughter-in-law Tzeporah Berman says she still uses. Also an important Oolichan series of titles on land claims issues in BC – still being used in universities across Canada.
3. The word is that he also (quietly – as is his wont) helped Randy Fred in 1981 to establish Theytus Books, one of the first two aboriginal publishing houses in Canada.
4. He was instrumental in establishing the Ralph Gustafson Chair of Poetry at Vancouver Island University. A chair in poetry at a university??? Not easily done.
5. Ron has promoted Canadian literature overseas. Oolichan titles have been published by Penguin Books in India, and Suhrkamp Verlag in Germany.
6. He has also taken on the difficult job of publishing foreign authors such as Austrian author Marlene Steeruwitz in a Canadian translation.
7. Ron is not only a publisher, he is also a writer.He has published four books of poetry: Seasonal. Sono Nis (1984); A Buddha Named Baudelaire. Sono Nis (1988); Enchantment & Other Demons. Oolichan (1995); Arabesque e altre poesie, Schifanoia Editore, Italy (2002). His collection of short stories has a title that might well win in a contest for the most arresting title ever: What Men Know About Women. Oolichan (1999) . And he is the co-editor of Rainshadow: Stories from Vancouver Island. Oolichan 1982)
8. Some eight years ago, in 2003, the University of BC beat us to the draw in awards when it recognized Ron’s achievements as a publisher, writer, editor and mentor by awarding him an honorary doctorate for his contribution to Canadian literature
9. More recently still, Ron played an important part in convincing the government to restore the arts funding (some of it) through his work on the BC Arts Council board where he has been a strong advocate for the literary arts sector.
10. Ron has recently sold Oolichan to Randal Macnair, and the press has moved from Lantzville to Fernie. For a moment when I heard this, I thought Ron might be retiring but in taking a quick peek at the Oolichan website, I see that Ron is listed as editor and, indeed, that his wife Pat is there, also – as she has been all along – as consulting editor. Ron is still very much a part of publishing in BC.
And so it gives me great pleasure therefore to present to you this year’s winner of the Gray Campell Award – Ron Smith. Ron was born in Vancouver during the war years, studied at Leeds, in the UK, and at UBC, and has taught at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University) for some 28 years in English and Creative Writing. He has been the Fulbright Chair in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. And he was fiction editor at D&M in the late 1980s.
When I was asked me to make this presentation, it started me thinking back all those years (was it really 1970?) when Ron and I were chatting in the English Dept office at UBC and he asked what I thought of his going “over” to Malaspina to teach. Good idea, I thought. Be in on the ground floor. He mentioned he was thinking of starting a publishing house. That was the glimmer of what was to become Oolichan Books in 1974. It’s a good name, as the Oolichan is also known as the candle fish, bringing light to the Pacific Northwest.
Many years later, when I was thinking of starting a publishing house, I asked Ron about how he got started; not just about how he made books, but how he sold them. He said that he started out with a really important author – Robert Kroetsch – and that when Bob stumped around the country giving readings, Ron had followed in his car with boxes of books in his trunk – and sold them – as if books were going out of style.
After that, he never looked back.
–Ron Hatch, Publisher, Ronsdale Press
Ron Smith is a BC writer of poetry, children’s books, fiction, non fiction and drama. Author of NHL and CFL biography Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story and the children’s book Elf the Eagle, he lives near Nanoose Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.