Fiddlehead Poetry Books

The Stunted Strong, Fred Cogswell
The Stunted Strong, Fred Cogswell

Fiddlehead Poetry Books was one of Canada’s earliest small presses, and was an important publisher for Canadian poets between 1954 and 1981.

It was founded by New Brunswick literary figure Fred Cogswell while he was the editor of The Fiddlehead. The press was a logical extension of this Fredericton-based literary magazine, which Cogswell began editing in 1953 and which was funded by the University of New Brunswick. The mandate of the press was printed inside the front cover of its books: “to put the works of new Canadian poets before the public.”

The first chapbook published by Fiddlehead Poetry Books was Cogswell’s own collection of poetry, The Stunted Strong (1954). This was also the first university publication of a book in Canada. Two years after its publication, all five hundred copies of the book had been sold due to large local sales and support from Fiddlehead subscribers.

The Stunted Strong established the look and format of the chapbooks published through the press. The early chapbooks were slim volumes of sixteen pages held together with staples. Many of the poems in these books had already been published in various literary magazines like The Fiddlehead. None of the volumes contained illustrations; each cover displayed only the title of the collection along with the author’s name. The front matter was limited to the copyright page, which was printed on the reverse of the cover, along with a list of other titles available from the press. A brief biographical note was printed inside the back cover.

Although The Stunted Strong was a modest success, the second book in this series, G.V. Downes’ Lost Diver (1955), did not meet with as much success. Five hundred copies of Lost Diver were also printed and were sold for fifty cents; however, the press had difficulty finding distributors for Downes’ book. The press contacted forty-five booksellers, but few responded. In the absence of a clear market for these books, editors of The Fiddlehead recommended that UNB cease publication of the series.

Despite the concerns from the editorial team, UNB continued to support the press, funding Al Purdy’s Emu, Remember! (1956) and Alden Nowlan’s The Rose and the Puritan (1958). However, after the publication of Nowlan’s book, the university stopped funding the press. The Fiddlehead magazine was therefore left to fund the fifth book in the series.

The relationship between Fiddlehead Poetry Books and its parent magazine was important in the early years. Not only did The Fiddlehead subsidize some of the books in the series, but it also ran ads for the chapbooks. Starting in issue 26, the magazine began advertising The Stunted Strong and Lost Diver, though the next issue of the magazine also ran a review of Lost Diver in which Jay MacPherson declared that “[Downes’] poems are for the most part interesting rather than satisfactory and betray the civilized amateur” (25).

Like UNB, The Fiddlehead eventually stopped supporting the press financially. However, Fred Cogswell thought that the company was too important to lose, so in 1958, he became the owner, editor, publisher, and financier of Fiddlehead Poetry Books. The first book funded and published by Cogswell was the sixth book in the series. Unlike previous books, this was a compilation of poems titled Five New Brunswick Poets (1961): it contained poems by Elizabeth Brewster, Robert Gibbs, Alden Nowlan, Kay Smith, and Fred Cogswell—authors who would become known as the Fiddlehead School.

At this point, Cogswell’s UNB office in the Department of English housed operations for both The Fiddlehead and Fiddlehead Poetry Books. He received much help from his wife Pat in operating the time- and labour-intensive equipment required to publish these materials. Like its parent magazine, Fiddlehead Poetry Books was printed at Villiers Publications in Holloway, London, England due to its cheap cost. It took a great deal of effort to keep the company afloat, and the Cogswells often made up for financial shortfalls out of their own pockets. In the end, they brought more than 300 books to publication.

In spite of his efforts, Cogswell often faced criticism from UNB for the amount of time and space he devoted to his publishing activities. Furthermore, his press was perceived by some as valuing quantity over quality. Many small presses at the time did not read unsolicited material, yet Cogswell did. In fact, he read all the manuscripts submitted to Fiddlehead Poetry Books and responded to each author with suggestions. In an interview with Kathleen Forsythe, Cogswell explained, “What I am looking for is whether or not what they are writing means something to them” (119).

Cogswell also took risks in publishing new poets. Of the Canadian companies who were publishing in 1959, only three—Ryerson Press, Contact Press, and Fiddlehead Poetry Books—focused on young and emerging authors. However, Cogswell also balanced his list by publishing more established authors like Dorothy Livesay, along with many who would go on to become well-known poets, such as Don Gutteridge, Roo Borson, Robert Hawkes, and Al Purdy.

During the 1960s, Cogswell drastically increased the press’ rate of publication. Between the years 1960 and 1973, Fiddlehead Poetry Books produced over 100 titles. In 1966, Cogswell took a sabbatical, allowing Kent Thompson to take over as editor of The Fiddlehead. This gave Cogswell even more time to focus on his work as a publisher. He published thirteen books in 1968, nine in 1969, forty-five in 1972, and twenty-six in 1973 (Zanes 106). In this period of increased publication, small publishers like Fiddlehead Poetry Books assumed a more central role in creating a literary culture in Canada. In addition, they strengthened the market for poetry in the 1970s. As a result, this decade saw a dramatic shift from previous years, when only twenty-four books of verse were being published annually in Canada.

Cogswell’s editorial choices reflect other changes that were occurring at a national and provincial level. In 1969, the federal Official Languages Act was passed; that same year, New Brunswick became an officially bilingual province. At this time, Cogswell identified the lack of knowledge about French Canadian poetry as a gap that needed filling. He took the initiative and translated hundreds of poems by Québécois poets. One Hundred Poems of Modern Quebec was published in 1970, followed by A Second Hundred Poems of Modern Quebec in 1971, both of which were published under the Fiddlehead Poetry Books imprint. Thanks to Cogswell’s efforts, English readers were exposed to many Québécois poets, including Jacques Godbout, Anne Hébert, Fernand Dumont, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Garneau, Gaston Miron, and others.

The immense cultural work that Cogswell accomplished through Fiddlehead Poetry Books contributed to his reputation as a friend and mentor of poets. The press he created also continues to operate, though in another form. In 1981, Peter Thomas took over the company from Cogswell. Thomas cut the list of poetry publications from forty titles to six; he also added fiction and non-fiction titles to the press’ repertoire. In 1988, the press—renamed Goose Lane Editions—was purchased by a group of shareholders. Goose Lane has since gone on to expand its publishing activities to include audio books, as well as print and web design. This company has also acted as a distributor for other small presses in the Maritimes.

Michael VanTassell, Spring 2012
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Selected Primary Sources

Brewster, Elizabeth, et al. Five New Brunswick Poets. Ed. Fred Cogswell. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1961.

Cogswell, Fred. Against Perspective. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1977.

---. The Chains of Liliput. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1971.

---. The House Without a Door. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1973.

---. Immortal Plowman. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1969.

---. Light Bird of Life: Selected Poems. Ed. Peter Thomas. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1974.

---, ed. and trans. One Hundred Poems of Modern Quebec. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1970.

---, ed. and trans. A Second Hundred Poems of Modern Quebec. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1971.

---. Star-People. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1968.

---. The Stunted Strong. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1954.

Downes, G.V. Lost Diver. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1955.

Hawkes, Robert. First Time Death. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1970.

Kogawa, Joy. The Splintered Moon. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1967.

Nowlan, Alden. The Rose and the Puritan. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1958.

Purdy, Al. Emu, Remember! Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1956.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Boone, Laurel. “Fred Cogswell, Publisher.” Ellipse 68 (2002): 186-7.

Cogswell, Fred. “Choosing a Printer.” Fiddlehead Gold: 50 Years of The Fiddlehead Magazine. Ed. Sabine Cambell, Roger Ploude, and Demetres Tryphonopoulos. The Fiddlehead 185 (1995): 35-6.

---. The Vision of Fred: Friend of Poets. Ed. Kathleen Forsythe. Ottawa, ON: Borealis, 2004.

Fiddlehead Poetry Books. Advertisement. The Fiddlehead 26 (Fall 1955): n.p.

Gibbs, Robert. “Cogswell, Fred.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. Eugene Benson and William Toye. 2nd ed. Toronto, ON: Oxford UP, 1997. 219-20.

---. “Fiddlehead, The.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. Eugene Benson and William Toye. 2nd ed. Toronto, ON: Oxford UP, 1997. 401-2.

---. “Portents and Promises.” Fiddlehead Gold: 50 Years of The Fiddlehead Magazine. Ed. Sabine Cambell, Roger Ploude, and Demetres Tryphonopoulos. The Fiddlehead 185 (1995): 11-6.

MacPherson, Jay. Rev. of Lost Diver, by G.V. Downes. The Fiddlehead 27 (Winter 1956): 24-5.

Pacey, Desmond. Creative Writing in Canada. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Press, 1964.

Scott, Wendy. “Fiddlehead Poetry Books/Goose Lane Editions.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto, ON: Oxford UP, 2001. Oxford Reference. 2006. Oxford UP. 2 Feb. 2012

---. “Fred and ‘The Fiddlehead’: Notes for a Biography on the Life and Work of Fred Cogswell.” Ellipse 68 (2002): 189-93.

Tremblay, Tony. The Fiddlehead Moment: Pioneering an Alternative Canadian Modernism in New Brunswick. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2019.

---. Fred Cogswell: The Many-Dimensioned Self. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Studies Centre and the UNB Electronic Text Centre, 2012.

---. “Frederick William Cogswell.” The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Studies Centre. 2011.

Woodcock, George. “Poetry.” Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Ed. Carl F. Klinck. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1976. 284-317.

Zanes, John Page. “Where the Fiddleheads Grow and the Wind Blows Blue: A Consideration of a Canadian Literary Tradition.” Diss. U of Texas, 1979.