canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Marty Gervais

35th Anniversary of Black Moss Press

The Windsor Festival of the Book will pay a tribute to the press at the Art Gallery of Windsor Oct. 21, 2004. The lineup includes Elizabeth Hay, Robert Hilles and John Bemrose. All have been published by Black Moss.

You dreamed of going into publishing as a young boy.

Well, not really. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was in high school. I knew I wanted to be a writer. However, I didn’t know how that would play out in my life. As for publishing, I guess I didn’t understand my own instincts. I remember as a kid playing table hockey with my brother, and we’d run through a "season" or two of this — we played hundreds of games a week, and kept to a schedule, just like in the NHL. He’d control so many teams and I’d control so many teams … This was during the ‘50s when the Original Six ruled the league. Anyway, when all was said and done for a season, I’d put together a newspaper, complete with pictures, which I’d draw or clip out of the Toronto Star, and I’d write profiles of these hockey players, like the Rocket, and Gordie Howe, Andy Bathgate, Gump Worsely … It was dumb, but the instinct was there — that instinct or intuition to becoming a journalist, a publisher perhaps. Yet, I can’t say there wasn’t anything really defined in my life, nothing to tell me that this is what I should do.

As it turned out, you did get into journalism.

Yes, I was in 18 or 19, and I was living in Toronto. I had been there for quite some time, having left Bracebridge … Right off the bat, I was working in the news room of the Globe and Mail and there got a lot of help from Bruce West and Richard Needham, before going freelance. I’d be sent out to visit the pawn shops and write stories about the characters there. I was terrible, and nothing ever got into the paper. I was just a copy boy. But I also worked "re-write," or tapped out stories from correspondents all over the province … It was a good training ground … I loved that early newsrooms environment, all these seasoned journalists … They worked day and night for little pay. They covered the big political events, the soft stories, the tragic, the funny, whatever … And they drank and swore … I knew then, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to work on a paper …

And you still are.

Yes, with Black Moss celebrating 35 years of being in business, I am also celebrating, I guess, nearly 35 years of being a journalist … But during the mid ‘60s when I was working at the Globe, I also yearned to write poetry and get published, and it was terribly frustrating … I’d spend afternoons at the Village Book Shop on Gerrard Street as well as at the original Book Cellar, and in these places I began to see there was an underground of small press books and magazines. I also noticed people in Yorkville and on Yonge Street selling their poetry. This was in the late ‘60s. I was reading bp Nichol, Victor Coleman and a lot of American poets, like Snyder and Ginsberg and Williams … I was also rendezvousing with Ted Plantos, David Donnell and others at the Parliament Street Library. Then I started reading my own work — these delicate sappy love poems — at the Scadding House readings organized by sean o huigin … There was a tremendous energy from that period. I was learning an awful lot. Later, with the help of a school teacher who rifled some supplies from a Toronto high school, I self-published a little book called Sister Saint Anne, and was surprised six months later to see it turn up in a review by bp Nichol … He loved it. And later when I befriended him, he told me how much it helped him in his own writing …

Was that the beginning of Black Moss?

Well, sort of . . . This little book was published under the imprint of "Bandit Press." What happened next set the stage for Black Moss. I moved to Windsor, got a job at the Windsor Star working the midnight shift. I lived two blocks away from the paper in a sleazy hotel on the riverfront — it later burned to the ground — but at the time it was a place with hookers and drunks. I was there during the ’68 World Series when the Tigers were storming to victory … I know that because the guy in the room next to me had rented a television and set and tried to dump in the alley when the picture went on it … He kept yelling, "Look at this ffnnn thing … I rented a goddam RADIO!" Anyway, there I was, again thinking of starting a little magazine and publishing … I moved out of this place when someone set it on fire. The fire burned all the rooms on the second floor where I lived, but miraculously stopped two doors down the hall. I slept for a few more days in the charred remains of the place … It was fall and getting cold, and the air seemed to be filled with floating bits of charcoal … Anyway, it wasn’t until I met my wife, Donna, in late October of 1968 that things started coming together in terms of publishing. We moved to Toronto and lived in High Park, and there plotted out a magazine. We then moved to Windsor in ’69, and from there in an attic apartment, we pumped out the first issues of the magazine on an old hand-crank A. B. Dick mimeograph. Later, I bought an electric Gestetner on time …

Black Moss was a magazine first, not a book publishing firm?

Well, I never really thought of it as a firm. I guess I feel modest about it, because it’s always been done in stolen moments … in basements, and attics … But yes, it was a magazine to begin with. I had decided when I was in Toronto that I wanted to see others published, and to put into print new and innovative work, writing that I found exciting. And into those first few issues appeared the work of George Bowering, Pat Lowther, Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, Pat Lane … I even had poems from Charles Bukowski … They came out of the blue, poems about cockroaches and wine and lost love… As the magazine was in full bloom, I was corresponding with all sorts of people, including Anais Nin who actually asked us if we’d publish a book of hers. Why Black Moss? Who knows? To tell you the truth, I was too scared! I had no money at all. I was writing reviews at the time for the Globe and Mail and The Windsor Star, and didn’t make a whole lot … The whole Black Moss operation consisted of just the two of us … My wife Donna, and I would spread everything out on the hardwood floors of the attic apartment, and collate the pages for the magazine, then staple and package them up in envelopes and walk down to the post office and mail the issues out … Sometimes, we’d drive to Toronto in her Austin Healey Sprite and make the rounds to the bookstores, unloading these mimeographed magazines … The money paid to us was spent on gas and food … We made nothing, but the magazine got out … Soon I was thinking of printing books. Once I got into that, I couldn’t continue the magazine.

When did the books start coming out?

Well we did a few in the early ‘70s. and these were done at print shops but again, we assembled everything by hand when it came to the binding. And we did a horrible job … Well, we did the best we could with what we had. But it wasn’t until I met Tim Inkster from Porcupine’s Quill that we began to change. I met him at a League of Canadian Poets meeting in Victoria, B.C., and from the Empress Hotel where we did a lot of drinking. we plotted out the new Black Moss Press … We were still doing the magazine at the time, but it only lasted a couple of issues. One of the last ones to be done was with James Reaney whose idea was to focus on the theme of Halloween … The idea took off from the notion of this Trick or Treat feast and to view it as a festival of masks and new identities, a live theatre, and so the magazine was celebrating this … It was unique, as one might expect from Reaney. His incredible imagination, enthusiasm, and persuasive nature influenced me tremendously … After meeting him, I began to see the need to publish more from southwestern Ontario. I published Don Gutteridge, John B. Lee, Roger Bell, Peter Stevens, Eugene McNamara and others… That’s when I started into the book publishing in a more vigorous way. I also acquired a partner in the business, a fellow I worked with at The Windsor Star. It was through Brian Fox’s help and down-to-earth attitude that kept me on track. His attitude toward literature was pretty hard-boiled, and in a way that was good, because he cut through all the bullshit that roars up from authors, you know, the sacredness of art, that exclusivity, essentially a childishness … Anyway, we worked well together, and still do … But it was in the late ‘70s that I started looking all over the country for authors, and began to publish books by Al Purdy, Pat Lane, Rosemary Sullivan, Judith Fitzgerald, Gwen MacEwen, John Robert Colombo, Joe Rosenblatt, bp Nichol, Ralph Gustafson, Robert Hilles, Andrew Suknaski … My goal was to search out and find new and innovative writing … David Donnell was one such person. We published his first two books, and later selections from those along with new work, but published with McClelland and Stewart, won the Governor General’s Award …

Some people say Black Moss prepared the way for many authors, and these same authors left the press to publish elsewhere, and gain recognition. Almost like you were the farm team for the big leagues …

I have heard that analogy a thousand times, and I guess that’s one way of looking at it. The reality is, sure, I published many authors for the first time, or at least, in their early careers, but I don’t feel bitterness about them going to other publishers. Why shouldn’t they? I can only publish what I can afford! I am also genuinely excited when they do have success. I believe they deserve it, and if I had something to do with it, that’s great … David (Donnell) was one, and I remain friends with him. We still talk baseball. He used to hop the train to Windsor, and we’d go to Tiger Stadium to watch Kirk Gibson hit homeruns over the right field roof, and after the game, we’d sit in Lindell’s near the ballpark and down a few beers and burgers and talk with the players … I called him the other day to say the park was closing — the Tigers were moving to a new stadium … There are others, too. M. T. Kelly remains supportive, and though we didn’t publish his first book, we published a couple of others by him, and I was thrilled later when he won the GG. I called him that morning … I’ve had lots of support, and still do. I counted on Greg Gatenby, who ran the Harbourfront Literary series and put together the International Authors Festival, as someone who saw value in what we have done at Black Moss. I met him in the ‘70s and published a couple of books of his poetry … There are countless others. Reaney, Purdy, Fitzgerald, Rosemary Sullivan, Earle Birney, Joe Rosenblatt, Clive Doucet, Pat Lane, John B. Lee, Paul Vasey … The list is endless.

And you have had success with Black Moss.

Oh yes, sean o huigin’s book Ghost Horse of the Mounties won what was then called the Canadian Children’s Literature Award. Now it’s the GG. I flew to Edmonton, or wherever it was to help celebrate it with him. From the moment, he read the opening lines of that highly lyrical book to me, I knew he had written something that was inspiring and moving … It had the magic of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was wonderful! But there were others, too … John B. Lee’s books with Black Moss won the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award. Other authors of ours were shortlisted for that award. Robert Hilles won the GG with a book from a different press, but his first book with us won the Alberta Fiction Award ….

But there was recognition to you, too, a few years ago at Harbourfront, wasn’t there?

Yes, I was awarded the Harbourfront Literary Prize.

What was that for?

It’s an award given to an author in their mid career who has contributed to the careers and work of other authors.

That must reflect upon the work you have done with Black Moss authors.

As a matter of fact, I mentioned that fact in accepting the award. I said that it made me reflect upon the some 300 or more books Black Moss has published over 30 years of being in the business …

I understand in your relationship with these authors, you wind up being dragged into their lives.

Well, sure, that happens. Any writer is plagued with the grim reality of egos that need massaging. Their lives are a swarm of self-doubts, insecurities, pivotal experiences … They see conspiracies brewing in every corner, and as a result, I have found myself settling nasty situations over the phone where authors are complaining they’re washed up, they won’t ever be in love again, they won’t ever write another word, you know the drill … Once, I had the dubious task of mediating a long dragged out fight between two authors who lived in the same house. One, the landlord, the other, the tenant who lived in the basement … The basement writer believed there was a plot to get her to move, and that explained why the author/landlord had turned off the heat. Well, it was crazy. Here I had both authors calling me in Windsor separately with their complaints. I distinctly remember the basement writer shouting to me over the phone, "Well, would you ask why she has to be so cruel!" At that time, I thought of saying, "Why not just ask her yourself! She’s right upstairs from you!" But I didn’t. I kept my cool. After a half a dozen phone calls, I settled the matter … Another story is about one author who claims I actually saved his life, by bringing him liquids, soft drinks etc., when he was so sick and couldn’t get out. He apparently had dehydrated, and needed this. Anyway, it makes me sound like I am a great humanitarian. Mostly, it’s a pain in the butt. But that’s okay … All this stuff comes with the territory of being a publisher. I’m a softie. I have sold books to authors who never pay me … And I never learn. I have actually wound up paying rent for writers, buying them groceries, and in one case, lending money to one … I can walk away from all this without a trace of bitterness or frustration because I see it for what it is … The bottom line is that most of these writers would go to the wire for me in supporting me. They’re loyal creatures. I value that.

So why do you stay in the business if it can be so frustrating?

Good question. Who likes to worry over bank receipts! I don’t. I guess I’m in it, because I love words, love writing, and truly get excited by new work … I’ll often grab the attention of a visitor to my house, and read them something that’s just arrived in the mail… The last 30 years, I guess, has been about that — the excitement of a good line, a turn of phrase, an image … It’s been both joyous and terrible.

See also Marty Gervais's website.








TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.