Books

Newfoundland writer Stan Dragland, co-founder of poetry press Brick Books, dead at 79

Award-winning Calgary-born, St. John's-based author, editor, professor and publisher Stan Dragland was known for championing independent publishing and emerging writers in Canada.
Photo of writer Stan Dragland reading from his book, sitting in front of a large bookshelf filled with books.
Calgary-born, St. John's-based writer and publisher Stan Dragland died Aug. 2 at the age of 79. (Book*hug Press)

Canada's literary community is remembering Newfoundland writer, editor and literary critic Stan Dragland, who died at the age of 79 on Aug. 2 of sudden cardiac arrest in Trinity, N.L.

Dragland, who co-founded one of Canada's few poetry-based publishers, Brick Books, was also the founding editor of the literary magazine Brick and a writer whose poetry, nonfiction and literary criticism won several awards over his four-decade-plus career.

Dragland, originally from Calgary, later settled in St. John's, where he was an integral part of the literary and artistic community.

"I hardly know what to say about losing Stan," Newfoundland poet and novelist Michael Crummey, who called Dragland his "best friend," told CBC Books by email.

"He was such an understated, diffident presence that it is easy to underestimate what an enormous — and enormously positive — force he was in my life, in the province he adopted as his home and in the cultural life of the country," Crummey added.

He was such an understated presence that it is easy to underestimate what an enormous force he was in the cultural life of the country.- Michael Crummey

A longtime professor of English literature at the University of Western Ontario, Dragland co-founded Brick Books in 1975 with fellow poet Don McKay and served as its publisher for many years.

Dragland was also the poetry editor for publishing house McClelland & Stewart from 1994 to 1997, supporting a new generation of Canadian poets.

Dragland's work garnered several awards and nominations over the years: his debut novel, 1979's Peckertracks, was shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award; Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty 9 (1994) won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian literary criticism; 12 Bars (2002) was co-winner of the bp Nichol Chapbook Award; Apocrypha: Further Journeys (2003) won the Newfoundland and Labrador Rogers Cable Award for nonfiction. His most recent book, Gerald Squires, a retrospective on the Newfoundland artist Gerald Squires, won the 2019 Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for nonfiction.

Stormy Weather: Foursomes (2005) was shortlisted for the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award, and Strangers & Others: Newfoundland Essays (2015) was shortlisted for the BMO Winterset Award.

In 2020, Dragland was appointed to the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honour.

Listen | Stan Dragland on his 2015 book of essays about Newfoundland:

Dragland, known as one of Canada's leading champions of independent publishing, dedicated much of his time to mentoring and encouraging both new and established literary voices, including publishing new work through Brick Books and teaching emerging writers at the Banff Centre and in Chile.

"He was endlessly creative and supportive of any creative endeavour that he touched as editor or collaborator or cheerleader. It was all about love and joy for Stan, in his work and in his life," Crummey said.

Deep Too is a 2013 nonfiction collection by Stan Dragland. (Book*hug Press)

Dragland's collaborations extended to publishing his own work with small presses, including 2013's Deep Too, a book of nonfiction stories about the phenomenon of competitiveness between men, with Toronto-based independent publisher Book*Hug Press.

Jay MillAr, Book*hug's co-publisher (along with his wife Hazel Millar), recalled being familiar with Dragland and his work even before meeting him for the first time during a trip to Newfoundland.

"A mutual friend and poet set up a reading for the two of us, and Stan read from an early draft of a piece on the subject of male bravado and competition. This work became the text that Hazel and I would eventually publish as Deep Too, a book of thoughtful and funny nonfiction stories, and certainly one of the more original books that we've ever published," MillAr told CBC Books by email.

"For one thing, it is a very small book, the kind that can fit in the palm of your hand (which Stan found hilarious given the subject matter), and it contains the thoughtful work of one of Canada's most unique writers of the 20th and 21st centuries."

Dragland would also go on to urge Book*hug to publish 2014's Air Carnation, the first novel by Argentine writer Guadalupe Muro, whom he had mentored at the Banff Centre.

"He was very passionate about the book and Lupe's decision to write the book in English rather than her mother tongue of Spanish. While working on the book with us, Stan shared that Lupe's beautiful writing allowed him to fall in love again with editing literature," MillAr said.

"Hazel and I were surprised and deeply moved when Stan flew all the way from Newfoundland to Toronto to attend the book's launch, where he introduced Guadalupe and her new book to Canadian readers with intelligence and grace.

"We feel honoured to have these memories of working with such a kind, generous and wise person in Canadian letters," MillAr added. "We hold these memories close and are grateful to have known and worked with Stan."

Dragland was also a fixture in the Newfoundland creative community, said poet George Murray, founder of the former literary website Bookninja and former poet laureate of St. John's.

Murray is married to fellow author Elisabeth de Mariaffi, whose 2012 Giller Prize-nominated short story collection How to Get Along with Women, was edited by Dragland — who also sang at the couple's wedding in 2014.

"Stan reached out to me when I first arrived in Newfoundland 16 years ago. He was kind and welcoming," Murray said by email. "By the time Elisabeth and I were getting married, he'd become a regular in our Friday-evening kitchen parties, and we'd get invited to jam sessions at his place with other local writers and musicians. He was always so quiet, but smiling his half-smile.

Whenever he opened his mouth to speak, it was always theright thing that came out. His wisdom was immense, both as a literary figure and as a human.- George Murray

"I fear silence, but Stan did not. He could sit saying nothing, just listening, until he had something to say. And whenever he opened his mouth to speak, it was always the right thing that came out. His wisdom was immense, both as a literary figure and as a human," he added.

"He and dear friend Holly Hogan sang us into and out of the venue for our wedding — a public performance he was perhaps not the most comfortable with, but did nonetheless as a great friend. I've been sad to not see him except fleetingly the last couple years, but I feel honoured to have known him in the first place."

Dragland leaves his wife, poet and novelist Beth Follett, also founder and publisher of Newfoundland-based independent publisher Pedlar Press.

"He was a few months shy of turning 80 when he died," Crummey said. "But I only heard Stan express any worry or misgivings about his age in relation to the projects he was in the middle of, and the projects he hoped to get to — wanting more time to speak about the world he loved, to offer it up to us in his wry, understated, ingenious voice; to make us visible to ourselves."

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