jamesreaneyJames Reaney, Canadian poet and playwright, was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario, on September 1, 1926. He grew up to become one of Canada's best-known poets and dramatists, enjoying literary success over a period of seven decades.

His contributions to the imaginative life of the nation spanned literary genres, ranging from short stories, poetry, libretti, and historical drama, to plays and novels for children, along with insightful critical essays on literary practice.

Read more about James Reaney.

News / Upcoming events

James Reaney on writing about the Donnellys

Posted March 22nd, 2015

In this excerpt from an August 2001 interview conducted by Tim Struthers and published in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal Short Story, James Reaney sheds light on his fascination with the Donnelly massacre of 1880.

James Reaney first heard about the Donnellys from his stepfather when he was a child in the mid-1930s.

JR: I remember saying to my stepfather at the time, “Wouldn’t they have a door with a lock on it?” And he said, “Noooo, they wouldn’t have had a door with a lock on it. They had a piece of burlap bag across a hole in their shanty” … so that was pretty dreadful.
Anyway I was scared out of my wits. It was only twenty miles away from our farm. We were pretty much right next to it all at one time. And I just couldn’t believe it.

In 1946, local historian Alice MacFarlane gave a paper on the Donnellys at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Historical Society at the public library in London.

JR: [Alice MacFarlane’s paper] had all the usual elements of the story that Kelley tells, that people tell about the Donnellys still. And when she got to the part in her paper about how the Donnellys cut out the tongues of horses … an old man rose up out of the audience and came at her with a shillelagh … And he said “They never cut the tongues out of horses. Out of people, yes!” … And then he stomped out…

But I was fascinated as I read this in The Globe and Mail … And I realized the Donnellys had friends. I never thought that before, you see.

TS: When was this?

JR: It would be 1946.

TS: While you were an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

JR: Yes. I’d been thinking about writing a play about them. The Kelley thing [Thomas P. Kelley’s The Black Donnellys] had not been written by that time. He’s 1954. And you couldn’t write a play about the story my stepfather told. So finding out that they had friends made a big difference. I began to think in terms of a play about them that would be a tragedy, rather than the kind of thing where it’s not tragic at all and they should be exterminated as soon as possible (laughter). Like many a modern horror film.

Note from Susan Reaney: This interview is excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Short Story, New Series Vol. 21 No. 1, pages 115-116. See also “Winter’s Tales”, a poem James Reaney wrote in 1949, which makes an oblique reference to “…the massacre at Lucan / Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead.”

James Reaney wrote a trilogy of plays about the Donnelly family and the tragedy: Sticks and Stones (1973), The St. Nicholas Hotel (1974), and Handcuffs (1975). He also edited and wrote the introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, published by The Champlain Society in 2004.

The story of the Donnellys continues to fascinate us and has inspired many other playwrights, including Peter Colley and Paul Thompson. London historian and filmmaker Chris Doty restaged the Donnelly trial, and Jeff Culbert wrote and performed a one-man musical version The Donnelly Sideshow. Jonathan Christenson‘s rock opera version of the Donnelly tragedy, Vigilante, opened this month at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.

Jerry Franken and David Ferry in The Donnellys

Jerry Franken and David Ferry in Sticks and Stones, at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, 1973

 

James Reaney’s play Gyroscope from 1981

Posted February 14th, 2015

In this excerpt from James Reaney’s play Gyroscope, Gregory La Selva, lab technician, seeks to restore his self-esteem and win back the love of his wife, Hilda, a famous poet. To win Hilda’s respect, he must prove to her that he too can write poetry. He enlists the help of Mattie Medal, PhD student, to help him write a poem that will win him a place at the Harpers’ Poetry Guild alongside Hilda.

Scene Six: The Husband Takes a Chance on Being Skinned by Apollo*

PUZZLE gets down from the chair. We focus on MATTIE, with wagon, who is talking to GREG.

GREG: Look, is there some sort of crash course in writing poetry? I’d like to crack that bunch of Harp Guild Workshop Poetry ladies wide open.
MATTIE: You’re a man; the contest is open to women only.
GREG: I’m desperate enough for a sex-change operation.
MATTIE: You’re just jealous of your wife.
GREG: I’m even more ashamed of my sterility. I have no dreams. She is virile. I am not.
HILDA: Gregory La Selva couldn’t write a poem if he tried. He should stick to being a poem.
GREG: She’ll be sorry she said that. I’m going to do as you say and start remembering things from childhood, keep a diary, get a pen and an ink bottle.
MATTIE: A typewriter is okay.
GREG: I’m so dull, why hasn’t she left me ages ago? How do I get more introverted? Is there anything I could take?
NICHOLAS: Did you look at my scrapbook of intoxicating mushrooms?
GREG: Nicholas, it’s no use — showing me pictures of mushrooms. I want to see the mushrooms in person before I start collecting.
NICHOLAS: Opium.
GREG: Opium.
MATTIE: Awfully good at first — friend did a thesis on it about it. Your mind starts out being a palace; then… the palace turns into a boarding house, then a flophouse for tramps, then the tenements of criminals whose windows are striped with bars. The palace has turned into a prison.
GREG: I don’t care. Show me the palace, Nicholas, get me a dress.
NICHOLAS: What’s your size?
GREG: In a dress? (gives NICHOLAS a slip of paper)
MATTIE: For a start, Mr. La Selva, underline the words you really like in this forty-thousand-word dictionary. Nicholas, go to Agnes Dactyl’s place and see what she has in second-hand dresses. Let’s see these measurements. Very well.

She gives them to NICHOLAS, who slowly proceeds to AGNES’s store.

Oh boy, this is a new part of my thesis – the birth of a poet…

∞♥∞♥∞

*Note: “Being skinned by Apollo” is a reference to the fate of Marsyas, the satyr who challenges Apollo to a musical contest with the Muses as judges. In 1963 James Reaney wrote an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Bacchae (405 BC), which was never produced. In Gyroscope, Gregory La Selva disguises himself as a woman to enter Hilda’s poetry contest, just as Pentheus goes dressed as a woman to spy on the Bacchae’s Dionysian rites. Gregory wins the poetry contest and avoids the gruesome fate of Pentheus at the hands of the Bacchae.

Gyroscope was produced in a workshop at Western University in early 1980, and performed in a rehearsed reading at Blue Mountain Poetry Festival that summer. Keith Turnbull later directed the play at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, May 14 to June 21, 1981. The cast members were Jerry Franken, Janis Nickleson, Rita Jiminez, Brian Dooley, and Nancy Palk.

James Reaney (holding mug of tea) with members of the Tarragon Theatre production of Gyroscope: Keith Turnbull, Dorothy Chamberlin, Nancy Palk, Suzanne Turnbull, and Janis Nickleson, May 1981. Photo courtesy Les Kohalmi.

James Reaney (holding mug of tea) with members of the Tarragon Theatre production of Gyroscope: Keith Turnbull, Dorothy Chamberlin, Nancy Palk, Suzanne Turnbull, and Janis Nickleson, May 1981. Photo courtesy Les Kohalmi.

Gyroscope is available in Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney (2009), edited by David Ferry and published by Playwrights Canada Press.

James Reaney’s “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”

Posted January 4th, 2015

In celebration of Brick Books 40th anniversary, here is one of the 26 stanzas from James Reaney’s poem “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”.

(u)
A Useful List:
Hermes
Hera
Apollo
Zeus
Venus
Vulcan
Mars
Athena
Vesta
Hades
Poseidon
Ceres.
Useful for what?

Well, I don’t quite know yet,
But I swear that as an infant,
Born near the Little Lakes,
I met them.
Every morning in our house,
Vesta used to light the stove

 James Reaney, 2005

 

James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch, January 1928.

James Reaney at home, age 1 1/2 years, January 1928.

“Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” is from James Reaney’s book of poems Souwesto Home (2005), available from Brick Books. For more about the poem, see Celebration of Poetry: Week 1 James Reaney.

Ten of the stanzas from “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” (including “(u) A Useful List”) were set to music by Oliver Whitehead and Stephen Holowitz and performed by the Antler River Project in 2008.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

Merry Christmas!

Posted December 22nd, 2014
"Hark! Who knocks at our door so late?" Watercolour sketch by James Reaney, undated. (Possibly from 2001 and perhaps based on a childhood drawing or an illustration for a story. The old house, the tree, and the windmill are like the farmhouse near Stratford where James Reaney grew up.

“Hark! Who knocks at our door so late?” Watercolour sketch by James Reaney, undated. (Possibly from 2001 and perhaps based on a childhood drawing or an illustration for a story. The old house, the tree, and the windmill are like the farmhouse near Stratford where James Reaney grew up.)

All the best for the holidays and for 2015

December 25, 1996 in London, Ontario: James Reaney at the piano with his granddaughter, Edie Reaney Chunn (age 3 months), and his son-in-law, Ian Chunn. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

December 26, 1996 in London, Ontario: James Reaney at the piano with his granddaughter, Edie Reaney Chunn (age 3 months), and his son-in-law, Ian Chunn. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

 

December 25, 1996 in London, Ontario: James Reaney with granddaughter Edie and daughter Susan Reaney. Photo by Susan Wallace.

December 25, 1996 in London, Ontario: James Reaney with granddaughter Edie and daughter Susan Reaney. Photo by Susan Wallace.

 

Alice Through the Looking Glass at the National Arts Centre, December 9 to January 3

Posted December 2nd, 2014

Director Jillian Keiley’s production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, adapted for the stage by James Reaney, opens December 9 to January 3 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Jillian Keiley is the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre Artistic Director, and she led a successful production of  Alice Through the Looking Glass at the Stratford Festival earlier this summer.

Lois Anderson as the White Queen and Natasha Greenblatt as Alice in Alice Through the Looking Glass, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, December 9, 2014 to January 3, 2015. Photo by David Krovblit.

Lois Anderson as the White Queen and Natasha Greenblatt as Alice in Alice Through the Looking Glass, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, December 9, 2014 to January 3, 2015. Photo by David Krovblit.

 

Order tickets online here or call the National Arts Centre box office at 613-947-7000 x620 (1-866-850-ARTS x620). The National Arts Centre is located at 53 Elgin Street in Ottawa.

◊ Meet some of the cast of Alice Through the Looking Glass: Introducing the National Arts Centre’s 2014-15 Ensemble.

◊ Come and hear Jillian Keiley at “Points of View: Alice Through the Looking Glass on December 13 (12:45 pm) in Ottawa.

◊ Enjoy more Lewis Carroll at the National Arts Centre with the National Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland, April 9-12, 2015.

◊ For a closer look at the text, James Reaney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass is available from the Porcupine’s Quill.

ATTLGcover

Illustration by James Reaney, 1994 (page 15)

Illustration by James Reaney, 1994 (page 15)

 

Richard Stingle 1925-2014

Posted November 26th, 2014

Richard Macmillan Stingle, long-time friend and colleague of James Reaney, passed away on November 22 at University Hospital in London, Ontario.

Richard was a friend and mentor to many of us, and we will remember him for his fierce wit and his generous spirit.

For more memories of Richard, see Don Hair’s tribute and JBNBlog.

May 25, 2010: Richard Stingle on James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles

Richard Stingle at the London Public Library on May 25, 2010

Richard Stingle’s talk “A learned poet writes a Suit of Nettles”, London Public Library, May 25, 2010

Richard Stingle with Jean McKay at "The Art of James Reaney", Landon Library, June 9, 2006, London. Ontario. Photo courtesy London Free Press

Richard Stingle with Jean McKay at “The Art of James Reaney“, Landon Library, June 9, 2006, London. Ontario.

Student days: Richard Stingle, Bob Patchell, and James Reaney in Toronto, 1950.

Student days: Richard Stingle, Bob Patchell, and James Reaney in Toronto, 1950.

 

Tim Inkster on design in James Reaney’s work

Posted October 29th, 2014
Tim Inkster in Stratford, Ontario, October 19, 2014. Photo by Laura Cudworth, courtesy Stratford Beacon Herald.

Tim Inkster in Stratford, Ontario, October 19, 2014. Photo by Laura Cudworth, courtesy Stratford Beacon Herald.

Thank you all for coming to the Fifth Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture in Stratford to hear publisher Tim Inkster’s talk on “The Iconography of James Reaney: A Collector’s Manual.”

Inkster praised the excellence of the typography and graphic design in many of James Reaney’s published works, particularly Paul Arthur’s design for The Red Heart (1949) and Allan Fleming’s design for A Suit of Nettles (1958). Tim is also impressed by James Reaney’s work hand typesetting the early issues of his magazine Alphabet (1960-1971).

Alphabet Number One, September 1960

Alphabet Number One, September 1960.  Cover design by Allan Fleming (1929-1977).

A full version of Tim Inkster’s lecture will appear in an upcoming issue of The Devil’s Artisan, a journal of the printing arts.

 

Cover for James Reaney's Twelve Letters To A Small Town, first published in 1962 by Ryerson Press

Cover for James Reaney’s Twelve Letters To A Small Town, first published in 1962 by Ryerson Press.

 

Pages 6 and 7 from Twelve Letters To A Small Town (1962). Drawings by James Reaney.

Pages 6 and 7 from Twelve Letters To A Small Town (1962). Drawings by James Reaney.

Our thanks also to Charles Mountford of Poetry Stratford and Robyn Godfrey of the Stratford Public Library for their help in organizing this event. Future speakers for the James Reaney Annual Memorial Lecture include Thomas Gerry and John Beckwith.

For more about the lecture, see JBNBlog and Laura Cudworth‘s article in the October 20, 2014 e-edition of the Stratford Beacon Herald (page A1).

James Reaney printing at the Alphabet Press print shop at 430 Talbot Street in London, Ontario (mid-1960s). Credit: London Free Press/Sun Media Corporation.

James Reaney printing at the Alphabet Press print shop at 430 Talbot Street in London, Ontario (mid-1960s). Credit: London Free Press/Sun Media Corporation.

James Reaney Memorial Lecture October 19 in Stratford

Posted October 1st, 2014

Join us on Sunday, October 19 at 2:30 pm at The Atrium (behind Café Ten) in Stratford, Ontario, for a talk about graphic design in James Reaney’s work by publisher Tim Inkster.

Tim Inkster is particularly intrigued by the excellence of the design in James Reaney’s first book, The Red Heart (1949), one of the nine titles in McClelland & Stewart’s Indian File series (1948-1958) and designed by Paul Arthur (1924-2001).

Cover and title page from James Reaney's The Red Heart (1949).

Cover and title page from James Reaney’s The Red Heart (1949). The Red Heart was the third title in McClelland & Stewart’s Indian File poetry series.

Café Ten is located at

 10 Downie Street,

 Stratford, Ontario

 N5A 7K4

Tel: (519) 508-2233

cafeten02

The annual lecture is a project developed by The Stratford Public Library and Poetry Stratford, and features a talk by a person who is knowledgeable about the life and work of Stratford poet and playwright James Reaney and of writing in the Southwestern Ontario region, which is such a strong element in Reaney’s writing.

 

“Gifts” by James Reaney

Posted September 16th, 2014

Gifts

Existence gives to me
What does he give to thee?

He gives to me:  a pebble
He gives to me:  a dewdrop
He gives to me:  a piece of string
He gives to me:  a straw

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

The pebble is a huge dark hill I must climb
The dewdrop’s a great storm lake you must cross
The string was a road he could not find
The straw will be a sign whose meaning they forget

Hill  lake  road   sign

What was it that changed the scene
So desert fades into meadows green?

The answer is that they met a Tiger
The answer is that he met a Balloon,
A Prostitute of Snow, A Gorgeous Salesman
As well as a company of others such as
Sly Tod, Reverend Jones, Kitty Cradle and so on

Who was the Tiger?  Christ
Who was the Balloon?  Buddha
Emily Bronte and the Emperor Solomon
Who sang of his foot in the doorway.
All these met him. They were hopeful and faithful.

Now the mountain becomes  a pebble in my hand
The lake calms down   to a dewdrop in a flower
The weary road  is a string around your wrist
The mysterious sign  is a straw that whistles “Home”

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

James Reaney, 1965

From Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972. “Gifts” also appears in James Reaney’s  play Colours in the Dark, which premiered at the Stratford Festival in 1967.

James Reaney (age 4) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.

James Reaney (far right) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.

James Reaney feeding the chickens (age 5) with his cousins Mary and Elsie (1931)

James Reaney feeding the chickens (age 5) with his cousins Mary and Elsie (1931)

 

James Reaney's childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

“Going for the Mail” by James Reaney

Posted September 1st, 2014

From the suite of poems The Young Traveller (1964)

 i)  Going for the Mail

After four, when home from school.
A boy down the farm walks,
To get the mail the mailman’s left
In the backroad mailbox.

Oh things to watch and things to think
As I walk down the lane
Between the elmtree and the fence
Things that are not plain.

For instance is the elmtree there
Still there when I am past it?
I jump about and there it is
Certain to all my wit.

But could it still not be
That when my back is turned
It disappears and nothing is?
Why not, I’ve still not learned.

There’s sedge in the marsh to look at
And dark brown curled dock.
Why do I love the weeds so
And examine every stalk?

Back at the house they tell him
   That although he was at the mailbox
He forgot to get the mail out
   So back again he walks.

The fields are dark, the sky dark gray
The farmhouse lights come on
And dimmer lights in barns,
One reflected in the pond.

This time there’s less to think upon
Since all the detail’s gone
But what news and what mail I get
To reflect upon —

The world in huge butterflies of paper —
(And here’s the comfort)
Will still not be as interesting
As walking twice for it.

 James Reaney, 1964

From Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972.

James Reaney age 9 at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, Spring 1937.

James Reaney (age 9) at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, Spring 1937.

Elm trees along the north fence, 1937

Elm trees along the north fence, 1937