Raymond Souster was more than just a founding member of the League: he was at the forefront of Canadian poetry, driving and inspiring change as a poet and publisher in the 50s, 60s, and beyond. A beautiful article in the National Post, written shortly after he passed away, calls him a “poetic priest,” one that “helped to create modern Canadian literature.”
Souster once told an interviewer, “For me, poetry is like a religion, I guess.” That “I guess” was pure Souster: He couldn’t make a grand statement without amending it, to prove he wasn’t claiming to be special. …If it was a religion, he was no high priest. He was like the hard-working bishop of a poverty-stricken diocese, labouring to hold his flock together. In the 1950s and 1960s he was Canadian poetry’s great connector and promoter. He thought poets should meet each other, hear each other read and mingle with their tiny audience. He organized many poetry readings, like the one that brought Leonard Cohen from Montreal to read at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto. He was the pioneer of the reading events that became an essential part of Canadian literature.
In 1952 along with Louis Dudek and Irving Layton, he created Contact Press, a publishing company whose warehouse was Souster’s basement. Contact Press served as durable model for author-owned, non-commercial literary publishing in Canada and proved to be an inspiration for a generation of Canadian poets, some of whose first books were published by Contact, and who followed Dudek and Souster, in particular, in advancing the small press cause in Canada. Receiving little government financial support or general recognition, Contact achieved many successes, most notably when Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game received the Governor’s General Award for poetry in 1966.
In 1966, Raymond Souster remarked: “Contact appears to have formed a bridge over into the Fifties in which the modern Canadian poetical movement could begin its slow determined march”. Almost five decades later, it is evident that this “bridge” marshaled innumerable acolytes of the Canadian small press movement to follow the lead of Dudek, Layton, and Souster to create a number of vibrant self-publishing communities across Canada. This would have been impossible without the Contact Press.
In 2014, Raymond Souster’s literary executor Donna Dunlop revived Contact Press to publish a collection of Souster’s last poems, Come Rain, Come Shine.
“Naturally, there are many poems about death and loss and poor health and medical treatment. These are interspersed with sensitive, beautiful pieces about small pleasures and deep loves,” wrote Bill Anderson in a review of the posthumous collection. “The collection is not all profound themes and hard-won wisdom, though. There are some fine jabs at politicians in general and at the Ford brothers in particular. Human stupidity gets some knocks. Working class causes are defended and honoured.
“Most of all, this very good collection builds a picture of an end-of-life seesaw that arcs through despair, resignation, opinion, recollection and love, pivoting on the poet’s courage to face oblivion without giving in to it before time is up.”