September 2003

Cultural Activist: Guernica Editions Celebrates 25 Years

by Pasquale Verdicchio

Accenti FEATURE : Cultural Activist: Guernica Editions Celebrates 25 Years by Pasquale Verdicchio
It was 1980 and one of those beautiful sunny spring days in Vancouver, when the eyes finally begin to re-familiarize themselves with sunlight after the long dark winter skies. On that day I wandered into the Western Front offices and bookstore in Gastown. The covers of two books caught my eye. Their design was the first thing to pull me over. A basic, straight to the point, effective and efficient design: title, name, publisher and a photograph of the author.


How could something so simple and straightforward, something so attractive and so apparently common sense also be so rare? Aside from the names on those covers - Marco Fraticelli, Antonio D'Alfonso - the books were made unusual by the fact of their being in English. They would have been much more usual had they been in Italian or translations from the Italian. But the fact that they carried Italian names and were originally written in English made them unusual.


It is hard to say if I had even thought of the possibility of books like that. I only know that I was drawn to them and felt the immediate need to communicate with these people. I had met Pier Giorgio Di Cicco not long before this, while living in Victoria. He was there for a reading, and during a get-together at Robin Skelton's our conversation turned into an interview. We talked about his writing, his notion of what it might have meant to identify as a writer of Italian background writing in English, in Canada. We talked about the anthology of Italian Canadian poetry Roman Candles, its context and supposed function. But, even Di Cicco's anthology did not carry for me the same meaning that finding those two other books did. First of all, the Quebecois reality from which they emerged suddenly added a new dimension to the whole context.


Here were Italian writers writing in English and possibly French and Italian from within a French cultural reality. But truly, the significance of Guernica and its manifestation on the shelves of the Western Front lay in something completely different. Those books and that enterprise represented not only the potential for community, but also the possibility of controlling one's own means of cultural production and dissemination. There had always been small presses, and in Quebec they could be said to have done that work, but they were more representative of a binary culture rather than of a minority one. No one affiliated, representing or emerging from a so-called "minority" or "ethnic" group had done what Guernica was proposing to do by its mere presence.


Antonio D'Alfonso used his press initially to publish his own Queror, Marco Fraticelli's haiku poetry, Instants, and Filippo Salvatore's Suns of Darkness. But if you are even distantly thinking "vanity press," a quick look at Guernica's diversified and eclectic collection of authors and publications should quickly dispel that notion.


Antonio D'Alfonso and Guernica are, of course, separate entities. One is a writer, intellectual, father, husband, friend; the other is an idea, a concept, an ideology, a philosophy that has taken on a life of its own. But the two cannot be thought of independently from one another. Right from the beginning Guernica developed as an approach to explain Canadian cultural realities.


It was in this guise that Antonio D'Alfonso was also among the founders of that important cultural publication from Montreal that was ViceVersa. D'Alfonso is Quebecois through and through, and he is undeniably Italian, which makes him indisputably Canadian. Through these vantage points he has lived the ins and outs of our cultural uniqueness, and his press is a reflection of the positive sustainment of our common Canadian identity crisis.


Another contribution that I regard among Guernica's most useful is in its role in educating writers about publishing and associated issues. Writers very rarely take an interest in the function or importance of things like ISBN numbers, copyright or the like; yet these are fundamental tools of the trade. A press such as Guernica is not merely a place to drop off a finished manuscript and then go home to start the next one; it is an organism that enables the ongoing relationship between writers, editors, publishers and the world, and it is a potentially useful representative entity on their behalf.


Go through the Guernica catalogue and you will find that some names come up again and again. This is an indication that Guernica represents much more than just another place to publish a manuscript. Guernica is a cultural entity interested in proposing, through its writers and publications, an approach to culture and cultural production that is Canadian through and through. The varieties of representation and opinion that Guernica seeks and offers readers are most definitely devoted to maintaining cultural diversity and freedom of expression and production.


Antonio D'Alfonso has often spoken of the trajectory that he intended to give his press and the imprint by which he sought to define it. In fact, if one were to peruse the list of Guernica's publications, the cohesive trends that it has constructed for itself would soon be obvious. D'Alfonso's attempt has always been to articulate a presence for Italian Canadians through Guernica. But that means adhesion to a press, it means shedding the anxiety that writers feel regarding collaborations with a single press; it means a renewed mind-set by which writers and publishers share a vision of culture that embraces collectivity and collective cultural action.


This does not demand homogeneity of any sort; merely the consciousness of regarding culture as a powerful social and political instrument, rather than an exercise in narcissism. This is what Guernica reflects. Mary Melfi, Joseph Pivato, Gianna Patriarca, Fulvio Caccia - these are names that you see associated with Guernica over and over because they share fully or in part this concept of cultural production.


And where has this led in twenty-five years? It has led to a not so easily dismissed series of publications and public intellectuals that continue the process. Of course, not every Italian Canadian has published with Guernica, nor do all Italian Canadians wish to do so. I do, however, think it safe to say that through its activities and prominence Guernica has been a strong facilitator and advocate for Italian Canadian writers, whether they published there or elsewhere. Lest my concentration on Italian Canadian matters give the wrong impression that that is all Guernica publishes, let me add that Guernica has published a culturally and linguistically varied list since its inception: Gaston Miron, Elizabeth Smart, Yolande Villemaire, Dorothy Livesay, Nicole Brossard, Umberto Eco, Dacia Maraini, Federico Garcia Lorca and Claude Beausoleil to name a few. And yet, there are some who may be surprised to hear that Guernica is twenty-five years old and that it publishes more than Italian Canadians.


But publishing, like many things, is a struggle. If Guernica has become closely identified as a vehicle for Italian Canadian writers, it does not diminish its status as a press that extends its invitation to all writers who share in its concept of cultural production.


Over the last few years Guernica has moved into new territory. Along with its ever growing Essential Poets and Essays Series, the initiation of the Writers Series of monographic critical anthologies represents a further emphasis of the cultural struggles that has defined Guernica. By offering up critical works on single writers, Guernica furthers the presence of Canadian culture internationally while re-dimensioning the ground around accepted canons within the country. The series is well on its way with fourteen books already out, among which are volumes on P.K. Page, Al Purdy, bill bissett and Adele Wiseman.


Almost as a companion series is the PICAS Series through which are published out-of-print books. Through this series, Guernica refreshes our memories and our culture by proposing books that have lost their place on the bookshelves through the passage of time.


And so, by these actions, by providing a cultural cohesiveness for Italian Canadians through a wider Canadian context of publications, by generating a strong series of books that emphasizes reading and critical appreciation, and by reintroducing books to our cultural environment, Guernica carries on its cultural activism past its twenty-fifth anniversary.


In Guernica's twentieth year catalogue, Antonio D'Alfonso answers the question that many ask regarding the name of the press: Why "Guernica"? D'Alfonso remembers April 26, 1937, the day on which Francisco Franco's nationalists firebombed the town of Guernica. He declares that his publishing venture was so named "... in remembrance of the victims." Picasso's work by the same name celebrates the fallen civilians and unmasks the horror that human beings continuously unleash upon each other. Such sights can lead us along diverging paths. I recall here the opening scenes of the film Basquiat, in which the artist's mother falls into madness at the sight of Picasso's mural. The other path is towards a more emphatic and engaged activism. Guernica has been working its cultural magic along the latter path quietly but powerfully over a quarter of a century. As D'Alfonso writes in the introduction to that catalogue of five years ago, "we hope that by publishing the kind of books that we do, we can help make this world a better place in which to live and love."


It is quite possible that a Guernica book has found its way into your library. In the unlikely event that you may not have come across a Guernica publication, I would suggest that you hurry to your local bookstore or library. You have twenty-five years of reading on which to catch up.



Pasquale Verdicchio teaches literature, film and writing at the University of California, San Diego. He has published widely on Italian North American culture.



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