To a Likeness, By Way of Introduction

by John Barton

Robin Skelton and John Peter, then professors in the University of Victoria’s Department of English, published The Malahat Review’s inaugural issue on New Year’s Day 1967. After two years of planning, they endeavoured to launch a magazine different from other university quarterlies by emphasizing new poetry, fiction, and drama, and criticism breaking new ground. What followed is a much storied, forty-year chapter in Canadian literary history, for The Malahat Review has inarguably grown into the most iconic Canadian literary magazine read across the country and around the world. Ask any Canadian writer and most would agree that to publish with us is a coveted mark of distinction.

I met Robin Skelton in September 1978 as a student in his now-fabled, third-year poetry workshop in the then five-year-old Department of Creative Writing. I remember being transfixed by his definition of poetry as sound over silence—simple enough, certainly, but to me then (and now): magical. I’d soon cross Robin over what I saw as unjust commentary about a poem—pretensions of a neophyte that embarrass me still—but I would go on to study with him for three years. I was then too often arrogantly unaware of how much he influenced me, but decades later and with, I hope, a much wiser and humbler mind, I know he furnished me with a workable template for my vocation as a poet. Also, as a literary-magazine editor, he set a standard that’s guided me in the many years I have been one myself, first at Arc, in Ottawa, from 1990 to 2003, and now, here, at the Malahat (I sometimes feel I’ve returned to Victoria to assume his mantle). Ten years after his death in August 1997, I can think of no better way to pay him tribute than by devoting the fortieth-anniversary issue of “his” journal to an appreciation of his achievements.

In what follows you’ll encounter something of the man Robin was: from his youth to his last years, with sightings ranging from Yorkshire to India to Vancouver Island, from Leeds University to the University of Victoria, by his students, friends, and peers, and by some who never met him, but were asked to join in, including Nicholas Bradley, UVic’s first professor of West Coast literature, who revisits Robin’s aspirations for B.C. writing. You’ll encounter Robin as mage in Yvonne Owens’ exploration of the Wiccan roots of his poetry (she says it best when describing him as magical personnel whose gift to us all was one of support) and as the child that Sean Virgo says greets him when reading Robin’s poems. You’ll also discover Robin in his own words in an excerpt from his unpublished memoir, The Road to Kandy, in his “Lady in Waiting,” and, at one remove, in Matthew J. Trafford’s “Past Perfect,” the Far Horizons Award-winning short story inspired by one of Robin’s own undeveloped plot summaries found among his papers, which entrants were asked to flesh out. This issue captures the essence of what Ron Smith suggests in his sketch of Robin: that collage, one of Robin’s many modes of expression, “suits us.” The composite emerging from the overlapping and multilayered reminiscences, essays, and poems by forty-one contributors from five countries is not exact, but the likeness suits our beloved, be-ringed, pentacled, cape-draped and walking-stick-strutting master. And, if this collective portrait is insufficient, then The Malahat Review at Forty: A Celebration of Robin Skelton, our festival running in Victoria from October 10 to 14, 2007, may begin to sate your interest. Without the blessing and assistance of Robin’s daughters, Alison Skelton and Brigid Skelton, to whom this issue is dedicated, none of what’s planned would have been possible.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Malahat’s beginnings, but it’s essential to remember Robin stepped down as editor in 1983 and was succeeded by peers who left equal mark. Constance Rooke, from Women’s Studies, succeeded him for ten years and formalized the present, not-exclusive emphasis on Canadian poetry and fiction (Robin’s idea was to publish the best of Canada alongside the best from elsewhere) that’s allowed the magazine to prosper. Derk Wynand, from the Department of Writing, next took over, editing with an eclecticism matching Robin’s, however much they had different (and equally excellent) tastes. Marlene Cookshaw, long-time assistant editor under both Connie and Derk, immediately preceded me and, as the first non-faculty editor, steered the magazine ably, as one must a well-rigged ship. Looking at the wall of chronologically arranged Malahat issues facing my desk, the past editors’ achievement may overwhelm, but it also points to the certainty of the future. If he were alive today, Robin would be the first to raise a glass of Irish, boasting there is much to uphold, much to look forward to, and much to celebrate.