Ernest Hekkanen’s swan song

Local author prepares to release last issue of The New Orphic Review

It all started with a lengthy argument decades ago.

Ernest Hekkanen was standing on a Vancouver Island beach, attending a memorial service for a poet he admired, when he met a young Swiss woman named Margrith Schraner who had emigrated to Canada the same year he did — 1969.

At first they flirted amiably, but quickly things began to get heated.

“At one point we had an extremely long argument about literature, and about who should be producing it and what’s worthwhile reading, as well as whether being self-taught is better than being university-taught,” the 70-year-old founder of The New Orphic Review told the Star.

According to him, that argument never really ended. The pair ultimately went on to spend the next three decades together, founding a literary journal and publishing dozens of books. Having set up shop in Nelson in 2000, the prolific pair have been routinely churning out work that gets recognized nationwide while living in their art gallery on Mill Street.

But now, after 20 years, it’s time to call it quits. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. the pair will be hosting a party at Oxygen Art Centre to mark the release of their last ever issue, as they move on to other things and take time to reflect on what they’ve accomplished.

“I refer to our magazine as a starter magazine, so the people seeking publication are often first time authors or maybe third or fourth time authors. They’re giving us their material gratis, and we’re trying to make their names more prominent,” he said.

“I’m very happy with what we accomplished. We have one Journey Prize winner, and writers who have appeared in our magazine have been in Best American Mystery Stories. We’ve had an enthusiastic response from a number of anthologies for the work we’ve produced.”

And he did it all out of his own pocket, instead of relying on grants like other Canadian journals — thanks to what he calls his “defiant posture.” Hekkanen prides himself on being iconoclastic, having originally come to Canada as a draft dodger during the Vietnam War, and has been known ever since as a rabble-rouser.

“I’d fooled around with the idea of ending the magazine after I was cyber attacked, but I didn’t want to end on that sour note so I did what I could to resurrect everything — got a new computer, new programs,” he said.

“It’s a magazine that’s reached its zenith. I’m getting older and I don’t think I have that same defining edge, so I figured if I continued for many more years it wouldn’t have the same quality.”

Hekkanen now has 47 books to his name, all self-published, and he figures he has at least three more he can throw his weight into now.

“There are some projects sitting on my desk I’ve yet to find the courage to look at yet. The magazine would take us about three or four months to put together each time, so I’m definitely going to have more time now,” he said.

He plans to continue to ruffle feathers.

“I don’t have too much to lose at the age of 70. Our inhibitors, we lose them as we age and that means we tend to open our mouths when we shouldn’t. I suspect I may put my foot, if not my fist, in my mouth again many times.”

He thinks the edginess he brought to the literary scene contrasted with Canadian work too caught up with form to offer much of substance.

“The stories in many Canadian journals are technically good, but in terms of dealing with the human equation I find they’re lamentable oftentimes. That might have a lot to do with how many literary journals come out of English or Creative Writing departments, since the people who contribute to them haven’t had much experience with life,” he said.

“By the time I got my first book published at 40 years old, I had worked 38 jobs and had been stabbed in work conditions and things of that sort, so I’ve been steeped in life. I don’t think a lot of writers have extended themselves, in terms of reaching out to life, but try to keep it at a distance — and perhaps that’s had an effect on the literature we read these days.”

Reading at the event, besides the magazine’s editors, will be Barbara Curry Mulcahy of Slocan and Nelsonites Bobbie Ogletree and Jude Schmitz. The last reader of the night will be Schraner, a decision Hekkanen made purposefully.

“I’m giving her the last word.”

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Ernest Hekkanen is seen in The New Orphic gallery, in Nelson, where he has produced a literary journal with his wife Margrith Schraner for the past few decades.

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