Matrix: the early years
Philip Lanthier
21 February 2022

When Matrix celebrated its 25th birthday in the year 2000, it did so in style:  some alarming bandes dessinées in issue 56 and a party at the Blue Metropolis.

The word “matrix” provided a number of apt metaphors, we thought, as we wracked our brains for a title: that which gives origin or form to a thing, the fine-grained portions of rock in which coarser fragments are embedded, or, archaically, the womb. Pretty ambitious expectations for a Canadian literary magazine from a small town 140 kilometers east of Montreal. And all for the irresistible price of 50 cents a copy. The format was magazine size, 8½ X 11, old-fashioned inches. The inaugural editorial promised nearly total inclusiveness and no adhesion to any clique or faction.

When the idea of a literary was proposed in the Department of English at the Lennoxville Campus of Champlain Regional College, D.G. Jones, poet and critic at the Université de Sherbrooke, was the first person consulted. Jones, one of the founding editors of the bilingual Ellipse, knew the challenges of launching such an enterprise in a saturated field, but this should not discourage us, he said, and it didn't.

Campus Director, Peter Hill, was approached and in an amazingly brief exchange, agreed to provide $3000 in start-up money. The magazine published 12 issues with college support. When the inevitable budget constraints descended, the editors sought funding from the Canada Council, which, together with an eggshell thin circulation, kept the twice-yearly periodical going until the end of the eighties.

Recalling those years from the vantage point of the digital age, one finds it difficult to believe that submissions came in on paper, that revisions and proofreading were done on hard copy, that we composed text on typewriters, and that layout was by paste-up on the kitchen table. Lots of whiteout, gluestick and no such thing as spell-check. It was all very tactile. The magazine format was a challenge. What to do with poems. Where to place art work. What art work? Thank heavens for understanding local printers and graphic artists.

Before downsizing to 7x10 then to the more conventional 6x9, we used the large page size to run a special issue with photos and drawings on the first Seventh Moon Poetry Reading in North Hatley (Fall 1975), to print a series of eight lithographs by artist Morton Rosengarten of the ladies in the topless bar at the Golfo Motel down Route 143 (Spring 1976), to include a selection from Rob Allen's verbally exuberant novel The Hawryliw Process (Winter 1977), and to reprint Jon Whyte's documentary poem “The Agony of Mrs. Stone” with photographs of the 1921 Mt Eon climbing tragedy in the Rockies. (Summer 1977). We felt that we were pushing the boundaries of the conventional “little magazine.” I have two favourite covers: one a photograph taken in Japan of a raincoated Leonard Cohen under an umbrella held by a monk, and another of a funny fat guy pulling a giant banana on a tiny wagon, a drawing which I purchased from a street artist in Montreal and could never find again.

Leafing through old editions, I discover other highlights: interviews with Irving Layton, D.G. Jones, Leonard Cohen. Rob Allen, Mordecai Richler, and Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. There was a Montreal issue, a prose poem issue, and a translation issue featuring Francophone poets in the Townships, and where Nigel Spencer, three-time Governor General Award winner for translation, made an early appearance. T.F. Rigelhof`s story “Je t'aime Cowboy” got made into a TV show, a Joyce Marshall’s story won a National Magazine Award.

Throughout its 13 years in the Townships Matrix kept 18 editors occupied on and off and to one extent or another. Someone had to keep track of circulation, proofreading, funding, printers, layout and getting the latest edition into local stores. That was me. But when a chance to work in the South of France for a half year presented itself, my tenure as Editor came to an end. My colleagues decided it was time to hand over the magazine to a new team at John Abbott College in Montreal.

Two editors in particular had helped pull in submissions and suggest editorial ideas: Michael Benazon and Rob Allen. Mike was instrumental in getting writers to visit the Champlain/Bishop's Campus and persuading them to send in work, or he simply tracked them down and asked. Rob Allen had connections to poets from all over North America. He eventually split off from Matrix to found The Moosehead Review with a more international focus.

When Matrix eventually found a new home at Concordia University, where Rob had become a key member of the Creative Writing Department, it had already reverted to its original magazine format, had great designers and photographers, and published much more radical and inventive material. I like to think that some of the inventiveness Rob and his fellow editors brought to the new, refreshed and more cosmopolitan Matrix had its beginnings in a periodical coming out of the green and pleasant land of Quebec's Eastern Townships.



Philip Lanthier was editor of Matrix magazine from 1975 to 1988. He is founder of the Knowlton Literary Festival and in 2017 was awarded the Quebec Writer's Federation Judy Mappin Community Award for his contributions to the literary scene in this province.

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