Open Letter was founded in Victoria, B.C., in 1965, by Frank Davey, with the editorial assistance of fellow poets George Bowering, Fred Wah and David Dawson, and the financial assistance of a Department of National Defence Arts Research Grant. In 1971 it began publishing from Toronto in its current format, with the assistance of the Canada Council and, from 1976, of the Ontario Arts Council. Among its contributing editors since 1971 have been John Bentley Mays, presently the visual arts critic of The Globe and Mail, and poets Victor Coleman, bpNichol, and Stan Persky. Its editorial goal, then and now, has been to provide a space in which writers, visual artists and literary scholars from various regions and communities within Canada could articulate and discuss with one another theories of art production, criticism, and the cultural role of literature.

Over its three decades of publication, it has functioned as a lively and often irreverent supplement to scholarly journals and as a more serious place for writers to engage cultural issues than those provided by creative writing quarterlies. The Canadian contributors to Open Letter have been numerous and often illustrious; among them Jacques Brault, Victor Coleman, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Barbour, David McFadden, Greg Curnoe, Phyllis Webb, Eldon Garnet, John Bentley Mays, Dennis Lee, bill bissett, Matt Cohen, Barbara Godard, Brian Fawcett, Paul Dutton, Sheila Watson, George Johnston, Susan Musgrave, Lorne Falk, Daphne Marlatt, Audrey Thomas, Christopher Dewdney, W.H. New, Judith Fitzgerald, Ann Mandel, Robert Lecker, Ray Ellenwood, R. Murray Schafer, Opal L. Nations, Louis Dudek, Lionel Kearns, Wilfrid Watson, Thierry de Duve, Chantal Pontbriand, Robert Kroetsch, Don McKay, E.D. Blodgett, Shirley Neuman, Smaro Kamboureli, Carol Bolt, Dennis Cooley, Stephen Scobie, Earle Birney, Eli Mandel, Gary Geddes, M. Travis Lane, James Reaney, Roy Mike, Dorothy Livesay, Jean Tourangeau, Margaret Avison, Michael Ondaatje, Joe Rosenblatt, David Donnell, Sharon Thesen, Erin Mouré, Mary di Michele, Aritha van Herk, Linda Hutcheon, Anne Michaels, Barbara Carey, Stuart Ross, Jeff Derksen, Christine Ross, Pamela Banting, Yasmin Ladha, Lynn Crosbie, Claire Harris, M. Nourbese Philip, Darren Wershler-Henry, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, and Karen Mc Cormack. Their work in Open Letter has been prospective, creative, and theoretical, and has contributed significantly to arts development in Canada.

In its 31-year history Open Letter has received much positive critical attention, including in 1979 a special issue of Ellipse devoted to it and La barre du jour:

  • "...the most important avant-garde periodical in Canada ... a pioneer critical journal ..." (Ken Norris, The Little Magazine in Canada 1925-1980, McGill-Queens UP)
  • "...Open Letter is programmed to undermine and redirect the tastes of an intelligent reading public ..." (Wynne Francis, The Laurentian Review)
  • "...one might trace the development of Quebec and Canadian poetry in a handful of little mags: in the fifties Contact, Delta, Alphabet, Liberté; in the sixties Tish and Parti Pris; in the seventies Open Letter and La barre du jour ..." (D.G. Jones, Ellipse)
  • "...Open Letter, a magazine that has consistently been the most interesting and provocative forum for theoretical and critical explorations of contemporary and experimental writing ..." (Stephen Scobie, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature)
  • "...Open Letter and La barre du jour have earned their reputations as leaders of the avant garde ..." (Carolyn Bayard, Ellipse)
  • "...Frank Davey's Open Letter ... is one of the most advanced journals of its kind anywhere in the world ..." (Wynne Francis, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature)
  • "...the most indispensible journal in Canlit" (Nicky Drombolis, George Bowering Condensed)

Behind such praise has been an Open Letter history of leadership among Canadian literary publications. In the 1970s it was one of the first to regularly review Canadian small press titles; it was one of the first to publish phenomenological criticism; and one of very few to publish translations of theoretical writing by Quebec avant-garde writers like Paul Chamberland, Raoul Duguay and Michèle Lalonde. It gave first publication to Dennis Lee's now well-known essay "Cadence, Country, Silence," and to Sheila Watson's short story "The Rumble Seat" and essays on Wyndham Lewis. In the 1980s it produced several important special collections—a collection of "pataphysical texts (1981), Louis Dudek's "Texts and Essays" (1981), Bruce Barber's collection of essays on performance art (1983), a collection of essays on Robert Kroetsch (1984), the proceedings of the Longliners Conference on the Canadian long poem (1985), a collection of essays by Robert Kroetsch (1983) that in 1989 was re-printed in an expanded edition by Oxford University Press, a festschrift (1986) on bpNichol, and a collection of essays (1987) on Steve McCaffery. Throughout its history, as in its performance art issue, issues on Barbara Caruso (1986), Victor Coleman (1988), and on three British painters ("Between Poetry and Painting," 1978), as well as in numerous essays in other issues, Open Letter has attempted to keep open the conceptual links between writing and the visual arts. Many of the above have been issues—particularly the ones focused on "pataphysics, performance art, the work of Victor Coleman, Sheila Watson, Barbara Caruso, Steve McCaffery, and bpNichol—that scholarly journals at the time would have been unlikely to consider publishing.

In the 1970s Open Letter was one of the few connectors between the English-Canadian artistic community and that of Quebec, and one of few places in which young writers might expect to be reviewed. In the 1980s, in a scene in which the general Canadian literature periodicals were relatively conservative, and in which avant-garde periodicals like Tessera, Fuse, and Prairie Fire were highly specialized, Open Letter was one of the few periodicals in which literary critics and theorists were able to publish theoretical and theoretically explicit texts. In the 1990s and 2000s Open Letter has been a meeting place for writers with various concerns about poetics, race, feminism, and region.

The present editorial board, reorganized after the death of bpNichol in 1988, consists of three poets (Steve McCaffery, Lola Lemire Tostevin, and Fred Wah), one poet-scholar (Smaro Kamboureli), and two adventurous and provocative scholars (Barbara Godard and Terry Goldie). This board solicits new material and juries manuscripts received at large. In recent years this board has diversified Open Letter by engaging younger writers -- Clint Burnham, Susan Rudy Dorscht, Christian Bök, Janice Williamson, Ellen Quigley, Mari Sasano, Jeff Derksen, Larissa Lai, Aruna Srivastava, Darren Wershler-Henry, Stephen Cain, derek beaulieu, Jason Christie, Karis Shearer -- to act as guest editors. This policy has enabled Open Letter to introduce new writers like Yasmin Ladha and Juliana Spahr, to introduce young writers like Sianne Ngai and Deanna Ferguson to new audiences, and to introduce known writers writing in less familar genres, like Lynne Crosbie and John Clement Ball.


The design of Open Letter has remained relatively stable since 1972. Typesize was reduced in the early 1980s to cope with grant reductions. Most issues feature a two-colour matte cover as the most economical option. In the last two years we have increased the left, right, and bottom margins to assist readability, changed to a New Times Roman 10 point typeface, and as a design policy chosen to use boldface as little as possible, achieving emphasis either through italics or changes in point size. Declining grants have obliged us to stop using the elegant Roland laid papers that characterized the journal up to and including Ninth Series, Number 7. Open Letter is now printed on white office-quality bond.


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