History of the Journal
A Brief History of the White Wall Review Dennis Denisoff
“Welcome, White Wall Review, harbinger of spring.” This was the image that Terry Grier, Dean of Arts at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, offered when he wrote the foreword in 1980 to the fifth issue of the journal. He began his piece, however, with a more melancholy forecast:
Slowly, this winter of Ryerson’s discontent moves through its phases of financial shortages,
an academic strike and the departure of its president. But winter does end.
And it also returns. Since the Dean’s piece, Ryerson has seen more seasons of budget strife, labour change and new administrators, as has the White Wall Review. But Ryerson’s journal of art and literature, like the institution itself, has survived – a success that is all the more remarkable when one realizes that, in its first days, the White Wall Review was operating entirely on the volunteer efforts of students, faculty and alumni. Funds were gathered where they could be found, with no commitment of future assistance. Support over the years has come from various sources, with the greatest aid being offered from the Canada Council, the Department of English, the Dean of Arts, the Palin Foundation, the President’s Office, the Ryerson Staff Association, and the Ryerson Student Society.
The Ryerson Literary Society was founded in 1975 by students and faculty members primarily from the Department of English and the Journalism Program. This group published the first issue of the White Wall Review in 1976, selling it for a dollar (a copy of the 2008 issue now costs $10.00). Since then, the journal has been managed by the Society or the Department of English. Writing in the 10th-anniversary issue, in 1985, the journal’s founding editor, Susan Graham Walker, recalls the difficulties surrounding its inception:
In presenting our proposal to the administration, teaching staff and the student union
we were rebuffed, questioned and refused on several occasions. Such obstacles only
spurred us on in our subversive activities, confident of the support of a few loyal
individuals and of our own enthusiasm for the enterprise.
Walker’s language of rebellion goes some distance to explaining the quotation that has appeared at the start of the first issue and then each issue since 1990: “Artists who find a white wall will instinctively wish to cover it with their art.”
In its first decade the White Wall Review filled a crucial role on campus by emphasizing some of the finer nuances of what the essential contribution of the arts was to an institution aimed at offering practical training and applied knowledge. “We all agree that our programmes should be relevant to the world of work,” wrote Walter Pitman, president of Ryerson, in his foreword to the 1977 issue, “but we continue to agonize over the nature of that ‘relevance’ and the importance of liberal education.” According to Pitman, the journal did no less than “distinguish for us the educated from the merely trained mind.”
During its first five years, the White Wall Review was characterized by high-quality visual and verbal art, excellent publishing standards and stimulating covers. The year 1981 marked a notable increase in the journal’s size (by roughly 25%) and, by its 10th anniversary in 1985, the White Wall Review was an established cultural institution within Ryerson, with guaranteed funding. This did not mean, however, that the journal had lost its edge. In that very issue, the founding editor warned future editors to be careful not to let the journal slip into “complacency, arrogance, triviality and mediocrity.” The 1985 issue was also dedicated to English professor W.C. Chau, who – the editors warmly note – “taught us to love fine literature.” Thus, a combination of rebelliousness and appreciation for the arts was seen to characterize the journal, just as it had in 1976 when Professor Chau and others founded it. Unfortunately, Professor Chau died a few years after this kind acknowledgement, on September 22, 1987, at the age of 48. The journal’s 1988 issue was also dedicated to him.
The first half of the 1990s saw some especially visually beautiful editions, but budget decreases lead to a reduction in size and production quality in the latter half of the decade. That said, the quality of the literary and visual art that was published remained high and this somewhat tight monetary period also produced some of theWhite Wall Review’s most daring and innovative content. The journal’s appearance once a year since 1976 hit its first and only bump in 2000. While the issue for that year, which was to mark the 25th anniversary of the journal, had gone into production, the final work was never completed until the Student Society, seeing that the journal had faltered, officially gave management responsibility to faculty in the Department of English, while maintaining an emphasis on student involvement. The 25th anniversary issue appeared in 2001, 26 years after the first issue, and it was dedicated in memoriam to Julie Williamson, a Ryerson undergraduate student and recent editor of the journal.
Over the years, most contributors have come from the Ryerson community of students, faculty, staff and alumni, but there have also been many contributors from various locations around the world. A few of the people whose work has appeared in the White Wall Review include Milton Acorn, bill bissett, Nicole Brossard, David Chariandy, Margaret Christakos, Barry Dempster, Pier Georgio di Cicco, Steven Heighton, Evelyn Lau, Karen Mulhallen, bp Nichol, Sina Queryas, Robert Sawyer and Sonja J. Skarstedt.
In addition to poetry, prose and visual art, the journal has over the years published nonfiction pieces, including articles such as Margaret MacMillan’s “The Return of the Raj: The British and India in Recent Novels” in 1981, Norman Mackenzie’s “Aristotle’s Poetics: Propter hoc” in 1982 and Stephanie Brown’s “Ulysses in Translation: James Joyce and Media” in 1985. When Marshall MacLuhan died in 1980, a group of Ryerson’s faculty conducted a radio interview recalling the man and his work in 1960-61 at the Ryerson Institute of Technology (as Ryerson University was then known). The transcript was published in the White Wall Review’s 1982 issue. Other past interviewees include author Leon Rooke in 2002; goth culture experts Sarah Khokhar and Shannan Veals in 2003; poet Kristina Gunnars in 2003; Alana Wilcox, senior editor of Coach House Books, in 2004; poet Jay MillAr in 2005, and visual artist Mira Coviensky in 2006.
Since the turn of the century, the White Wall Review has continued under the management of the Department of English, with students contributing works and taking part in editing, designing and producing each issue. Since 2002, the issues have grown in size and improved in production quality, thanks to the Student Society’s increased financial support and the English Department’s contribution of office space, supplies and funds to pay student assistants.
In 2002 the White Wall Review began participating in Toronto’s Word on the Street festival. It was also at that festival that the journal began its annual Write Now contest, where festival attendees write creative pieces on the spot and drop them in an entry box. The entry judged to be the best is given pride of place in the next issue. The first winning piece, by Shayna Stevenson, was published in 2003 (in issue 28) and reads, in its entirety:
I’d rather sit here
and watch the shadows move
along the building
outside my office window
I’d rather see you
laughing at me again
as I get us lost
in another foreign city
you may claim
to still be wrapped around my finger
but last night
I cut that finger off.
Other recent developments include the Postcard Story contest, as well as the publication of the Chang School prizes in poetry, prose and nonfiction – chosen from submissions made by students in Ryerson’s Continuing Education program. The year 2007 marked the beginning of Splash, an annual fall launch of the journal, coupled with the awarding of the Chang School prizes and a sale of Ryerson students’ original works of visual art.
With new initiatives such as the Chang School prizes and Splash, the White Wall Review’s future looks as promising as ever. Continuing to find ways to incorporate diverse members of the Ryerson community, the journal’s team also began in 2007 to conduct a major overhaul of its website – allowing the broad dissemination not only of information on upcoming publications and events, but also of our amazing archives. Readers of the journal have always looked forward to another issue. But now, new digital technologies mean they are also able to look back to the beautiful, rebellious art work that has been produced by the Ryerson community for decades.