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Urchin 1.1

Cover art: Bill Johnson

Urchin

Urchin was a short-lived student literary magazine founded by David Adams Richards, Michael Pacey, and Brian Bartlett. It was published with the financial backing of St. Thomas University. The magazine featured poetry, short fiction, and artwork from contributors across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. While Urchin was intended to be a quarterly publication, only two issues—Winter 1971-72 and Spring 1972—were published.

The magazine takes its name from the “roguish, mischevious” boys of Charles Dickens’s novels. Dickens had been a strong early influence on David Adams Richards (Tremblay 70). The final page of the first issue of Urchin provided the following definition of the term:

Ur.chin (ûr´chin) n. 1. A roguish, mischevious boy,
2. A cylinder in a carding machine. 3. A sea urchin.
4. Archaic A hedgehog. 5. Obs. An elf, as often assuming the form of a hedgehog. - adj. Obs. Elfish. (ME irchoun / OF irechin, ireçon / L ericius hedge-hog / er hedgehog)

The definition was also included in the second edition and in advertisements for Urchin.

Richards, Bartlett, and Pacey met in 1971 through the Ice House Gang, a Tuesday-night reading group held at McCord Hall at the University of New Brunswick. Feeling the need for a new literary magazine, Richards approached Bartlett and Pacey with the idea of creating Urchin. Richards, a second-year arts student at St. Thomas University, became the editor of the magazine. Bartlett and Pacey, both first-year arts students at the University of New Brunswick, became the assistant editors. Urchin was printed in the office of Desmond Pacey, Michael Pacey’s father and the vice-president academic of the University of New Brunswick at the time. Using an IBM Selectric typewriter and stencils for the covers, the editors printed the magazine on blue coloured paper. Richards approached Bill Johnson, a young artist and fellow student at St. Thomas University, who provided pencil sketches for the covers of the two issues.

Urchin was initially intended to provide young writers access to a readership within and beyond the university community. It provided an alternative to the well-established and highly celebrated literary magazine The Fiddlehead, and it filled the gap created by the disbanding of the St. Thomas University literary magazine Floorboards the year before. In the editorial featured in the first issue of Urchin, Richards describes the objective of the magazine, stating, “We hope to fulfill a position somewhere between those magazines who print only high-quality material and those who print everything thrown on their desks.” He goes on to challenge young writers to submit their work:

To date, the number of submissions from young writers has been disappointing; we hope the situation will change as we become better known.

Urchin will be published quarterly, providing our financial state remains adequate. And providing we receive submissions from you. The address is: Urchin / St. Thomas University / Fredericton N.B.

Get to it.

The appeal to young writers did not go unmet. Many of the contributors to Urchin were novice writers who attended the two universities in Fredericton, along with local high school students, and one Mary McKenna, “thirteen years old,” from Sussex, New Brunswick (“Notes on Contributors” 36). Other contributors included members of the faculty at STU and UNB, local school teachers, and distinguished Maritime writers. The editors also contributed their own work to the publication. The first issue includes two poems by Richards, “An Old Woman” and “Barren Man”; two poems by Pacey, “Existential Escapades” and “After Ever”; and two poems by Bartlett, “Slip of the Tongue” and “Father Hero.”

Among the more celebrated contributors to Urchin was Alden Nowlan, the renowned Maritime poet. Two of Nowlan’s poems appeared in the first issue of Urchin: “The Beggars of Dublin” and “The Hand Puppets Song.” The poems were first published in Nowlan’s book of poetry entitled Between Tears and Laughter. The second issue of Urchin featured six poems by the influential English-born Canadian poet John Thompson, many of which were later included in Thompson’s first collection of poems, At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets. Other distinguished authors who contributed to Urchin include Kent Thompson, Robert Gibbs, Sheelah Russell, Al Pittman, and Fred Cogswell.

David Adams Richards’s editorial at the beginning of the second issue reaffirmed his conviction that there was a place in Canada for literary magazines such as Urchin. The editorial was in the form of an anecdotal retelling of a conversation with a friend whose starting premise was that “art is dead,” that literary magazines “published trash,” and that there was not even “one good writer in all of Canada” (2-3). The editorial ends with a note which makes it clear that, despite these criticisms, Richards remained confident that there were young Canadian writers producing literary works worthy of publication. The quality of work published in Urchin was a testament to the fact that the editor’s confidence was well founded. Peter Pacey’s poem “No Small Comfort” is one example of the considerable talent demonstrated by Urchin’s student contributors:

Out behind the hill
where the dog-leg fence
traces the tree line
old Ben goes daily
through winter
to work his wood-lot.

Leaning to the tree
his axe knocks
the hollow silence
of the forest cave,
branches bending under heavy snow.

The days come shorter now
and the wood-lot grows thin
impatient with his age
and the slow change in his ways
Ben will find no small comfort
by the kitchen stove
and his meal of leftovers. (32)

Pacey’s poem is one of many poems published in Urchin in which the Maritime landscape and people comprise the central theme. While the magazine featured literature with a wide range of subject matter, the number of entries that have a patently regional focus indicates a marked editorial direction towards publishing poems that explore the Maritime condition. Other noteworthy poems published in Urchin in which region is foregrounded include Kent Thompson’s “Spring Song,” John Thompson’s “Apple Tree,” Stan Atherton’s “Fredericton Bliss,” Doug Underhill’s “Yarmouth Fire,” and David Adams Richards’s “Barren Man.”

While Urchin did not receive wide distribution beyond the university community and New Brunswick literary circles, it was advertised nationwide in the spring 1972 issue of The Fiddlehead. Issues of Urchin sold for $0.50 for a single issue and $1.50 for a one-year subscription. The second issue of the magazine increased the price of a one-year subscription to $2.00 and also offered prices ranging from $7.50 for a five-year subscription to $100 for a lifetime subscription.

After the publication of the second issue, the three editors found their lives leading in different directions, and without successors, the magazine disappeared.

Billy Johnson, Winter 2011
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Pacey, Peter. “No Small Comfort.” Urchin 1.2 (1972): 32.

Richards, David Adams. “Editorial.” Urchin 1.1 (1971): 2-3.

---. “Editorial.” Urchin 1.2 (1972): 2-3.

Richards, David Adams, Michael Pacey, and Brian Bartlett, eds. Urchin 1.1 (1971) and 1.2 (1972).

Urchin Literary Magazine. Advertisement. The Fiddlehead 1973: 138.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Richards, David Adams. Personal interview. 13 Oct. 2011.

Tremblay, Tony. David Adams Richards of the Miramichi: A Biographical Introduction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.