The Robert Bringhurst Archive


A new collection for the ages

By Eric Swanick
Bringhurst setting Parmenides. Photo by Marina Luz as published in Carving the Elements: A Companion to the Fragments of Parmenides.

Margaret Atwood refers to Robert Bringhurst as a “polylingual polymath” who has made significant contributions in cultural studies, poetry, translation, and typography.

He has been acknowledged by several major awards, including the American Printing History Association’s Laureate Award “in grateful recognition of his services in advancing understanding of the history of printing and allied arts.” In 2013 he received the Order of Canada and was cited for his contributions on the local, regional, national, and international level. His citation read “… revered poet, cultural historian, and typographer. He has enriched our literary canon with his distinctive poetry. His translations of Haida works have helped to preserve the culture and language of first nations. His book, The Elements of  Typographic Style, is a classic.”

Now SFU Special Collections and Rare Books can share that literature with the larger community. Bringhurst’s archive from 2000 to 2013, plus some earlier material, has been deposited with, and is available for research in, the Special Collections and Rare Books Division of the W.A.C. Bennett Library on SFU’s Burnaby campus.

The Bringhurst Archive consists of books, broadsides, pamphlets, background and research materials relating to his publications, and lectures (some of which have never been published). Included is an extensive and rich correspondence of both letters and emails to and from Bringhurst. His bibliography runs to more than 150 pages.

Robert Bringhurst, The Blue Roofs of Japan: A Score for Interpenetrating Voices. Mission, B.C.: Barbarian Press, 1986. The frequent collaboration between Bringhurst and Barbarian Press produces well-designed, innovative, and attractive publications.
Left: Bringhurst correspondence (selective) includes Margaret Atwood, Kay Amert (typographer/typographic historian), Stan Knight (type historian), and Toomas Ilves (president of Estonia). Right: Bringhurst correspondence, 2002. In this instance, Gary Snyder discusses Bringhurst’s publication A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999/2011.
Robert Bringhurst, The Fragments of Parmenides & An English Translation. Berkeley, California: Editions Koch, 2003.

Following an interview with Bringhurst published in Intelligent Life, J.P. O’Malley wrote, “[Bringhurst] calls himself a hunter-gatherer and a revolutionary; he hunts and gathers the works of the ancients – Chinese philosophers, Aboriginal voices, Greek thinkers. He then disseminates their words, recycling them but making them new again. And he does all this from what he calls ‘the periphery’ – his lonely coastal outpost.”

In his book of critical prose, The Tree of Meaning, Bringhurst wrote “…after a decade on the British Columbia coast … it dawned on me that really I knew nothing of the literary heritage of the land in which I lived, nor of the mountains I had grown up in… I began to study Haida, which led me to Navajo and Cree. And my sense of relations between humans, language, literature, writing and nonhumans underwent a much belated change.”

At the celebration of the acquisition of these papers held in Special Collections during the afternoon of November 27, 2014, speakers celebrated various aspects of Bringhurst before each concluded on the magnitude of his contributions.

Laurie Ricou, one of the experts and a former UBC English professor said, “I know this archive will teach us more… will sing connections to the land we live in – and to one another. And we will hear in this archive again and again the Bringhurst voice, rolling, open, inviting, haunting. Reaching some place you did not know you had.”

Ricou also made reference to Bringhurst and languages stating that “to learn another language [and then another] opens discoveries far beyond your comfort and your cultural habit.”

Peter Quartermain, also a Bringhurst expert, acknowledged his debt to Bringhurst in the publication of his two volumes of Robert Duncan’s works by the University of California Press, stating that the volumes “would NOT have happened without Robert’s help…not only did he check the Chinese for me, he tracked down all the Greek quotations to their sources and translated them.” (For further details on the translations and their use, see the Times Literary Supplement, 17 October 2014:14.)

Left to right: · Bringhurst authored these poems, “Zhaozhou Congshen” and “Rubus Ursinus.” · Robert Bringhurst, The Typographic Mind. Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2006. (Devil’s Whim Occasional Chapbook Series; no. 16)
Top: The Library Opens Its Eyes. The W.A.C. Bennett Library, SFU, commissioned Bringhurst to author this broadsheet for its 40th birthday. Bottom: Robert Bringhurst, Ursa Major: A Polyphonic Masque for Speakers & Dancers. Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2003. Bringhurst has frequently worked closely with Gaspereau Press. This book won the 2003 Alcuin Society Award for Excellence in Canadian book design. The play is in English, Latin, Greek, and Cree.

Crispin Elsted, co-proprietor of the prestigious Barbarian Press, spoke initially on Bringhurst’s typographic contributions, as varied as they are substantial. There are examples of his design work in both books and broadsides, and there are the texts to his many lectures on aspects of typography.

An especially rich aspect of Bringhurst’s archive is the correspondence. In his acceptance talk at the opening of the archive, Bringhurst stated, “Because I prefer work to social life. . . my friends are scattered all over the world. . ., ” and the result is a voluminous correspondence. Of special note is the correspondence with Kay Amert (typography), Roo Borson (poetry), Dell Hymes (anthropology and linguistics), Gary Snyder (poetry), and Bringhurst’s wife, poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky.

Selections from the Gary Snyder correspondence are featured in the current exhibition on the seventh floor of the Bennett Library. Dating from 2002, Snyder writes that he is midway through reading Bringhurst’s book A Story as Sharp as a Knife, and thus begins a discussion with Bringhurst on many levels. Snyder states that “The levels of lore are remarkable, and the multiple levels of literary and spiritual suggestion.”

He goes on to say, “But it gave me a chill when you suggested that the Haida elders knew what they were doing once they saw Swanton’s transcribing system worked and they used this for their own purpose. . . establishing a body of cultural lore for the future. That’s a brilliant insight, and I feel deeply that it is true.”

A Story is one part of the trilogy Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers for which Bringhurst won the 2004 Edward Sapir Prize, which is awarded for a book “that makes the most significant contribution to our understanding of language in society.” Bringhurst has argued that a study of British Columbia literature research must begin with Skaay and Ghandl both featured in his trilogy.

Among the resources deposited in Special Collections is the current manuscript of a multi-volume work in progress, a guide to the Native literatures of North America. A typical entry under, for example, “Chilcotin” will provide the following: alternate name, branch, family, region, neighbouring language, close linguistic relatives, and status. Sources or bibliographies for each section are provided.

Later this year McGill-Queen’s University Press will publish a volume celebrating Robert Bringhurst and his many contributions.

The Bringhurst material can be viewed in the display cases on the seventh floor of the W.A.C. Bennett Library between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. aq

Photography by Raeff Miles