Archiving Nelson Ball
In 2017, through a chance encounter with a friend and collaborator of Nelson Ball, I was offered the opportunity to work on the Paris, Ontario author's archives at MacMaster University. The task was to correct the finding aid for the first accrual, something Nelson had apparently been hoping to get fixed for twenty years. I got in touch with the kind gatekeepers at MacMaster's Archives and Research Collections, assured all parties concerned that I had no experience whatsoever, and was let loose inside.
Full disclosure: I initially turned the opportunity down, citing a conflict between my work schedule and the Archives' hours of operation. Luckily I came to my senses, realized this is Nelson Ball, one of my favourite poets and arranged to make Thursdays "archive days".
I didn't know what a finding aid was, let alone how to fix one. I also didn't know how vast Nelson's records were. On my first day, when I asked to see his whole archive -- the idea being to model my malnourished finding aid against the proper ones in later accruals -- an employee informed me that equaled 54 boxes. That's 54 boxes stuffed with file folders stuffed with individual sheets of miscellaneous paper. Never mind, I said, I'll just start with the first one.
So once a week, from June to January, I nestled into the chilly, underground confines of MacMaster's Archives and itemized all pieces of poetry, correspondence and ephemera until my fingers went numb. My finding aid covered the earliest days of Nelson's distinguished career, 1963 through 1970 -- physically, that's box one through eight. The work was inherently tedious but the longer I spent fleshing out how I'd like my finding aid to function, the more I understood why Nelson wanted this fixed for so long.
Besides, the discovery process was a poetry-lover's dream. With each turn-of-page, I couldn't anticipate what I'd find next: a handwritten poetry submission from Gwendolyn MacEwen, a sassy postcard (make that dozens of sassy postcards) from Carol Bergé, personal letters from John Newlove, visual poetry from bpNichol or early manuscripts by Victor Coleman, Anselm Hollo and bill bissett. All of this on top of Nelson's own work, which was as assured and spartan in the mid 60s as the work he'd later make his name on.
I corresponded with Nelson occasionally, sending him scans of anonymous poems and muddied signatures which, in a handful of cases, will remain mysteries. We even traded a few anecdotes from our record store days, as Nelson also slung vinyl in his twenties. He was very kind, paying me even though I'd taken the job pro bono and purchasing my chapbook (unbeknownst to me) from our mutual bookseller friend.
With his passing -- almost ten years after his wife, the artist Barbara Caruso -- Nelson leaves an enormous imprint on Canadian poetry. From his earliest days as a promising writer, tough editor and small-press publisher, Nelson's output (through Volume 63 and Weed/flower Press) championed many of the voices that came to define modern Canadian Poetics. Whether they were living in downtown Toronto or in the bush of Southwestern Ontario, he and Barbara represented an artistic hub through which many groundbreaking artists mingled.
On a personal note, Nelson's writing has been special to me since I began reading poetry in earnest. There are times when his sparse verse is the only poetry I care to read. Knowing how he enjoyed succinctness, I managed to relay that admiration, if only in a few words.
That penchant for brevity thankfully doesn't apply to his archives. The original finding aid was a broad outline that fit onto a single page; the revised one is 26 pages. Nelson was pleased and I was honoured to assist in organizing such a formative chapter of his life's work for future academics. Take a look.
Thanks to Rick Stapleton, Renu Barrett, Myron Groover and especially James McDonald for helping to make this happen. Thank you, Nelson.