Writer Carolyn Gray took the reins as editor of literary journal Prairie Fire at the end of 2019, taking over from the legendary Andris Taskans, who died on Sept. 27, 2019. Taskans, whose parents were post-war Latvian immigrants, was a born-and-raised Winnipegger who “became, at some point, Mr. Winnipeg,” his wife, Katherine Bitney, says.
A champion of Winnipeg and Manitoba writers, Taskans founded Writers News Manitoba with Bitney and some friends in 1978. It was later reborn as Prairie Fire in 1983, the Winnipeg-based literary journal which has published the early works of Vern Thiessen, Catherine Hunter, Margaret Sweatman and Joshua Whitehead.
He also was a driving force behind the creation of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and the Manitoba Magazine Publishers’ Association.
He wrote poetry and published a chapbook with Turnstone Press called Jukebox Junkie, but Taskans loved and prioritized editing. He started editing in high school with a small paper and during his days at the University of Winnipeg (U of W), he edited Mandala, the precursor to Juice Journal, in which his poetry was also published.
Margaret Sweatman, a U of W professor and author, says, “when he edited your work, it was with the intention of making it the best it could be, and this impersonal, scrupulous attention to detail brought us all to seek a professional attitude to our writing.”
“He was also invested in making sure that writers got paid,” Bitney says. Where the Manitoba Arts Council was concerned, Prairie Fire was “a labour of love” according to Bitney, but Taskans fought for funding to pay the writers a professional wage for their work.
But Taskans was more than a great editor. He was a force of nature who made change and knew where change was coming from.
“Editorially, he was really good at creating special issues and seeing what was coming and who needed to be supported and needed to be celebrated. It was his baby to support cultural groups,” Bitney says. “There was a Jewish writing issue, two francophone issues, three Indigenous issues, and he was very supportive, particularly of Indigenous writers.”
“Andris was unique and irreplaceable. He was crucial to the creation of a writing community and brought to the arduous and very often thankless work a lucid objectivity and his quiet generosity of spirit,” Sweatman says. “He would attend readings by unknown writers (like Sweatman, in 1980) and suggest that we submit to Prairie Fire.”
“What sticks in my mind is the humble way Andris treated brand-new and experienced authors alike with respect and genuine interest in our work,” poet Angeline Schellenberg says.
Taskans was tireless in his commitment to the craft of editing and the support of writers.
“His last issue that he sequenced, he sequenced in the hospital. And he looked at me, and he said ‘I love doing this!’ He was editing to the end,” Bitney says.
Published in Volume 74, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 27, 2020)