Friday, January 13, 2006

an interview with Adam Dickinson, Olive Reading & chapbook series, Edmonton AB
this interview was conducted over email from March 2005 to June 2005

Adam Dickinson is one of the founders of the Olive Reading and chapbook series in Edmonton, which he recently left in the capable hands of a small group newcomers, including Kristy McKay and Douglas Barbour. In 1999 he won the Alfred G. Bailey Prize from the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, and his first book of poetry, Cartography and Walking, was published by Brick Books in 2002. He completed a PhD in English at the University of Alberta, and started a postdoctoral fellowship at York University in Toronto in September 2005. The Olive series takes place at Martini's Bar & Grill (9910 109 Street) with a featured reader and an open set. Upcoming readings include poet Olga Costopolis-Almon (Tuesday, February 14, 7pm), The University of Alberta's senior poetry class (Tuesday, March 14, 7pm) and tba (Tuesday, April 11, 70m). For more information on the current Olive reading and chapbook series, email

rob mclennan: How did the Olive series get started?

Adam Dickinson: Beer, really. And the fact that there was not a suitable venue in Edmonton where one could drink beer and listen to more literary poetry. Andy Weaver, Paul Pearson, Jonathan Meakin, and I were the original founders. We wanted to offer a series that featured interesting and challenging poetry in an intimate environment away from the university. From the very beginning we deliberately set the Olive up as something distinct from the university. We wanted to have our beer and our literature. Martini’s Bar and Grill very kindly agreed to let us host the reading series on their premises; they even provided us with a sound system. It was challenging to find a venue at first. Andy has some funny stories about the strange looks he got when broaching the idea at some bars in the Whyte Ave area of Edmonton (the centre of Edmonton’s drinking world).

We always wanted to be more than just a reading series; we had aspirations to be a small press. Initially, we decided to produce a small chapbook of each featured reader’s work to distribute free of charge. The chapbook served the dual purpose of advertisement and memento – the audience always had something to take away from the reading. It was always our intention, however, to produce more elaborate and ambitiously designed chapbooks. Finances limited the scope of our achievements at first. The four of us paid for the chapbook production every month for the first three years of the Olive’s existence. Eventually, we were fortunate enough to receive some small advertising revenue and some significant funding from APIRG (Alberta Publish Interest Research Group). It was at this point that we could afford to pay our readers and to produce to limited edition, specifically designed chapbooks. We were thrilled when Don McKay agreed to let us publish one of his manuscripts (Varves, 2003). We were also thrilled to publish an invocative work by Shani Mootoo (What My Eyes, 2003).

rm: Why do you think Edmonton didn’t have this before you started? The University itself seems strong when it comes to writers and writing, and NeWest Press as well as the University of Alberta Press are strong literary presences. Yet before you, there was still this lack at the level at which Olive exists. Why do you think that was?

AD: I suspect that this kind of regular series didn’t exist before us because of the considerable ongoing organizational effort that it requires. Also, we had to pay for it ourselves at first (which limited the number of interested new members). You’re right; Edmonton has a strong literary presence. The university has several fantastic emerging writers in the creative writing program. We were fortunate with the Olive in that we hit upon a receptive venue and we exploited the various talents of our collective to initially get the series off the ground. There is a lot of inertia to overcome when starting something like this: in addition to the logistics of the reading itself, we had to develop and maintain a regular audience. As you well know, these things take effort and time. We were also fortunate in the early going to have the support of some established writers, in particular Doug Barbour. He has been a fervent supporter and invaluable resource for us over the years. There aren’t too many readings he has missed.

rm: Of the group of you that founded Olive, I do know there are a few different points of view when it comes to stylistic preference. Were there ever readers that came through that perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen, but impressed upon your own work? How did the creation of a reading and chapbook series affect you (or anyone else in the group, as you saw) as a writer?

AD: There were certainly situations where one of us was more keen than the others on having a certain reader. However, there was never a situation where we had someone read that another group member opposed. We try and have tried very hard to represent a balance of poetic styles and interests.

There have been readers who surprised me and inspired me with their excellence; however, I’m not sure I can say that these writers necessarily impacted my work. A good poetry reading for me is a generative experience inasmuch as it makes me want to go home and write poems – it doesn’t make me necessarily want to write like someone else. The Olive has certainly made me feel more a part of the Canadian poetry community (a relatively intimate scene as it is). It has been wonderful to be able to provide a venue for writers from across the country.

rm: Since the series started, a number of the original members have moved on, such as Andy Weaver and Paul Pearson. Who are the newer members of the Olive group, and how have they added to the dynamics of the series?

AD: The Olive has indeed seen some transition in the past couple of years. Paul Pearson was the first to move on (because of work commitments) followed shortly by Jonathan Meakin. Andy and I brought on three new members to fill the significant void left by these founding poets. Roger Davis was the first to join us, bringing his considerable expertise in and enthusiasm for poetry. Roger did his PhD in Calgary studying the journal Open Letter as well as experimental Canadian poetry. Theresa (T. L.) Cowan also became a part of the Olive collective. In addition to her fine spoken-word and performance work, Theresa’s organizational energy and exceptional hosting talents have been invaluable. Lisa Martin-DeMoor joined the Olive in the spring of 2004. Lisa has perhaps the most complete perspective on the Olive because prior to joining the editorial board she was a regular at Olive readings, presenting her outstanding poems. Lisa has, consequently, become intimately acquainted with both sides of the Olive event. She has handled the difficult work of zine production for the past year. Several new members are set to join the Olive as well: Kristy McKay (formerly of Ottawa and also the publisher of the SPIRE broadsheet series); and Sheri Benning (a poet and PhD student at the University of Alberta). I have learned recently that I will depart for Toronto at the end of the summer; Roger Davis also has decided to leave, given work and family commitments. Thus, this coming fall the Olive will have completed its transition from a collective of four male poets to one of four female poets. The Olive is in very strong, creative hands.