Oh, festival, my festival; another one come and gone. See other reports by Marcus McCann (here), Amanda Earl (here), Charles Earl (here, here, here, here), Pearl Pirie (here, here) and John MacDonald (here, here). Now what to do? I suppose we just have to wait for Saturday for that ottawa small press book fair…
Friday, October 19;
First off was The Animation Pimp with Chris Robinson [see his "12 or 20" here]. It's common knowledge that Robinson doesn’t like doing public readings, but this one was pretty interesting, showing some strange short films (there is a dvd companion to the book), including one based on a Charles Bukowski short story. Robinson is a mixture of roughneck crank, animation buff and intellectual library of knowledge, information and random fact, and he manages to merge all of that in unusual ways in his collection of columns. I'm very much looking forward to finally going through his new book.
I probably should have gone to Planet Simpson with Chris Turner (and I have regret that I didn’t), but instead went to hear Acadian writer Herménégilde Chiasson, who is a philosopher, poet, essayist, playwright, visual artist, journalist and current Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. An interesting thinker and writer, he talked about growing up with a lack of books, including the fact that his father couldn’t read or write, and even read a piece about the day he learned how to read. Reading in both English and French (his translator for the current book into English was also host of the event, Wayne Grady; his other translator, Jo-Anne Elder, was in the crowd, but somehow she managed to disappear before I could say hello). His current work is a series of internal lyric monologues, beatitudes; he wanted to write a book of beauty, but didn’t want to be describing things, wanting instead to write something real. He wanted to write a book of praise, but that didn’t work out either; Grady compared his work to Cohen, referencing the usual comparison Chiasson's work gets to Jack Kerouac; Chiasson admitted the influence quickly, yes, citing Cohen among a string of songwriter-poets that have influenced his work, writing the current book as "an antidote to despair." He talked a bit too much about beauty…
The second annual Capital Xtra's Transgress event was wonderful, brilliant and perfectly over-the-top, with readings by Joey Comeau, Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco and Ivan E. Coyote, hosted by Mikiki and Coyote (who I didn’t know the current writer-in-residence at Carleton University; when did they start this program up again?). Comeau had some astounding moments, and his writing is absolutely electric, reading from a work of fiction written as a series of letters. Is it wrong to enjoy so much listening to a character do things that seem hilarious and at the same time, completely wicked evil? I have to admit that Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco's blend of writing "wrapped in humourous layers of bittersweet love and hedonic lust" left me cold (but others seemed to enjoy it pretty well), but every time I hear Ivan E. Coyote perform, I somehow manage to completely forget just how brilliant she is; how does something masterfully written and performed somehow manage to improve every time? Part writer, part philosopher and stand-up comic, she read a piece about Amsterdam, and another about travelling on a plane; I won't even describe them. I just wouldn’t be able to do them justice. Another worthy event to an absolutely packed house.
Saturday, October 20;
The first Saturday event I could make it to was the 2pm, with Phil Jenkins and Roy MacSkimming. Phil Jenkins was launching Beneath My Feet, a non-fiction memoir of George Mercer Dawson, and (from the program) "using Dawson's own words, and filling in the gaps in Dawson's voice, it presents a portrait of a towering figure in Canadian history, the man who led the geological survey during its exploration of the Canadian West." Imagine a man barely more than four feet tall and a hunchback wandering through the Canadian West, mapping parts of the 49th Parallel; as Jenkins said, Canadian history usually gets short shrift partly because it was written badly, an approach he called "a pedantic view of history." (He also said that, basically, "history is just one damn thing after another.") Working through and tweaking five thousand letters by Dawson into a memoir of sorts, Jenkins called Dawson's life "a brave life and a heroic life," and talked about the quality of the writing in the letters. Citing the differences between letter writing today (non-existent), he spoke of an American Civil War documentary, and the surprise at the level of quality of writing in the letters home from farm boys fighting in the battles. He talked for quite a while about the differences in language now, how emoticons at the end of emails or on instant messenger have "decaffeinated the language," as people now see not words in their mind that they translate onto the page, but a series of images that they translate (this was his reasoning for teens incessant use of the word "like"; translating the series of images into words). Roy MacSkimming was launching his novel based on the last few months of Sir John A. MacDonald's life, writing his book for the same reason as Richard Gwyn spoke of writing his own biography, for the last major work written on the man being the two-volume biography that came out over fifty years ago. If you go into an independent bookstore in Illinois, he said, there are whole sections of books written about Abraham Lincoln. He also spoke of the search for the father, as his father was also a Scottish immigrant, so he somehow managed to blend the two in his head, somewhat.
"Are religious experiences merely the random firing of neurons in the brain?" Mario Beauregard, Ph.D, co-author of The Spiritual Brain, gave a presentation about the ideas in his book, who (from the program) "instead of explaining away religious experience, shows that genuine, life-changing spiritual events can be scientifically documented." The "god spot," he said, is based in the temporal lobe, and cited one scientist who claimed that spirituality came from a toxin or poison in the brain. "Religion is 'a cognitive virus.'" (Michael Persinger). A misfiring of neurons. Beauregard cited a series of MRI studies they did, temporal lobe studies to do with spiritual experience. I would have caught more, but I was completely exhausted and had to have a nap.
The Mystery Night at the Festival had readings by Linda Moore and Peter Robinson, with an afterward on-stage conversation with Nicholas Hoare Bookstore manager David Dollin. I've never really been a fan of reading mystery/crime books (when I said same to Winnipeg author Catherine Hunter, she looked like she wanted to punch me full in the face), but Robinson is an extremely compelling, smart and lively writer, and pulled me completely in; I must have more. Although when he talked about the "flock of seagulls" that swooped down upon the beach and eventually poked a beak into the ear of a dead body left there, all I could think of was 1980s new wave, and front-brushed frothy blonde hair. What I liked about his section was the fact that it was driven, but not specifically single-plot driven, but character and movement motivated. One of his perfect lines had to do with a female character remembering that one should never go home with the saxophone player, because all he's thinking about is his next solo. Yipes.
After the reading, I asked a question about genre; why is it that mystery and crime novels are usually serialized, with the same character? That doesn’t seem to happen in literary fiction, and when it does, everyone notices. Look at Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (although the character throughout seems to be the city itself); look at Michael Ondaatje using the same characters in The English Patient that he introduced us to in In The Skin of a Lion, but twenty years later; what is it about the genre that brings such consideration? (I wasn’t given an answer at all, although Robinson said some interesting things.) Later on, John Pass suggested it was probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who set the trend, working his series of Sherlock Holmes books (and when he was tired of writing Holmes, Doyle finally had to kill the character off, so people would leave him alone about it; he'd been trying to quit the character for years…).
The final reading of the day was the third Writing Life, with readings by Nigerian-born British author Helen Oyeyemi (born in 1984, if you can believe it; she's working on her third novel already), Toronto's Gil Adamson and Ottawa's Frances Itani. The readings were interesting enough, but what really made the event was their post-reading conversation about names and naming. Itani said that in her family, everyone was given a nickname; no one actually went through life being called what they were actually called; she said, too, that she has a series of baby names books that she keeps for the sake of naming her characters. Adamson said a version of exactly the same, that everyone in her mother's family had the same, with nicknames that were perhaps belittling, and her own set of baby names books. Helen spoke of naming as well, as "Helen" is an Anglicization of her own Nigerian name, and the family calls her a nickname based on her middle name; part of her conflict at school was compartmentalizing her names, not wanting anyone to call her by the "family nickname" at school, for example; there she was "Helen." Isn't this the same thing that anyone adopted goes through as well? A series of names, or naming; seeing the importance of naming, the arbitrariness of it, and perhaps even where the importance in fact doesn’t lie in the name but in something other; an interesting discussion that could have gone on forever.
Sunday, October 21;
Not a lot to say; we launched A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poetry of John Newlove, a 250-page monster of a book, by showing the documentary on John that the editor, Robert McTavish, had finally released last spring. I think the event went well, with a crowd of about fifty appreciative sets of eyes and ears, including Myrna and John Metcalf, Anita Dolman, Sandra Ridley, Daniel Scott Tysdal, co-publisher Jennifer Mulligan, David O'Meara, Shane Rhodes, Geoffrey Brown and of course, Susan Newlove and her son, Jeremy Gilbert, with his daughter Matilda. It was almost even hard to talk about the film and book with McTavish after the event was over, as I still expect to see John Newlove walking down Somerset Street West, there and here. Now we aim for other launches, such as (if we can find venues) Toronto and Vancouver before Christmas, Edmonton in January and Regina and perhaps others in the months to follow.
In many ways, the John Newlove selected is our first title; the title we decided to do at the same time we decided to publish at all, making the project three years of planning, scheming and imagining. Where do we go from here?
I caught the tail end of Jasper Fforde; he sounded like a more confident Hugh Grant. I loved you, I wanted to say to him afterwards, in Notting Hill…
Later that night, the ReLit Awards: Ideas not Money was hosted by Newfoundland writer Kenneth J. Harvey, who came up with the whole idea (his son was also with him, the one who was lead in the film adaptation of the Wayne Johnston novel, The Divine Ryans). Because (apparently) of a scheduling conflict, Bill Gaston was replaced on stage by Cheddar, a guinea pig (he had requested this) belonging to Steve and Kathy of The Dusty Owl. Ivan Coyote (who is planning perhaps to purchase that little house a near-hour outside of the city) gave a stellar reading, Gaston read over a cellphone, and Daniel Scott Tysdal performed a piece for seven voices, with the help of Jennifer Mulligan, myself, Sandra Ridley, Tysdal's lovely partner (why can't I remember her name?), his lovely partner's father and Robert McTavish. Apparently the part I performed was previously performed by Jeanette Lynes, at Moose Jaw's Festival of the Word. Ivan, was of course, brilliant; Gaston was difficult to hear, but I've been enjoying his collection Gargoyles over the past few weeks and know just how good he is; this Daniel Scott Tysdal is someone I've actually been hearing about for months now. Jeanette Lynes, Anne Simpson, Gary Hyland and a few other people have been telling me to look this guy up, read this kid, he's got some good things going on. His reading was low-key (apart from our seven-voices) but extremely compelling; the book looks like a lot of fun, what curry would call "serious play," and something I've been spending most of the past day or two with. I also spent the day or so in his company calling him Saskatchewan poetry's "great white hope." I think it fits. And he's a bloody good lad, too.