Sunday, April 20, 2008

the ottawa international writers festival; endnotes & the festival book-club

Well, I only spent a few days at the festival this time around (like last as well, unfortunately) through other commitments going on, including the west, but, among a number of other events from Wednesday night to the final poetry reading on Saturday, I was able to catch the other two festival book club events during the week. New as an idea at the festival, organizers Sean and Neil Wilson came up with the festival book club as a way for some of the festival's "favourite authors" (their words) to talk about "essential works" in the author's own history, and I think it's an extremely interesting idea. It brings out a new element of reading and writing as well as the concerns of the writers themselves. Starting on Wednesday evening, Ottawa francophone writer Daniel Poliquin talked about Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter (1976), and on Friday, Toronto playwrite and novelist Sean Dixon talked about The Epic of Gilgamesh, both to appreciative and responsive crowds. Apart from my own talk on Thursday evening on Sheila Watson's The Double Hook (1959) and Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) (the full text of which will be available soon online at The Danforth Review), there was one more talk scheduled earlier in the week, Ottawa writer Brian Doyle to talk about a Woody Allen book, but Doyle ended up cancelling due to illness.

When Daniel Poliquin talked on Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter (1976), he talked about the idea of greatness, and, as a kid, about reading the Illustrated Classics versions of Les Miserables and MacBeth. He gave a magnificent talk on the rigors of being an artist in Canada, and how we couldn’t be snobbish in Canada about art, given how "we are all the same here, we have to fight the same snow and the same mosquitoes." He talked about how great works "entice you to write better," and about how Canadians have managed an advantage of being able to write "durable works" (he gave the foreign example of the story of Pinocchio as a durable work by an "unknown" author) while at the same time, remaining completely unknown.

Instead of coming through from the classics, I came to reading from other comic books, Marvel superhero books. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens when the eventual mother of my child would start throwing books at me, telling me that if I was going to try to write, I needed to read. It just happened to be that she was going through her Canadian Literature kick at the time, and introduced me to the fiction of George Bowering [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, Robertson Davies, Robert Kroetsch, Michael Ondaatje, Daphne Marlatt [see her 12 or 20 questions here] and Alice Munro, as well as Sheila Watson and Elizabeth Smart [see my recent note on her here], all of which I devoured before I had even left high school.

Sean Dixon, talking on Gilgamesh, managed to tie all three talks together (accidentally) by mentioning that Michael Ondaatje (who I had also mentioned in passing in my talk, being very influenced by Sheila Watson, and had produced a documentary on Elizabeth Smart in 1991) titled his novel In the Skin of a Lion (1986) from a line from Gilgamesh [see my last fall post on Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter and Sheila Watson here]. How do these things tie up together so well, for such disparate authors such as myself, Dixon and Poliquin? Dixon talked about a Star Trek episode that triggered his interest (or re-interest) in the old epic, as Picard was trapped on a planet with an alien who came from a race that spoke in ideograms, and Picard tells the alien ship captain the story of Gilgamesh; Dixon asked himself at the boiling down version of two friends, is that what the story is about? Talking about Alberto Manguel's The City of Words [see my note on such here] which has a chapter on Gilgamesh, he suggested the story even further than the story of two brothers, but a tale ending in the fear of death.

I am hoping that the festival keeps up this new element, and am interested to hear what other authors end up talking about; is it worth collecting the texts of such and putting them somewhere? Other parts of the festival included strong readings by Nathaniel G. Moore [see his 12 or 20 questions here], RM Vaughan [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Kevin Connolly, Steve Venright [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Elizabeth Hay [see her 12 or 20 questions here], and a bunch of events that I unfortunately missed, earlier in the week (but I won't dwell on such).

[me answering questions post-talk, with work-shirt & bottle of Steam Whistle, photo courtesy of Pearl Pirie]

related notes: other festival reports by Amanda Earl here and here and here and here, Pearl Pirie here and here and here and here and here, Nathaniel G. Moore here, John W. MacDonald here and here and here and here, and photos by Charles Earl here and here and here and here. Marcus McCann even posted the RM Vaughan reading to YouTube for Capital Xtra;

1 comment:

Dwight Williams said...

On that TNG episode...I remember "Darmok", but if my memory's working properly - which seems occasionally dicey these days - they kept referring to metaphoric language rather than ideograms. Ideograms are something tied to the written forms of languages, right?