Tuesday, November 02, 2004

my time as writer-in-residence at the 2004 ottawa international writers festival

The "writer-in-residence" position at the ottawa international writers festival was made official a couple of years ago, created specifically for Toronto writer and publisher Stuart Ross. No wads of Canada Council money, when it came to my turn, I was quite unclear as to what exactly my role in the festival was. Not that I would ever complain. Simply to be able to participate in any part of the festival is thrilling enough, with a week of readings that wouldn’t happen in Ottawa otherwise, giving me access to writers whose work I very much know and admire, and an introduction to other work that I wasn’t previously aware of. The joy of discovery. I’ve known for some time how brilliant David McGimpsey, Cordelia Strube and Jon Paul Fiorentino are, but its quite another thing to be introduced to the work of Gatineau author John Lavery, someone I only know, and know of, through the existence of the ottawa international writers festival.

Since the festival started, in October 1997, I’ve made a point of staying in Ottawa to be able to participate, even if just as audience. A couple of years ago, we realized that, apart from the organizers, Stuart Ross and I had been to more festival events than anyone else. To be called "writer in residence" seemed an extension of our ongoing associations with the festival, and the generosity of the people who make the festival happen, year after year. Since the festival started, fewer readings exist in Ottawa during the rest of the year, making the festival almost the only game in town. A week every fall where we gorge ourselves on literature, and the long hangover, where those of us left feel packed with sweets.

During a stay in London in 2002, I walked through a British bookstore to discover that most of the titles featured were by authors I had heard and met at the Ottawa festival. It’s one thing to know the reputation of a Canadian author from here, whether Michael Redhill or Jane Urquhart, but quite another to be able to know to invite Glenn Patterson, Robert McLiam Wilson or A. L. Kennedy, all of whom, when they were through town, were spectacular.

Two years ago, jwcurry held the smoking room as publisher, during one of Stuart Ross’ tenures, and produced a publication on the gestetner, allowing anyone willing to mark up a stencil to be part of the festival "instant anthology." Instant, but for the hours upon hours that curry would remain in the room after the rest of us had long crashed, and hand-feed paper into a machine older than the stock market crash.

The job felt important as one of witness, able to greet the authors as the came through, and seeing and doing those things that articles should never tell, as well as the 3 a.m. moments of turning the living room of the hospitality suite into a fort, flipping over chairs and cushions with David McGimpsey, Jon Paul Fiorentino and Max Middle (led by Clare Latremouille), or trading Middle Eastern and Australian film titles with Paul William Roberts, and what didn’t get thrown off the balcony of the 20th floor. As Robert Kroetsch has said, literature is a conversation, and able to enter into a whole new range of speaking, just by being there.

From the 20th floor: the city noises, nosing up into the stratosphere like spotlights from the street, the pale streams of light merging once they cleared the buildings.

After the first couple of nights, I realized that the job itself was to go to as many of the events as possible, answer questions when authors asked, host the hospitality suite, and clean up all the empty bottles (etcetera) between the authors leaving and housekeeping coming in. Late nights of sundry talk and drunken ramblings by writers from various corners of the globe. Things I would be doing anyway.

I’ve read at other festivals, at the Winnipeg International Readers Festival in 1999, as well as the Windsor Festival of the Book in late October, 2004, and was able to crash a few nights of the hospitality suite at the Vancouver Writers Festival in 2001, who, along with Winnipeg, both closed their hospitality suites down around midnight. And then there’s Ottawa, whose suite never closes, for the entire seven or eight days of the festival. I’ve seen too many mornings from a hotel room in Ottawa, thanks to Sean Wilson and Kira Harris, far more than I will ever see otherwise.

At the ottawa international writers festival in 2001, Toronto writer Sheila Heti and I pitched muffins off the 22nd floor balcony of the hotel, multiple hours after she read from her first short story collection, The Middle Stories. Well after midnight, trying to hit the opposite roof. Hearing them hit, but never seeing. We hadn’t met before. I had only heard her name.

At the 1999 version of the same, I provoked Cape Breton writer Lynn Coady to a wrestling match. Glengarry County vs. Cape Breton, pounding drink after drink, through taunts of "I could take you." Once it began, it was over. I was on the floor in seconds, as she danced around the room in grand triumph, four in the morning.

Stuart Ross has a photo of the event, that I have never seen. Ask him.

I will probably never ask. I want to know it exactly the way I remember.

During the Writing Life panels at the 2001 festival, I was able to hear out loud what already in my head: the solitude of writing, and having to borrow money to pay the rent. How writing is the only (seemingly) art form without apprenticeship, and the only one that seems to thrive on that distinction. The years of quiet work and reading, writing bad poems and short prose before anyone else should interfere, or muddle through.

As a working writer, author of ten published poetry collections, and four unpublished novels (in various states of completion), hearing someone years further ahead of where I am having the same problems with living is a great comfort. With the act of writing such a solitary one, it gets easier to imagine that everyone else has it so well, and that you are the only writer in creation having problems with finishing a manuscript, remembering to eat or talk to friends, or paying any bills at all.

At the 1999 festival, Sean Wilson, one of the festival directors, said that most writers are generally good people. He wondered out loud, if those people behave that way through writing, or if those kinds of people simply gravitate toward the written word.

There was an article recently in The Globe & Mail about writing festivals in Canada, on how it seems a very Canadian thing to have them at all, especially so many. And so important, I find, for me both as writer and reader, the incredible focus of attention on writing and writers giving me renewed energy and fresh ideas to work quietly in solitude for months afterward. A new stack of signed books beside my desk, waiting to be read. Wait, is this all about me?

A shorter festival than previous years, the list of authors for the 2004 ottawa festival was, nonetheless, still impressive: sixty-eight writers that included Stephen Brockwell, Peter Norman, Alberto Manguel, Catherine Bush, Steven Galloway, Colin McAdam, Leo Furey, Patrick Lane, Michael Winter, Bill Gaston, Helen Humphreys, Donna Morrissey, Jon Paul Fiorentino, David McGimpsey, Jon Lavery, Michael Helm, Elyse Friedman, Paul Quarrington, Wayne Grady, Paul William Roberts, Goran Simic, Cordelia Strube, Shane Rhodes, Steven Heighton, Alistair MacLeod, Ian Rankin, Geoffrey Brown, S.E. Hinton and Greg Hollingshead.

It becomes so hard to pick favorites, but Brown probably gave the most charming reading I’ve ever witnessed, from his novel Self-Titled (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004), and the openers, Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman, reading from their battle of the sonnets collaboration, were easily the crowd favorite. Near the end of the festival, it was Alistair MacLeod who packed the auditorium of the National Archives, as a whole crowd waiting to hear him, accidentally catching wonderful readings by Strube and Quarrington as well.

During the 2004 festival, after crashing finally at five in the morning, the most I could really do after waking up was bathe, eat, check email, and perhaps do an hour or so of notes before returning at 5:30 or 7:00 for another reading. This is probably the most I was able to scribble during the week:

if my body works at all today,
it works its way against sleep

or its abundant lack

But what a week it was.

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