Monday, December 27, 2010

My $0.02 about Peter

I wanted to thank Amanda Earl and Greg Frankson for posting about Peter Simpson's recent bit in the Citizen, in which he lists slam poetry as 'hot' and other poetry readings as 'not.' Nice to hear essentially the same response to this bit of ignorance coming from significant folks on both sides of the spoken word/page divide.

And not to repeat what they both said, but excuse me, Peter, I can't say I've ever seen you at a poetry reading, so where do you get off calling them 'funereal'?

This smacks, to me, of knee-jerk-ism. And that's what bothers me. Peter was constrained to present his list as pairs of things that are "hot" and things that are "not," and while he's dead right that, at the moment, poetry slams are red hot in Ottawa, that convention caused him to say to himself, "now I need a 'not' to pair it with." He couldn't really, at that point, do anything but slot "literary" readings into the "not" column, and he could do it with impunity because the stereotype is so ingrained. But of course! Everyone knows that poetry readings are boring, inaccessible, and grim! Cue the knowing chuckles!

It bothers me that people who never go to poetry shows use them to get cheap laughs in sitcoms and McDonald's commercials. It's as though "poetry" is shorthand for "dense, obscure, elitist, boring." But I understand that for the vast majority of people, the last time they read a poem was in high school when someone made them 'interpret' Robert Frost, or Wordsworth, or bloody Keats, and that their only exposure to it since has come in the form of black-turtleneck-clad caricatures, or winking references to angsty teenagers burning candles and writing about death and suffering.

And poetry reading series, far from not being hot, are starting, once again, to proliferate. The House Band Reading Series, Voices of Venus, the new blUe mOnday series, the rapidly growing AB Series, the Poetry Show . . . all new, all good, all growing. Someone, clearly, is enjoying them, if not Peter.

But, hey, I'm probably preaching to the choir here. At least I hope I am. And if I'm not, go find a poetry reading. Somewhere in Ottawa. Here's a good place to start looking. Go into the basement of the Royal Oak on Laurier, or down the stairs into the Manx Pub, or under the Thai Restaurant on Queen at Kent, or the upstairs room (and sometimes the roof) of the Carleton Tavern, or the Raw Sugar Cafe on Somerset on a nice night, or a rainy night, or a stormy snowy afternoon. Get yourself a beer, or a wine, or a cup of coffee or tea. Sit down. Get comfortable. Strike up a conversation with your neighbour. Talk poetry. Or talk whatever you want to talk. Listen to the banter, the chatter, the community, and the poet or poets up there on the stage. Maybe catch a catapulted chocolate or shout out a word to include in the next poem. I've seen people jump up and perform brand new, just-written poems in flash-writing contests. I've seen djembes appear for impromptu jams. I've laughed out loud and chanted along, been impressed and touched and encouraged and reminded why I go to these things, more times than I can recount.

If that's funereal, I really should be attending more funerals.

This was at a poetry reading....

And so was this...
I mean, just look at all these un-pained, smiling, cheerful, non-moping people! They actually appear to be enjoying themselves! (And yup, this picture too was taken at a poetry reading. 'Nuff said.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ain't the Future Something?

My brain hurts. How do they do this?


I was on the bus this morning killing time by scrolling through Twitter. I'm still not sure I 'get' Twitter, but there are a few people I follow that are entirely worth it. William Gibson is one of those. (@GreatDismal, in case you're wondering.) And sometime last night he posted this link with the question, "So just how accurate *is* this thing?" It was a graph of incidences of the use of the word "cyberspace" (of course) in books published between 1700 and 2008. Naturally, it was a pretty simple graph, with one big spike.

He followed that up with a question about the odd bump around 1900 (turns out, I gather, that it's the result of some publications being tagged with their date of founding rather than the date of publication of the actual work in which the word appears. Whew; wouldn't want to think that some careless time-traveler had gone and published a critique of Neuromancer back in 1902: or, as someone Tweeted to Gibson: "@GreatDismal Apparently you were quoted by the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1888.")

Then he started having fun. Next, he graphed out "flying saucer:"

Then he posted a few more searches - "Cthulhu," "opium," "buggery" - and announced he was done, and heading off to bed with the latest Fortean Times. But what was interesting was the graphs other people created following that, which he reposted. I was particularly interested in the "graph of fears," comparing how often the words "negro," "terrorist" and "communist" appeared: 

Sure, just the idea of software that can graph out the frequency of a word across that many books is amazing enough. The idea that Google has that many books digitally stored is also pretty mind-boggling. But it's funny how we can take that for granted and go straight to playing with it, taking the psychological pulse of the last 300 years by way of killing time before bed. We're awash in this kind of massive sea of information, and we have these little toys with which we can all dabble around in it. Here you go, kids: everything Google's got in the literary world from between 1700 and now. Make pretty pictures with it, and maybe learn something.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What Happens After

I just finished reading Jo Walton's new book, Among Others. I read most of it in a morning, and it was an interesting experience. I met Jo about a year and a half ago, when she came to the Festival, and I read her Small Change books then: an alternate-history trilogy which I remember enjoying, although I don't know how much I could tell you about them now: I'd need to reread them.

But Among Others was something new, and something quite surprising. I suppose you would classify it as fantasy: after all, there are real fairies, of the creepy-wood-spirit variety, and a sort of complicated and nebulous form of magic. But unlike almost any other fantasy I've ever read, in this one very little actually happens. In fact, it's all happened already: this book is an aftermath, in a way. It's what happens to the character after the dramatic battle and the life-altering events. When the book opens, it's 1979 in England, the narrator, Morwenna, is fifteen, and she is getting on with the rest of her life after a conflict with her apparently mad, apparently witchcraft-using mother, which left Morwenna lame and her twin sister dead.

Now that seems like a spectacular sort of thing, and the kind of thing that many fantasy writers would choose to end their book with. In Walton's hands, though, the actual events that killed Morwenna's twin are never particularly clear, never described, and certainly not part of the action. The book is written as Morwenna's diary, after it's all over, and she never needs to go back and explain. The Big Battle is background to the everyday world of bitchy classmates, arbitrary rules, trying to get to know a father and family she's only just met, and trying to find a place to fit in, in her typically horrid and petty boarding school. Oh, and reading a lot, with the kind of obsessive ravenousness that a lot of born readers can relate to. (I did.)

Morwenna can use magic - a sort of very vague, sympathetic magic that only really shows its presence in coincidence and changes in fortune - and talk to fairies. She is also a voracious reader of science fiction, and her diary entries are peppered with titles of books she's reading now, and authors she's obsessed with (she's an omnivore with a particular love for Delany, Zelazny, Le Guin, and Tiptree, but she takes in practically every major work of science fiction published pre-1980 on the way.) While she waits to meet up with the fairies - who need her to perform rituals, the purpose of which she's not always entirely clear about - she brings along a book, settles down to rest her bad leg, and vanishes into Callahan's Crosstime Saloon or Cat's Cradle.

Jo Walton's breaking all kinds of SF conventions here. The magic is a lot more ordinary and unremarkable to Morwenna than the latest Asimov, and she isn't an outsider so much because she has a tragic, magical past as because she's a SF-geek bookworm with a limp who has moved to an English boarding school with a Welsh accent and a weird name. Which should sound familiar to anyone who survived being a nerd as a child. (I did.)

Okay, there are points during the story in which Morwenna learns things about using magic, of the Le Guin-like "with great power comes so much responsibility that you're probably better off not even considering using your great power" variety. When she's tempted to do a ritual to find a circle of friends, she's then troubled by the thought that maybe the book club of fellow SF lovers she finds only exist because of her ritual, and are therefore somehow less real, less genuinely her friends. But then, what outsider hasn't wondered if maybe the friends they find are really their friends, or if it's all some kind of elaborate trick?

So the magic probably could stand in for all sorts of things: adulthood, responsibility, taking charge of your own life, moving on out of a tragedy, hanging on to the creativity and wonder of your childhood and using it to strengthen yourself. At its heart, though, I think the book is about being an intelligent and lonely teenager and finding your way: it's a love letter to the intense relationship some teens can have with science fiction and fantasy - or any subculture that involves that kind of intense consumption: perhaps Morwenna could have been a fan of, say, punk music, collecting bootleg tapes and fanzines. But Jo Walton being who she is, it's about magic, starships, and interlibrary loans. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Once Upon a Slam

Last night I continued my foray into competitive storytelling by showing up for the second ever Once Upon A Slam. I told the same story as last weekend - got it down by about a minute and a half, coming in at something like 5:47, I think - and was pleasantly surprised by a couple of marks over 9! Besides, I got to go first this time: it's like they say, I guess, 'the last shall be first'... So, once my story was over with, I could go get a Beau's and relax.

It was a small crowd, really, but then the series is just getting rolling. Once again the stories (and tellers) were varied: there were seven tellers, doing everything from folktales to mythology to personal stories to a fairly wild bit of surrealist comedy. I'd been joking around with a couple of the other tellers about running over time, because I knew I was going to: one of the other slammers said he was thinking of calling himself "Captain Overtime," so I swore I was taking that title. We were all completely eliminated in the time-deduction wars, though, by Festrell, who clocked in at just under 16 minutes, gaining herself the biggest time penalty I've ever seen: a final score in the negatives. (There was an infatuated, drunk and gender-switching Loki involved.)

In the end, Keirsten Hieber headed home with the championship for a story involving her father, mother, tractors, and some ill-advised suntanning, and we all hung out a bit longer to talk stories before heading out into the (rather impossibly gusty) evening.

Now I've got to come up with a new story for the next one. Although I may not make the next: it'll be December 31 and I think I may well be in New Brunswick. But for January? I think there's an action/adventure autobiographical story waiting to happen.

Funny: I've never done poetry slam - I was always quite intimidated by it - but this story slam thing is, for me, far less scary. I wonder why?

Friday, November 26, 2010


I know the lululemon bag says to do one thing a day that scares you. (It's such a good sentiment that I'm really annoyed at its ubiquitousness in mainstream platitude-culture.) I did that last weekend. Twice.

The Ottawa Storytellers Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday, had a really stellar lineup of workshops. Instead of packing in a ton of short workshops, which it would be easy to be tempted to do, they went with a single indepth workshop each day. I hang out with storytellers - so I had been talked into/nudged toward/skootched into signing up for the workshop on Saturday afternoon: How to Tell A Story In Five Minutes. The idea of the workshop was to get you prepared for the Story Slam the next afternoon. So, with no previous (formal) storytelling experience and only a day between workshop and performance, I was pretty much leaping into the deep end without a lifejacket. I mean, I already know that shorter doesn't always mean easier. Getting a story down to five minutes is a challenge for experienced storytellers. But, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The workshop was held in the foyer area in the basement of Saint Brigid's, with about 20 people there to start with. Most of them, like me, had no storytelling experience, and all came with different reasons for being there, from plain curiosity to wanting to be able to do movie pitches, to literary or mythological interest. Me, I was there for the challenge.

Ruthanne Edward and Kim Kilpatrick tag-teamed the workshop really well: they started with a story told by Kim, and a discussion of what constituted a 'story,' as opposed to an anecdote, monologue, or rant. They got us to think about the elements of a story, and did some practice with visualizing all the details of the story - even if you aren't going to tell all the details, they said, it helps to know your setting and characters and themes intimately, so that you can be more vivid in your telling.

There were a couple of exercises that pushed me a little way out of my comfort zone: One involved telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in first five minutes, then three, then one, then ten words, to get down to the bare bones of the story. It was a lot harder than I thought: I had the advantage, though, of being paired up with a more experienced storyteller, so I could watch what he did in the exercises and try to learn from him.

The other exercise that kicked my ass was to try and speak continuously without using any filler words like "um," "er," "so..." or "well..." I lasted a grand total of sixteen glorious seconds.

But I did walk out of the workshop with a sense that maybe I could do this. And, more importantly, I walked out with an idea of the story I wanted to tell: something that had been triggered by one of the exercises. It was, surprisingly, a completely different story than the one I'd thought I was going to work up. But I thought it would work.

So, I went home. (Well, I didn't. I went to a friend's place for the last half of a Doctor Who marathon. Then I went home.) And I sort of thought about my story, but I didn't really work on it much till the next morning. And I kept thinking: am I really going to do this? I imagined myself stopping on stage with the words just trickling to a stop, getting lost, forgetting whole chunks of the story, finding myself in one of those wandering aimless sentences that you suddenly discover you can't bring to anything like a satisfactory end. But I wrote out the story once, and recited it back to myself a few times (what with this, and my rehearsals for the Chasing Boudicca show in January, I hope my neighbours are starting to get used to me talking away to myself in my living room.)

The story I chose worked well, I thought: it was about getting yourself into something that you're not really prepared or qualified for, and soldiering on through it even if you know you're going to lose. It was about doing a thing being more important than winning a competition. And it was about a humiliating moment in my junior high career when I momentarily, deludedly, thought that signing up for track and field was a Good Idea for a pudgy, bookish seventh grader like myself.

Whatever I did, I couldn't get the story under 7 minutes. I ran it through a few times but nothing I did would get it down. And I started worrying about whether I'd be able to pull it off. But, I had promised a bunch of people that I was going to slam. So I talked to myself on the bus most of the way downtown, and got to the venue early enough to do a quick pre-slam interview with a guy from CBC Radio who was interested in doing a piece following a hapless newbie like myself through the workshop and slam process.

The audience wasn't huge - there were more audience members than competitors at least - but they were keen, which was good. I put my name in, and took my seat in the front row. Then, I proceeded to wait in agony as storyteller after storyteller was drawn from the hat. I kept thinking to myself, "Come on, John, pick me, get it over with... won't it suck if I'm the absolute last name drawn?"

Guess what.

So it was kind of hard to pay close attention to the other stories, since I was still occasionally being pulled off by my brain, which was busy trying to remember everything I wanted to say, all the points that were in the story, the bits I could cut to try and shave down my time... but I did still manage to relax and listen to a few of the stories - personal stories, folktales, tall tales, literary stories, a caper. I was impressed at the variety of stories, and tellers. And then I'd find myself thinking, Come on, me next, please... 

But yes, I went last. I got up on the stage. I took a moment, like Kim and Ruthanne had suggested, to set up the mike and take a breath and look out and realize I couldn't see the audience at all through the lights. And then the first sentence came out of me. "No one would have accused me, when I was in seventh grade, of being an athletic kid. . . "

Seven minutes later it was over. I hadn't forgotten anything, my sentences hadn't wandered away from me, I hadn't stopped and realized I didn't know where I was going. I'd told the story, got a few laughs, choked a couple of people up, bowed, and gotten my relieved ass off the stage.

After the show a couple of people came over to give me spontaneous hugs and tell me how much they enjoyed it. I got some really nice compliments on my telling, from people I really respect. And I was told to keep doing it. (The ever prolific Faye Estrella even posted a poem mentioning my story on Facebook that afternoon: I was pretty chuffed about that.) I got a six point time penalty - I missed going the longest by one second exactly - and I kind of crowed about that: hey, half the point of the story was that it doesn't really matter if you come in dead last, if just doing it in the first place is the challenge. Once Upon a Slam is tonight... I think I may have to sign up!

Oh yes. The winning story was a rollicking sort of tale about thieves in love (and what happens when the world's greatest thieves have a baby.) And the prize?

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Oh, the trouble with wanting to write about a festival while it's happening is that there's a great bloody festival going on, distracting you from writing about it by being fantastic and unmissable!

Friday night I hit the Mayfair Theatre to see Ivan Coyote's marvellous show "You Are Here," featuring Ivan (seriously, Canadian National Treasure) telling stories about her home in the Yukon, accompanied by songwriter and musician Rae Spoon, and with the screen behind them being used for projections of still photos and Super 8 footage. If you haven't heard Ivan tell, or read, find out when she's next in town and GO. There's something about the informal, easy way she tells her stories, and the simple, beautifully observed humanity of the people and moments she describes. Oh, and then there are the seemingly effortless, crystal clear images and totally original turns of phrase that she just drops in, in passing, while going on to tell you about permafrost and family and what it's like to drive north and north through hours of sunset, chasing the light. Those amazing, single lines that grab me by the guts and remind me that damn, she's also one hell of a great writer.

Then last night I headed out to Saint Brigid's to see Tim Tingle's "Rolling Way the Rock" and the late night Vernacular Spectacular, which featured Anita Best, Marie Bilodeau, Ivan Coyote, The Copper Conundrum (Kevin Matthews, Danielle K.L. Gregoire and Rusty Priske), Charlie Chiarelli, and Alan Shain.

Tim Tingle blew me away. He had me mesmerized for at least an hour and a half while he told what was billed as "the story of the youngest man ever sent to Alcatraz" but what was really the story of a couple of Choctaw kids on a nearly inevitable steep slope to disaster, and about the tragedy that is the prison system, and about, finally, how there is goodness in the hearts of everyone. It was heartbreaking and gorgeous. I was astonished at the fact that he managed to maintain, through the whole thing, three very specific vantage points. One was himself, talking to a man, Cecil, who had spent thirty years in prison. One was the man, telling his story, and one was a third-person recreation of the experience of Cecil's friend Clarence, who was the teenager sent to Alcatraz. And you never lost sight of those three vantage points, even though when he was speaking as Cecil it was so intense - so clearly visualized, so vividly told, and so emotional - you believed he was teling his own story. It was hard, on the breaks and at the end, to haul myself back out of the world he'd created and into the present day: I wanted to stay and sit with it for a moment.

The 'Vernacular Spectacular' late night cabaret started out at 10:00, with dirty ballads from Anita Best (and Marie's sexy ghost story, which I always love), ended with a moving poem done by the Copper Conundrum that had the whole audience singing the refrain of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and in the middle taught me about Sicilian farmers and Yukon men, and finally gave me a chance to hear Alan Shain do his standup comedy (which was hilarious.) I wish there was time to talk about all of them in depth. It was a smaller, but not insignificant, audience, and we only left the venue at about 12:30 AM. There was a lot of cheering: a rowdier audience than at the earlier show, which was just perfect. And some Really Good Food being passed around by the youngest wait staff ever (I think she was about ten.)

I'm off this afternoon to the workshop "How To Tell a Story in Five Minutes," to get ready for the Story Slam tomorrow afternoon. I've never done any storytelling before, so this should be... enlightening. I'll report.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Storytellers Festival starts tonight!

I'm off tonight to the Mayfair to see Ivan Coyote's You Are Here (also performing: Rae Spoon) - the first event of the Ottawa Storytelling Festival. The Storytelling Festival's been revamped, rethought, rejiggered and relaunched for the 21st century, and the program is a great mix of traditional and nontraditional tales. They'll be featuring everything from a retelling of Frankenstein to a celebration of traditional Newfoundland stories, and taking in spoken word poetry, history, personal stories and native legends on the way.

Storytelling is a rapidly reviving art in this town: at least, I'm seeing more and more of it. The Shenkman Centre hosts a series of outside-the-box telling, the Fourth Stage series continues at the NAC, the Billings Estate series brings history alive with storytelling theatre, and this upcoming Festival looks like it's going to kick it out of the park. The city's first Story Slam, Once Upon a Slam, just got rolling last month - and there will be a story slam workshop at the Festival for anyone who's curious about that particular kind of short-form, competitive storytelling. (Think competitive storytelling is a brand new wacky modern idea? Think again, and go find a copy of the Canterbury Tales.)

Storytelling isn't like reading, and it's certainly not just for kids. This isn't going to be 'storytime at the library.' (Not that I need to tell most readers of this blog that.) There is something immersive about live storytelling - more so than readings, I find. It's part of a storyteller's job to interact with the audience, to gauge her listeners and shape the story to fit the room, and that has the effect of making the whole experience that much more intense. If you haven't had someone tell you a story in a while, I highly recommend it. I'd be inclined to argue that it's built into our brains to listen to a voice weaving a story. It might even be good for our brains. It certainly feels that way to me.

Anyway, I can't wait to hear Ivan Coyote tonight. I've been a fan for years. Mayfair Theatre, doors at 6:00, show at 7:00: you can't get tickets in advance - sales at the door only - so expect to line up!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can you help me get published?

It's funny because, scarily, it's true. I see these people everywhere. Thanks Rhonda for posting this on FB!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Night of the Living Dead: Live at the Mayfair

Friday night I finally got out to see the Mayfair Theatre's production of Night of the Living Dead: Live. I missed it the first time they staged this show, back in March, and I really had wanted to catch it. So, while I was working at the Mayfair all of last week (the Writers Festival happens there)  I mentioned to Mike Dubue, the theatre's manager and the composer and conductor of this show, that I wanted to go, and he gave me a ticket. So, after about a week spent in the Mayfair behind the scenes, I found myself back there, only this time as an audience member, ensconced in the second row of a sold out theatre with some friends, a plastic cup of beer, and some popcorn. Ahhhh.

The Mayfair's website calls it "Ottawa's home of stuff you won't see anywhere else," and this show pretty much proves it (as George Romero himself commented in a taped introduction.) What Mike Dubue's done with this show is like nothing I've heard of before. It's a little like the inverse of going to see the "Met in HD" opera shows at the big cinemas, actually. He's written an original score (for a combination of strings, guitar, & percussion, with some atmospheric electronics) and done the sound design for a complete live soundscape of the film. Actors read the lines in sync with the screen, and a foley artist supplies all the sound effects (with the exception of big sounds like doors slamming or explosions, which are done with the percussion section.) The whole front of the theatre was jammed with performers: the instruments off at stage left being conducted by Mike, who was also playing a number of the percussion instruments, the foley artist and what I assume was an effects board toward the middle, and a line of actors with their scripts illuminated by little pen lights sitting in the front row of seats to the right.

I think that most of the time I was aware that there were live musicians and actors, even though it was easy to forget and just watch the movie. But it was far too fascinating watching the foley artist and the instrumentalists to only pay attention to the screen. (Where, incidentally, they were rolling a 35mm print of the movie, not a digital remaster. I actually saw that reel, up in the projection booth, earlier this week when I took an author up there to do a pre-reading interview. Cool.)

The live music had an interesting effect on the movie - it suddenly seemed a bit more like an art film. Now, I'm pretty sure that even Romero would be the first to say that he was just trying to make a movie, when he and his friends shot this film, although there are plenty of things that could be said about Romero's social commentary through his "Dead" films. But once you take the sound away from the original print, treating it, in a way, like a silent film, and add Mike's original score, you somehow are more likely to see the ways in which the film is artistic.

The graveyard scene, where Barbara runs from the first zombies, came across as almost ethereal, dream-state-like, because while Jennilee Murray, who played all the women in the show, spoke Barbara's dialogue, she didn't make any sounds as Barbara ran, and stumbled, and fell, and picked herself back up, and fought off the zombie, and tried to hide in the car, and drove off only to hit a tree, and lost her shoes, and finally ended up pelting barefoot along the road. It was all eerily silent, with just the musicians to underscore it.

Somehow it also lets you notice some of the subversive (for the time) stuff that's going on with the character of Ben. I saw an interview once with George Romero in which he said that casting a black man in the part had actually been a complete fluke: they'd written the part for just anyone, and then cast the actor they liked without thinking about it. So you wind up with a black man ordering the white men around, taking charge, being the leader, and hitting a hysterical white woman - none of which was written specifically to address the race issues of the time. But it does, simply by treating the character as an equal. The overtones of lynch mob in the final sequence also come out not because they were written in exactly, but because the audience reads them in.

Mike's score was made up largely of slow pulses of sound from the strings, with some plucked highlights, but definitely not using the high, sharp cues of most horror films of the time: it was ominous and slow most of the time, with a rumbling undercurrent of white noise as though there were a storm or a subway rolling in the distance. It worked for me.

Sure, the voices didn't always sync up perfectly, and at least once there was a glitch (I assume) that meant a section of the film that was supposed to have its original sound didn't. (The actors ad-libbed a couple of references to it later that made the audience burst out laughing.) And one of my friends took exception to Ian Keteku as Ben (said his voice was too high for the part: I thought he sounded fine, and was particularly good at syncing with the film. Jennilee Murray played all the women, and occasionally had to have conversations with herself: she managed to sound different enough that it worked. Through the last bit of the movie, too, her screaming abilities were definitely put to the test. And it was fun that the radio announcer was played by, um, a radio announcer: Alan Neal, from CBC's All In A Day.

And most of all it was entertaining. I enjoyed Mike's scoring, I got to watch him direct with one eye on the screen, I got to watch the foley artist bashing about with chunks of wood and hammers and drawers full of silverware, and I got to watch the actors having fun (and I think ad libbing in spots.) It was entirely satisfying: glad I finally got a chance to see it. If they do another production of it, I highly recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Festival, and the writing groove

Yup, the Festival kicks off tomorrow, so I'm about to vanish into the real world for seven days or so. I can't even start to do my picks: I won't, sadly, get to see a lot of this stuff, actually, because I'll be running around backstage (and driving authors back and forth, and helping at the box office, and doing school visits.)

But you can see Amanda Earl's picks here: and the Apt 613 highlights list is here.

My last evening before the Festival, though, was spent entirely satisfactorily: although I did work right up till the Creative Writing Play Date at 8:00, I made myself a promise I was going to stop working in time to go to the Play Date. Which I did.

It's an odd thing that sometimes when you're stressed out, the writing can flow much more easily. I've had days at the Play Date where I felt like I was forcing myself to write. But this evening, I not only slipped right into writing mode, but I got that lovely sensation, which I rarely get, that I was surprising myself. The exercise started with us writing three words - a room, a family event like a wedding or birth or funeral or some other large occasion, and an emotion. Then Sean talked a bit about descriptive writing, setting, and mood, emphasizing those aspects in what we were going to write, and then we all traded pieces of paper randomly. (I particularly like the tendency for Play Date exercises to randomize the prompts that way: keeps me from falling into writing ruts when I'm being handed something I wasn't expecting to have to write about, and so don't have any 'motor programs' built up for.) And what I ended up writing had a couple of those moments where ideas popped into the story that I hadn't been expecting. Usually I take a long time to actually get to the story and this evening there was none of that.

So, that's the secret then? I can really get into writing when I ought to be doing something else? That makes some kind of sense, actually.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Because Hallowe'en is nigh...

... I thought I'd pass along this story contest, which I got posted through the Writers Festival's Facebook letterbox. I assume that the deadline for this contest would be sometime before Hallowe'en, but I don't know when exactly. I bet they say on their website though. (Sorry about any formatting weirdness: that's what I get for cut-n-pasting things.)

Whippersnapper Press wants your scary stories for Hallowe'en. Bonus points if you're holding a torch under your face while you write them.

We like short, snappy writing that's biting. We also, (for 'tis the season) want it gory, unnerving, suspenseful - or in some other way thoroughly worthy of treats.

As ever we are poor artists and we run the website on good will and shoelaces, but because it's Hallowe'en we will be posting sweets/candy to any authors we publish.

Email your tales of terror to
   with 'Submission' in the subject line.

Word limit: 3,000 max.

Some more info on what we take:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Slam Poetry in the Schools

The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word’s main event is definitely the competition - the poets from cities across the country getting up on stage and going head to head for the title of National Champions. But along with the bouts - and the showcases and jam sessions - the festival also provides a chance for the spoken word community to share skills, with their workshop series. I caught the one on Bringing Slam to the Schools, led by Danielle Gregoire and Lara Bozabalian, both of whom have a lot of experience working with children and youth.
    The people at the workshop were there for all sorts of reasons - from looking for ideas, to wondering how to start a slam in a high school, to questions about details like where to find funding and how much money a poet should ask for to work with a class. And Danielle and Lara did what they could, in the limited time they had, to touch on all of them. I realized, in the workshop, that a lot of these poets are professional artists, or want to be - they were here because they want to make their poetry financially viable. And one of the best ways of doing that happens to also promote the art form and foster the next generation of poets.
    Mostly what the two leaders did in this workshop was to give their tricks - some exercises they use to get the kids writing, usually without really giving the game away that they were writing poetry until after they’d already done it: the trick, with kids as with adults, is often to get them to do the thing, then tell them what they’ve done, rather than to stand up and give a lot of theory or spell things out. In a classroom, not all the kids will even want to write poetry, so a certain amount of sneaking it in helps. “Don’t tell them what a metaphor is and then ask them to write one,” Lara said. “Set up a way that they write the metaphor first, then tell them. And high-five the teacher, because now she can cross that off the curriculum list.” (That is an important one: it’s particularly good if you can show the teacher that the kids are learning something she can report back. It’s all about showing that their time is being spent in a valuable way.)
    The exercise they had time to actually do with us was one where each table took a group of random words, then speed-wrote a group poem and performed it as a group. They hadn’t really taken into account that it was a room full of poets, so the poems produced were a little longer, and took a little longer, than anticipated, but Danielle did a great job of using the spaces between presentations to talk about how she uses this exercise to show the kids, while having them engaged in something, the basics of a slam - how she models listening, shows them how to snap and get involved in the poem as an audience member, and so on. Then Lara ran through a collection of possible exercises, mostly loosening-up exercises meant to dispel the students’ fears about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers and to get them used to just writing.
    There wasn’t a lot of time for questions, but the questions there were went straight to funding - how much to ask, where to go for funding, how to write a proposal, how to explain what the value of what you do is, how to assign a value to what you do (something I find poets have particular trouble with.) And they did pass around an email list and promised to send more materials on and keep the conversation going.

CFSW Semifinals, Bout One!

I found myself thinking about strategy while I was watching the CFSW semifinals. Not to the exclusion of the fantastic poetry going on on the stage, of course, but every so often, as the poets took the stage and the audience made its deafening noise and the score cards went up, I thought about it, in my back row seat where I was sitting so the laptop wouldn’t annoy anyone.
    Maybe that was because the scores were so damn close. In the end it came down to one or two points out of a hundred between Capital Slam, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto’s Up From The Roots. Time penalties made a difference: and I wondered if some of the teams were looking at the judges’ scores and trying to work out what this particular set of five people likes. Whether they were deciding to send up a funny piece to follow something heavy, or vice versa. So much can depend on such small things.
    But I didn’t have to worry about strategy, so I got to sit with the poetry. I didn’t even have to judge (which is a tough job.) Lucky me!
    I felt like I got a feel for the teams’ strengths in Bout One - Vancouver brought strong team pieces and unorthodox subjects, Montreal brought a strong dramatic flair, sometimes doing team pieces that only used one voice (and showed bravery in doing one poem almost entirely in French, considering they couldn’t know whether all the judges would be able to understand.) Capital Slam brought their fire and musicality (the guys on that team all have very flexible and controlled voices) and Up From The Roots brought, in general, an urban grittiness.
    A lot can depend on small things: Leviathan stumbled in a poem using a long string of animal metaphors and idioms to talk about respect between men and women, and it did cost points. Time penalties could make a difference. (But when they happened, it was entertaining to hear the whole room yell in unison, “You rat bastard! You’re ruining it for everyone! But it was well worth it!”) But still, it was so damn close.
    The team pieces might have been one of the highlights of the evening. They allow for some great staging, and something about having more than one poet up there delivering the work kicks the energy up (although some individuals are all the energy one stage can handle - Open Secret’s one-man conflagration on Joan of Arc was one example.) Moments that stick out for me? The sweet, scary delivery of Sasha Langford’s first poem, from the point of view of a little girl whose words sound innocent and belie a dark reality; Team Vancouver’s evocation of the Depression-era work projects that tried to keep joblessness and economic collapse at bay: “building libraries with the workdays of men who signed their names with X.” Dwayne Morgan’s scary rage at all the different roles black people are forced to play because of white society’s assumptions; Alessandra Naccarato’s heartbreaking story of her father’s, and her, mental illness (emotionally told, but also wonderfully worded),Chris Tse’s poem about the Asian sex trade, which started as a lyrical love story until it became frighteningly clear that the girl the narrator was in love with was being sold to Western sex tourists.
    And yes, all the other poems were fantastic too. That’s just a nearly-randomly-sampled list.
    In the end, Montreal and Ottawa Capital Slam came out on top, and are heading to the finals tonight (at Dominion Chalmers United Church, and it’s going to be spectacular.) They’re going up against Burlington and Ottawa Urban Legends - yeah, that’s fully half of the final four that are going to be from Ottawa. This is going to be interesting. And jaw-dropping, and mind-blowing, and roof-raising.

RC Weslowski - I've Been Thinking

I heard him do this one again last night at the CFSW semifinals. I've heard it before: it's still fun. And one of the things I like about it is how different it is. Certain types of poems are such sure-fire crowd-pleasers: political rants, poems about oppression, poems about poetry, and poems praising self-respect and human dignity. They're gonna get cheers, and good scores. You do something this off-the-wall and it's a bit more of a risk. Sure, a good performance of it helps, but there's always that possibility that somene will say, "But, that poem wasn't really about anything," and thus points will be lost. (Which isn't to say that it isn't about anything: it's just not immediately obvious.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Geek heil!

Fair disclosure: I’m a poet, and I’m a self-proclaimed geek. And even I can appreciate that maybe people don’t necessarily associate the two. Especially not geeks and slam poetry. I mean, the steoetypical geek, if he writes poetry, writes angst-ridden love poems to the barbarian princesses of distant planets, or to Deanna Troi, and then never shows them to anyone, right? Slam? That thing where people get up on stage and strike fire into their audiences with their verbal mastery, captivating performances and emotional intensity? Aren’t nerds supposed to be shy, awkward, retiring folk, only truly comfortable with their computers and 20-sided dice?
    So what are they doing getting up on the mike and pulling roars and cheers and sighs from their audience?
    They’re celebrating.
    The – to use its official title – Steve Sauve Memorial Nerd Showcase, part of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, seemed to me to be just that: a celebration. Featuring Nadine Thornhill and Bart Cormier, who put together a beautifully shaped - “adorkable” - joint performance that even included a little soft shoe (at the urging of the audience), the show was hilarious and smart. Rather like nerds themselves.
    What constitutes geek poetry? It turns out that it’s not just that geek poetry is about math or science fiction or Batman. Sure, the geek references flew like laser fire at the Battle of Yavin: it helps to know why it would hurt to step on a Warhammer 40K figure, what “Sayyadina” means, and why it’s funny to say “I’m your differential / touching all your curves.” But there’s also, built into it, a shared experience of having at some point in your life felt like an outsider, like you just didn’t fit into society, and of having found other likeminded people along the way, because face it, there was a room full of other likeminded people there. All nerds and geeks have felt like that at some point – but then, hasn’t everyone? 
    So the poetry that came out at the showcase was also universal: funny, bawdy, touching, moving, encouraging. At first glance you wouldn’t think Nadine Thornhill’s poem “Loser,” which she premiered at this event, had a particularly geek-centric theme, but the basic idea of it – having been convinced at some point that if you didn’t excel at something by society’s standards, you shouldn’t try, and learning that in fact you had every right to play even if you were bad at the game – speaks to anyone who was picked last for gym class sports.
    Sure, there were blaster-rifle and jumpsuit-laden odes to classic SF, there were slightly obsessive and terribly funny love letters to Natalie Portman, there were Monty Python references, there was a poem combining Kraftwerk and Ricardo Montalban, there were allusions to Warcraft, hit points, Doctor Who and Dune, and there were self-deprecating appearances of inhalers and retainers and acne and all the other nerd stereotypes; but these were also poems about unrequited love and about loving (or lusting after) someone’s mind more than their body, they were about finding community, and about dreaming big. There were superheroes aplenty. And yeah, there was also an opening ‘sing-along’ performance of Steve Sauve’s signature ‘Clarion Call (The Geek Poem.)’
    Bart Cormier might have gotten the loudest shouts of the night with his poem that announced, bluntly, that geeks, nerds, poets, artists, and all their ilk are not cool. Absolutely not cool. Because ‘cool’ doesn’t care. ‘Cool’ has seen it all, done it all, and thought it was lame before anyone else even discovered it. By those lights, the enthusiasms, the passions, the obsessions, the loves, the joys, and the creativity of poets (and geeks, and nerds, and artists, and sculptors and dancers and all the others) are decidedly uncool. “I am not cool,” he thundered. “You are not cool.” And the whole room joined in to yell, “WE ARE NOT COOL!”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The joys of Twitter

I had to work this evening, from home, and I couldn't be at the first bout for CFSW. But I've got Twitter popping up in the corner of my screen, and it simultaneously keeps me informed, and makes me wish I was there. I just saw the scores - Urban Legends taking first place - and then Nadine Thornhill's quick 'tweet' right after that: "Hearing poetry always inspires mento write poetry and now I'm in parking lot making notes. @cfsw2010ottawa"

I've been able to follow this afternoon's Last Chance Slam, and find out who was going to wind up on the Wild Card Team (yay, Festrell!). I've caught the articles popping up in advance of CFSW - Xtra's kind of sweet article on Beth Anne Fischer and Truth Is, lovers who happen to be competing on opposing teams, the Citizen's coverage of Ottawa's teams (and their video of Inez Dekker performing "Wild Thing"), the buzz about the whole festival. Okay, so that means, so far, that I know what I'm missing. Damn my other responsibilities. Still cool to know what's going on.

No, it doesn't feel like I'm there, because I didn't get to be in the jam-packed venue, and I didn't get to hear the poems: although I knew, in real time, who was on stage right now - and does that ever strike me as strange sometimes. I remember a world before BBS's. And now I'm sitting at my dining room table, working, and aware at the same time, in blow-by-blow detail, of what's going on at the poetry slam I'm missing. While simultaneously watching friends and fans banter with William Gibson (@GreatDismal, in case you were wondering) and being made aware that the first of the Chilean miners is being lifted out of the pit. Right now. While I'm working, at my dining room table.

But that's beside the point. The point is that I had to miss the first night of CFSW, and I pretty much wish I didn't have to. Sounds like it was great. Congratulations to Urban Legends for carrying the day! I was with you in spirit. And in Twitter.


The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word starts today! This means there are a large number of spoken word artists from all over the country roaming the streets: keep an eye out.

Although it sort of feels like the prelude was last night - I was at Voices of Venus last night for a show featuring the Lanark County Slam Team (the only all-female slam team ever, and the only rural slam team.) The team also features the youngest ever national competitor - Satinka Schilling - and the oldest, Inez Dekker. Toward the end of their set, the doors of Umi Cafe opened up and a bunch of local members of the Capital Poetry Collective came in, followed by a handful of visiting poets, fresh from a welcome dinner over at the East African Restaurant. And things started to feel kind of Festival-ish.

I thought the Lanark County team seemed shaky, to be totally honest - with the exception of a couple of really good pieces by Emily Kwissa - who has been belying her age for a couple of years now, and who writes subtle, strong, cohesive stuff, and then performs it well - and Britt Pruden-Faraday, particularly an imaginative and funny and thoughtful piece about her emo bobblehead alter ego. Both are strong performers even when they read off the page, which is a help. I'll be interested to see what they bring to the competitions.

I think the next thing I'll be able to get to is the Nerd Showcase (technically the Steve Sauvé Memorial Nerd Showcase - and incidentally, today is Steve's birthday: kind of fitting, isn't it?) on Thursday at 4:00: I've promised to bring my Dungeons & Dragons & DC Heroes poem, and might also drop my steampunk poem about a young lady scientist who's building a doomsday machine in her fiancé's attic. Now you know you want to come, right? The Nerd Showcase will be featuring Nadine Thornhill (the Adorkable Thespian) and Bart Cormier, with plenty of open mike for anyone who considers themselves to have written a nerd poem. Poems on anything from astrophysics to Zot! are welcome.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Now *that's* what I call ephemera.

Just spotted this: Bookninja has posted a handwritten sheet of densely scribbled ballpoint - JK Rowling (AKA Lord Volderowling) laying out the plot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Niiiiiiiice. Totally worth squinting at for a couple of minutes.

Just remembered recently discovering one of these that I did back in college: nowhere near as orderly. In my recollection it consisted mostly of a slightly woggly line curving downward with an arrow somewhere in the middle indicating the introduction of a character, and a cloud of scribbles at its beginning. Now I really want to go home and find it. If I do... I'll post it.

AB Series next Saturday


Readings by award-winning poets


* SATURDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2010 *

* Doors open 7:00pm *
* Readings at  7:30pm *

Gallery 101
301 1/2 Bank Street
(top level)
Ottawa, Ontario

More info:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Literary Landscape, September 30 2010: The Rolling Darkness Revue

For the last Literary Landscapes show, I got Peter Atkins on the line from California, and Sean Moreland in the studio, to talk ghost stories: Peter Atkins and Glen Hirshberg are coming to Ottawa with the Rolling Darkness Revue, on its first ever visit to Canada. This visit was organized on our end by Sean Moreland and James Moran. The Rolling Darkness Revue is an annual ghost story tour, featuring music and stories. I have to apologize for the fact that the first few minutes of the interview got cut off: but I got the rest on tape, and Pete had some really interesting things to say about ghost stories, and why they both frighten and comfort us. The Rolling Darkness Revue will be featured at the Ottawa Writers Festival - check out the schedule at - and at a special presentation at the University of Ottawa.

Click here to listen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Another Banned Books week gone...

Yup, it's Banned Books Week - last year, I think, I posted a banned book a day, randomly selected from the ALA's interactive map of challenged books. But this week I've been run ragged with a couple of huge events, and I think I didn't really have the energy to even look at the mass of wriggling ignorance that produces most book challenges.

But the week is meant to get attention, and it's heartening to see that people have been, as usual, posting and blogging about and tweeting the top 10 banned books - most of them YA books, many of them very popular YA books, and some of them the perennial returnees (Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five, Huckleberry f*cking Finn.) And Tango Makes Three has been resting comfortably in the top five for years for the horrifying, childhood-destroying observation that two male penguins once set up house together and adopted a chick. Twilight's on the list this year, I see: not for the reasons that you might think, like "creepy hundred-year-old vampire stalks teen girl, portrayed as romance," but for having "sexually explicit themes." Or maybe someone objected to the undead thing.

So here we are at the end of the week: so to set up a variation on the theme for this year: Just found a list of banned graphic novels. (I discovered it because Neil Gaiman recently tweeted his disappointment that Sandman was up at the top of the list.) I think I want to go read all the graphic novels on this list that I haven't yet read (a surprising number, actually).

I also read a blog called "Letters of Note" (there's a link to it on the sidebar to the right) which posts correspondence that the editor finds interesting or enlightening: conveniently, for Banned Books Week, he just posted a letter from John Irving to a school library which had successfully managed to stop the removal of The Hotel New Hampshire from the school. Irving's letter in response is gracious and reassuringly calm. I particularly like his observation that "Real readers finish books, and then judge them; most people who propose banning a book haven't finished it. In fact, no one who actually banned Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" even read it."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sad news

This is really sad: Key Porter Books just laid off most of its staff and is relocating out of Toronto. What a bummer: I've really liked working with Key Porter, with the kids program at the Writers Festival. And I have to feel for the folks that just got laid off. That just sucks.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday English!

It might be kind of arbitrary to call this the birthday of English, but if you had to pick a day for the birth of the language as we know it, this one might be it. I spotted this today in a newsletter I get called The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, and on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.

The Norman invasion had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

We wouldn't have this language as we speak it without the Norman invasion of Britain. And we wouldn't have one of the things I really love about it: two different vocabularies, each suited to a different level of politeness. When I used to teach English to ESL students, I told the high-level ones that if they were ever confused about which word was the more polite, the more formal, the more scientific; pick the longer one. 'Talk' or 'converse'? 'Spit' or 'expectorate'? 'Walk' or 'perambulate'? 'Trip' or 'voyage'? You want the gutsy, visceral (and there's another example!) version of a word, go for the Germanic. You want the fancy, formal version, go for the Latinate.

There's just so much you can do with English. It's a complete hodgepodge of Celtic, Germanic and Norman roots with a whole bunch of loan words grafted on. Sure, it's a bit of a creole, a chimera, a kluge, a mongrel. That's what's so awesome about it.

So, thanks for the invasion, William. Happy birthday (joyous anniversary), English. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

John Vaillant at Nicholas Hoare

I didn't really have a chance to write about this back when it happened, but I spotted the photos I took from the back rows at the packed reading at Nicholas Hoare today, and thought I'd post one. 

This book - The Tiger - is really, really good - a very skilful braiding of multiple threads together while never losing the thread of the through-story, which is hard to believe, tense, and would make a great movie. Apparently there has been some interest in the movie rights - keep an eye out. The story would play out something like The Ghost and the Darkness, but I personally think it would be better, and more interesting, especially if the movie can hang on to the idea - which shows up in the books - that what the rest of the world thought was great for Russia - perestroika - was actually disastrous for the people and the tigers of the far easten coast.

I also have to say, if you weren't there, you missed a great reading - Vaillant has an exceptionally good reading style. I asked him later if there was an audio book, and if he did the reading for it. I'm happy to report that he did. . . and maybe the experience of reading for the audio book helped him. Too often I've been disappointed by an author who has a great book, and can't read it aloud: this was mesmerizing. Vaillant is also a very good storyteller, and the way he talked about the creation of the book and explained all the factors that contributed to this complicated relationship between a community of humans and a wounded and angry Amur tiger fit easily between the sections he chose to read. I'm not surprised the bookstore came close to selling out of the book. 

And Nicholas Hoare was a great setting. "This place... it's a shrine," Vaillant said, about the shop, with those awesome floor-to-ceiling shelves and rolling ladders. Have to agree. There's not much in the way of seating for an event like this, but it feels so good to be there. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Stone Book

The daughter of a stone mason learns the old ways of her family when her father shows her symbols carved into stone in this classic work of magical realism. Based on the book by British author Alan Garner and shaped for the oral tradition by storyteller Jan Andrews, this is a coming of age story that examines our relationship with our history and our landscape.
I remember being read Alan Garner's stunning The Stone Book when I was probably too young to really understand it: which may be why the magic sank so deep. I remember that, like a lot of Garner's work, mystery underlay everything: the landscape, the people, the rhythms of the way they talked. I remember the opening of the book - the ploughman's lunch, and the dizzying, vertigo-inducing image of a child riding a weathercock at the tip of a steeple as though she was galloping through the sky, spinning above the countryside. And every time I see the tilted layers that you see in Ontario granite, or the weathered-out shelves of the schist cliffs I climbed near Aberdeen in Scotland, and nearly every time I see the pattern that receding waves leave on a beach, I think of the child looking at those ripples across the roof of a cavern, and understanding that once, somehow, the stone above her head had been an ocean floor.

So I'm particularly excited that Jan Andrews has adapted The Stone Book to the oral tradition, and is going to be telling it on October 3rd. And I can't help thinking that Jan, who is also a rock climber, will have just the feel for stone that the story asks for.

Happy Birthday Bilbo!

Yup, it was on this day in 1937 that The Hobbit was published. I'm actually re-reading my copy these days - it sits on my bedside table. I just got to Beorn's house.

I don't need to get into how incredibly important a book this fairly silly little tale with a fairly ridiculous hero is, do I? So here - in celebration of the Little Dude's 73rd birthday, something completely frivolous, that also sort of illustrates how much a part of our culture this book has become:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vox Femina at Umi Cafe

Oh, I wish I wasn't busy on the 23rd: I would absolutely be at this reading otherwise. Vox Femina is made up of Luna Allison (Ottawa, Montreal), Jill Battson (New Mexico, Toronto), Sandra Alland (Edinburgh, Toronto) and Adeena Karasick (NYC), and they're all fantastic. I can only imagine what it's like when they join forces. This show is a Voices of Venus special presentation: props to VoV for putting together yet another stellar special!

The show's at Umi Cafe, which is a little place, so get there early to get a seat: 7:00, September 23rd. (Yep, that's this Thursday!)

Incidentally, in case you didn't know, Jane Urquhart is at the Mayfair Theatre tonight at 7:00 with the Writers Festival - fresh off the announcement this morning of the Giller Prize longlist. (That link goes to the CBC announcement: I'd send you to the Giller website but it seems to have been security blocked for suspicious activity. I'm not sure what that means, but it's just about the absolute worst time for it to happen. Wonder if someone at the Giller pissed off a hacker? Or if they have a beef with one of the nominees?)

P.S.: I got this comment on Facebook from Amazon, who is one of the people that runs Voices of Venus, and she said she'd tried to comment here and run into issues with the 'select a profile' thing. So, for the record, what she wanted to say was:

Wish you could come, too. Thanks for the signal boost! :-D

I should clarify, though: Vox Femina (who will be at the Kingston Writers' Festival after their show in Ottawa) approached VoV as an already-formed group (via Luna Allison). Also, we're getting a tonne of help from Ladyfest Ottawa. (The poster has since been amended to reflect that).!/photo.php?pid=14900467&o=all&op=1&view=all&subj=82921239343&aid=-1&id=691780051&oid=82921239343

Friday, September 17, 2010

Does a writer's DNA matter?

I posted the schedule for the Fall Edition of the Festival on the Festival's Facebook and Twitter feeds last week, and created a Facebook event for the Festival itself.

I'd already done the same for the pre-Festival lineup, and one of the Festival's Facebook friends had responded by asking, "Um... what happened to the womenz?"

I wrote back, explaining that we don't really give much thought to the sex, race, religion or sexual orientation (or physical condition, or age, or hair colour, or number of tattoos) of a writer when considering him, or her, or hir, or whoever, for an invitation to the Festival. If we had a 50/50 policy, wouldn't that be a bit strange? "We must invite precisely 35 men and 35 women writers"? How many of those men, and women, should be, say, black? And of those black men and black women, how many should be Caribbean, how many African-American (and by 'American' I mean 'North American'), how many from Africa, and how do we make sure the correct countries are represented from Africa? Do we then find ourselves desperately trying to find a writer to invite, any writer, who's female and from Namibia?

Well, okay, I didn't say it like that. I said that we consider what's out there, and who is touring, and who has a great new book out, and who we think is likely to grab the interest of our audiences, or who we think is important to introduce our audience to. Sex doesn't enter into the decision making process one way or the other - and it does turn out that, some years, there are more of one demographic group than another. One year, every fiction author was female. It was totally unplanned; it just happened to fall out that way. (And no one complained at the lack of men, incidentally.)

But then, the same Facebook friend responded to the full Festival schedule by announcing that she was going to boycott the Festival, because there weren't enough women in it.

Okay. That's, as far as I can tell, her prerogative. I think she'll be missing out on a pretty sweet lineup, personally, but that's her call to make.

And then one of her friends added that she was going to give us the benefit of the doubt, but "if it doesn't change next year" she would cancel her membership, and I started to feel - defensive? Confused? Indignant? I started counting women. And it felt weird. Last fall, 29 out of 75 writers were women. What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Suddenly I was looking at writers and putting them in boxes. Male. Female. White. Native. Indian. Black. Muslim. Jewish. Christian. Gay. Straight. Sometimes it had a bearing on the book they were here to present. Usually it didn't. But suddenly they all had a tag, or it felt like they needed one. And it felt weird.

We get people every year who call and ask me, "Are there any queer writers in the lineup this year?" or "Are there any Aboriginal writers?" or "Are there any Muslim writers?" To which I usually find myself shrugging and answering, "You probably know better than me: the authors list is up on the website." Sometimes I don't know a writer's sex until I look up their bio - what if they have an indeterminate name, or go by initials only? The same goes for religion, sexual orientation, anything you can't tell from a name.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should be making an effort to ensure a gender balance in our lineup. But passing up a Michael Cunningham, or a John Lavery, or a Richard B. Wright, because he's white and male seems strange to me. I'm a woman: I don't feel excluded by this lineup of authors. I don't understand canceling a membership or boycotting the Festival in protest against it, as though it was a deliberate, patriarchal decision on the part of the staff to exclude women (for one thing, three-quarters of our full-time staff are female). I'll say it again: we invite authors who are good, who are interesting, who have new books out, who we think will draw an audience, spark an important conversation, or help our community better understand itself.

Sean, the Artistic Director of the Festival, told me that he once had a conversation with Donna Bailey Nurse in which she told him the Festival had a good reputation in the black community. "Why's that?" Sean asked her, and she said it was because they knew there was no tokenism in the Festival: if a writer was invited it wasn't because we 'needed some colour,' it was because we thought she was good, and as a member of a community that gets tapped for the sake of diversity, she valued knowing she was being included on her own merits, not for the colour of her skin. I'd say the same thing about the women in this Fall's lineup - I mean, look at who they are. Two of them are Booker shortlisters this year. Three are members of the Order of Canada. We've also got an IMPAC longlister, and the recipient of the inaugural Human Dignity Award from the European Parliament. I'd say the women in this fall's lineup are pretty impressive people. And none of them were invited because of their sex: they were invited because of their talent.

And I really wish I could stop counting women now, but it's a bit like having the Barney song stuck in your head. Argh.

Talk like a 13th Century Pirate - Challenge!

My father just sent me this, from the 18th-Century Literature list he's on: not sure if it's a real assignment, but I'd like to think that it is. (He asked if I'd heard of Talk Like A Pirate Day: arrrr, an' knowin the sort o' scurvy bilge rats crossin' my wake across the Seven Cyber Seas, it's sure as curses in dead men's eyes I'll savvy the High Holy Day o' the Pastafarians...)


I think this assignment is awesome, too. In fact, I'd love to toss it out there as a challenge. (Steve Zytveld, I'm looking at you.) If you want to give this a try, the assignment, as originally posted, is below. Post your translations here in the comments section! (If you post them by Monday, that's extra points. Points are redeemable for 'geek cred,' the standard currency of conventions, comic stores, online discussion boards, and any and all MMORPGs, particularly the ones with pirates. Also legal tender in many fine academic establishments.) 


(N.b. You do not need to be a geek, nerd, or medieval literature student to participate.)


"This coming Sunday, Sept. 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Any of those who have chosen to write at least one two-page paper for their paper options may, for this Monday only, translate any 50 lines of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales into pirate-ese. You must demonstrate understanding of the original text in your translation -- no random translations, please. Your grade will reflect the accuracy and originality of
your translation. I will, of course, take into account different possible readings of lines.

If you need some direction in talking like a pirate, check out this website:

The links from this page are probably more useful than the page itself.

Good luck, have fun with it if you choose the translation exercise, and see you all Monday.

 --James Rovira"

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cool Things Roundup

It's been a hell of a crazy day, so don't mind my moment of geek: is it so wrong that after a long, very exhausting pre-Festival-crunch day, I got home, sat down, and played my cell's ringtone (the sound of the TARDIS taking off) to make myself feel better?

This is the sound, incidentally. It may make you feel better too. Or it might just make you worry about my sanity.

But on my list of other things that have brightened my day (and that are more in keeping with the theme of this blog):

Local storyteller and author Jan Andrews posted today that her children's book The Auction is going to be made into a children's opera. Not only is the idea of an adaptation pretty exciting, but I love the idea of a children's opera. There should be more of that type of thing, please! I'm also pretty happy for Jan. What a cool project to be involved with.

Also, the National Post's Opening Line of the Week was posted today, and it's the first line of John Lavery's brand new novel Sandra Beck. Hooray, it's here! Hooray, it's great! I've been loving John's writing for a long time. Nice to see other people think he's great too.

And I see on Pearl Pirie's blog that Sean Moreland is involved in starting up a new reading series at U of O? The first reading is on the 20th. I'll be working that night (that's the Jane Urquhart reading at the Mayfair) but I want to come check it out when I can!

And, a couple of copies of Ken Sparling's BOOK arrived at the office today. I don't think I've seen a more instantly gorgeous book in a long time. I haven't had a chance to even think of reading it, but that didn't matter. I just wanted to touch it and feel it and flip through the pages and look at the fonts and the way the ink sat on the paper. What stunning design. Sometimes books, as objects, are just awesome.

P.S. Just to head back to the geekiness of the beginning of this post - if you don't know about the blog Letters of Note, you probably should. It's a collection of fascinating letters, memos, faxes and telegrams from around the world, from all sorts of people on all sorts of topics. It's arch, smart, enlightening, and often very funny (one of my personal favorites for this year is the letter from a 14-year-old Slash - yes, that Slash - to his ex-girlfriend.) But that's not the one I liked today. The one I liked today was the response by the BBC to a fan named Ronald's request for blueprints for a Dalek.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's here!

Well, it's finally up and online: the Ottawa Writers Festival fall schedule. I've had my head buried in web design for the last couple of weeks to get this ready to go and I'm actually a day ahead of schedule! Highlights for me? Well, hell, where to start?

I could list all the stuff I want to catch but the truth is, I may be running around in the background, so I can't get my hopes up that I'll be able to make the events I want to see. Good thing we usually video our events for YouTube (and this time with better sound quality, I promise!)

But if I don't get in to see William Gibson on the 24th I'll be very sad. Just sayin.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Raise It (again)

CFSW is coming! CFSW is coming!

The first time I ever attended a slam was at the first Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, which was held here in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada. I've written about the experience before - I'd never seen or heard anything like it. The energy level was amazing - in fact, after one session I remember walking out of the theatre slightly stunned, getting myself home and then just heading to my room to lie down on my bed, feeling like I'd just run a marathon.

It was the idea of people jumping to their feet screaming like rock concert fans, for poetry, that really grabbed me. There was one moment when the judges apparently didn't love someone's piece as much as the audience did, and there was an eruption of 'boo's' for the judges, and then I vividly recall the standing ovation in defiance of the points awarded, where the whole audience clapped and cheered and turned to face the poet as he went back to his seat in the auditorium, and had to be quieted down eventually by the host.

After that, I started seeing Capital Slam ramping up in Ottawa, and slams jumped up all over the country, and a spoken word scene developed, particularly here, that was tight-knit, passionate, and thriving. But it wasn't just Ottawa, it was thriving all over the country. CBC started their Poetry Face-Off contest. From Vancouver to Halifax, poets started popping out of the woodwork. And climbing into vans to drive to each other's cities to perform and crash on other poets' couches. And organizing event after event. I kept thinking that eventually a critical mass would be reached, and we'd reach what the market in Ottawa could bear for competitive spoken word. But it didn't seem to be happening. Then other slams and slam-style performance series started appearing. The Onenesss Poetry Showcase at the East African Restaurant. Urban Legends at Carleton University. Bill Brown's 1-2-3 Slam. Voices of Venus, the women's spoken word series. OutSpoken featured queer spoken word during Pride Week. Lanark Country got a slam series after the inimitable Danielle Grégoire moved to Almonte and started a writing workshop. There are spoken word workshops happening all over, particularly the ongoing Ingredients workshop at Umi Cafe. And Ottawa's slam team took home the gold at the last CFSW, and one of its members, Ian Keteku, recently became the World Spoken Word Champion in Paris.

Oh, yeah, and the Canadian Olympic Committee decided to feature Vancouver poet Shane Koyczan in the Opening Ceremonies this winter. So, a spoken word poet made up part of an international showcase of Canada.

So now CFSW is coming back to Ottawa from October 12-16 (it moves locations from city to city across the country) with all the momentum it's built up, and bringing with it a nation-wide community of people who generally all know, respect, admire and learn from each other. If you haven't heard spoken word before, this would be the place to do it: the best in the country, giving it their best, and an audience that is beyond excited about being there.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back again. With a tiger.

I tried to post this on my old blog... and realized how much I don't like the Tripod blog tool. So, here I am!

Amanda Earl's kicked me into action with a great short rant on her blog about the lack of coverage of literary events in Ottawa. How come a town that's so booming in very cool indie publications covering the arts, fashion, culture and theatre somehow manages to get less publicity for the literary side of things? Not no publicity, but somehow tangibly less. It's a little more lackluster.

I might argue that maybe the literary scene is more insular, but I don't really think that's the case. Maybe all the poets already know each other, and so don't think to promote? Or maybe, as Amanda suggests, people see the word 'poetry' and assume, well, that can't be cool? (and in this case I'm talking about page poetry, since the spoken word scene is booming, and 'cool' is pretty much the word everyone involved in it would use to describe poetry.) 

Don't know. But Amanda said, get out there and blog. So, with my fire lit again (and sadly, just before I'm about to be eaten by the Writers Festival) I'm going to try to get back to blogging.

Although, the Festival is about to eat me. The first event is next Friday, and, coincidentally, I've been wanting to write about it. It's a book launch for John Vaillant's book The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. It's usually pretty hard for me to read all or even most of the books that we feature at the Festival, but I've been giving it a try this season, and I lucked out with The Tiger. It took me only a few days to read. Can I use the word 'gripping' without sounding like a cheeseball?

The book follows a series of actual events in the far eastern corner of Russia, an area called Primorye, which is sandwiched in alongside Mongolia, and is a surprisingly alien place. His descriptions of the land make it sound like the Genesis planet: his coinage for it is 'boreal jungle,' the sort of place where it's 30 below but there are tigers and jaguars alongside the wolverines and caribou, and where the native population, who share a lot of physical traits with the Inuit, are sharing their space with emigrated ethnic Russians from the western end of the country.

The book starts with a hunter who is killed by a Siberian tiger, the world's biggest cat, and with a group of men who are, essentially forest rangers, although out here most of the forest rangers are ex-military, as are a lot of the poachers they deal with. It follows the tiger, which is not just hunting people, but destroying them, leaving virtually nothing behind, and even going after their cabins and destroying those as well, and it follows the men whose job it is to hunt the tiger down and kill it. Along the way it takes in the history and biology of the Siberian tiger, the way in which tigers and humans might once have shared the same ecosystem more or less peaceably, the economic and social dissolution of eastern Russia that forces the local people to poach tigers for the Chinese market, and the psychology of the sort of people who can live in a place as barren and forbidding as Primorye.

The landscape is a character. The cold is a character. The tiger - both the actual tiger and the mythical, mystical, psychological tiger - is definitely a character. And the way in which the story slowly follows the hunt for the tiger, with elegant, graceful side detours into the history of Russia, the lives of the people involved, the local ethnography and mythology, and the harsh realities of the landscape, kept making me stop with my jaw dropped. How did he do that? I'd think to myself, and then dive back in. It was like listening to a really good jazz musician improvising for ages while never really losing the arc of the whole tune.

Admittedly, I also have a certain fascination for survival, for the kinds of people who can accomplish the kinds of physical and mental and emotional feats that these people can, and I love reading about completely unfamiliar places. Score on all counts.

And I've just come across this review from the Seattle Times which says everything I'd like to say, and also had the insight to compare him to John McPhee (albeit they call him "John McPhee on steroids," which makes me giggle, and sort of kind of nod in agreement - especially about the virtuosic and seemingly effortless amount of stunning background detail.) 

Can't wait to hear him read next Friday. (It's at Nicholas Hoare Books, at 7:00, and it's free! Wine and cheese, and blood freezing on the snow. Awesome.)