Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stand up for the Writers Festival

photo by Pearl Pirie
I worked the Writers Festival again this fall (last week, October 20-25.) Since I had to leave the team last winter, it's been a bit of a comfort that they can still bring me back for the week of the Festival to deal with driving and some logistics help and general backstageiness. Really, I feel like even if I had a regular nine to five job I would bank up my personal days to take that week off and work for the Festival.

Every time I do, I remember how exhausting it is, how hectic, and how very, very cool. By a few days in I'm fighting fatigue but still managing to sit in on events, come up to the hospitality suite afterward to talk to people, and get myself home in time to wake up early and do it all over again...

And then there are the amazing guests and the conversations that happen on stage. One evening I walked in to the back of a jammed room and on the stage were Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi and Miriam Toews. I stopped for a moment: sure, I knew about the session, but the full weight of the names in it hadn't quite hit me until I saw them up there chatting with Mike Blouin. The session about love with Kevin Chong, Ann Enright and David Gilmour was about as good an onstage as I've seen.

I have huge admiration for the Festival team for pulling this thing together season after season with the resources and manpower they've got. But that's the thing. They do this - two nationally recognized and acclaimed Festivals a year - with a grand total of three full time staff, a few temporary contracts, and a part-time position. IFOA has thirteen people listed as staff on their website. Vancouver International Writers Festival has twenty. And do note - those festivals run once a year only.

Do you see a bit of a disparity here? What's going on? Twice a year, the Ottawa Writers Festival team pull minor (and not so minor) miracles off; with a fraction - literally a fraction - of the staff and funding of other festivals across the country. In what way is this fair, or appropriate for the capital of the country and a city that has produced some of Canada's finest writers?

I'm adding my voice here to those of people like rob mclennan and Amanda Earl, who have written, on a regular basis, about the mystifying lack of support Ottawa seems to get for the arts. I hear, every Festival, that the literary community in Ottawa can't really imagine the year without the Festivals, how much they look forward to them each spring and fall, how impressed they are with the work that Sean and Neil and Kira and Leslie have been doing to put the Festival together for fifteen years now. Every so often I hear someone talk about how amazing it is that they do what they do with what they have - but not nearly often enough. This is our Festival, and I think we need to stand up for it. Be proud of it.

I think there needs to be more noise made in support of the Festival. People who go, as members of the audience or as participants on stage, and who enjoy it - especially the members of the literary community with some name recognition - should write letters of support (send them to whoever you like, but cc the Festival; they use them in applications for funding.) David Gilmour did, a few years ago, and there was response. If they can do what they do with the funding and manpower they have now, just imagine what they'd be capable of if they were given funding commensurate with the work they do. Funding equal to what other festivals get.

Because this last Festival was really great., by any measure. I can only imagine how good it would be if, like VIWF, they had the staff to make it even greater.

(Incidentally, do you know who's still coming to town through the Writers Festival this fall? Wade Davis, Niall Ferguson, and Steven Pinker. Yeah.)

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