As testament to his popularity, Rick Mercer’s “Final Report” at the Writers Festival had to be moved from a downtown venue to the much larger Centrepointe Theatre. Nearly 1,000 fans showed up to hear their favourite television comic perform in front of a live audience. Host Alan Neal of the CBC created a warm, relaxed atmosphere, but the evening had the pacing of a stand-up show. Mercer keeping the rapt audience laughing through most of the evening. As Neal explained, Rick Mercer – Final Report is a collection of the best rants from the fifteen-year run of the Rick Mercer Report. The book is also interspersed with behind the scenes memories and an homage to the show’s crew and production staff. Listening Mercer’s stories from the road, it was easy to understand how Mercer would build camaraderie among the entire Final Report team.
In taking his readers and the OIWF audience behind the scenes of The Rick Mercer Report, Mercer shared some of the challenges which occurred while filming in more than five hundred different locations. Mercer is a public figure with a very private life. As he told his audience, he has sometimes found it intrusive when he has been asked to describe his home, or the model of the car he drives. However, Mercer eventually opened up aspects of his private life for discussion. Mercer discussed the process of making his own sexuality more public with a rant focussed on the 2011 suicide of Ottawa teenager Jamie Hubley. Mercer also expressed his own sense of responsibility to be a role model along with other gay adults in public life.
Mercer is nothing if not fair, indulging as Neal pointed out in “equal opportunity skewering,” which includes easily laughing at himself. He shared a hysterical story of a conversation with director Norman Jewison, in which Mercer somehow sent a compromising photo of himself to his mother, rather than to Jewison. Mercer’s comic delivery and timing was perfect throughout the performance. Reading the rants and the stories in Final Report, it would be hard not to have his voice in your head.
Mercer told the audience that his reason for bringing the Rick Mercer Report to an end was based on his desire to protect the legacy of the show. Clearly, Final Report is part of that legacy. Mercer’s pride in the Report was evident throughout his performance, especially regarding the Report’s character as one of the last real ‘family shows’ on network television. Mercer had made the decision after the first season when letters were received from parents that nothing should be included in the show that couldn’t be watched by a family with children. It was in this first season, however, that Canadians saw Pierre Berton roll a joint on national television, a story that Mercer told over continuous laughter from the audience.
Mercer’s respect and admiration for Canada’s great icons was evident, as well as his love for, and commitment to our country. As with the show, politics was the theme of the evening. Mercer lamented the lack of the giant figures of yesteryear, demonstrated so clearly during question period in the House of Commons, where Mercer deplored the ongoing lack of decorum. Unsurprisingly, when asked about a quality he would like to see in a Prime Minister, Mercer said “honesty.” However, he made it very clear that politics are not on his horizon. His rants, Mercer pointed out, in his direct and self-deprecating way, do not offer solutions. Mercer encouraged younger members of the audience to dip their toe into the political waters. “You don’t have to have it figured out, he told them “just volunteer and it will be the most exciting thing you have ever done.”
While the overall tenor of the evening was laughter, Mercer shared several important messages, including a plea to the audience, as consumers of media not to settle for brief stories on Snapchat. Mercer reminded the audience to seek out more in-depth news stories, underlining that anything that happens in the US could happen here. “Anyone thinks otherwise is wrong,” he warned. Mercer’s cautionary message made for a sobering end to a hugely successful evening. The perfect blend of seriousness and humour in his last statement captured the essence of Rick Mercer, His show will be missed, but the spirit of the Final Report will last a long time.
The Rt. Hon. Jean Chrétien is one of few politicians who can credibly claim that he has retired to spend more time with his family. Chrétien, who left the public stage after four decades in politics, has successfully transformed himself into a master raconteur. In conversation with Daniel Poliquin at Southminster United Church, Chrétien presented himself as a kind of national grandfather, ready to sit by the fireside filling his audience’s ears with stories. For readers who attended the event on November 1st, Chrétien’s colorful anecdotes told the story of a man who is willing to try almost anything in name of politics. The comfortable conversation between Chrétien and Poliquin also revealed how a multi-lingual nation had been bound together by a jovial, heavily-accented man from Shawinigan.
Chrétien knows how to pull the best lessons out of each of his carefully-selected tales. The art of storytelling and the art of politics are intertwined, and Chrétien has been honing both for years. Pitching his new book, My Stories, My Times, is clearly a pleasant new agenda for the retired prime minister. [Chrétien has previously published two autobiographical works; his new memoir is a more informal collection of stories than Straight from the Heart (1985) and My Years as Prime Minister (2007).] Ever the politician, he quickly deploys a joke to boost interest in the new book. Library and Archives Canada, he confides to Poliquin, had recently pressured him for the promised book manuscript. “Why?” asks Poliquin, amplifying the audience’s curiosity about any salacious details which might be included in My Stories, My Times. “Because they claim I will be the last one to write with a pen!” Chrétien shot back. Working in neat longhand, Jean Chrétien may indeed have been the last prime minister deposit a hand-written manuscript at LAC. Yet Canadian audiences will still want to read the printed pages of Chrétien’s vivid collection of anecdotes.
Largely drawn from My Stories, My Times, the memories which Chrétien shared in in conversation with Poliquin each offered insights into Canadian culture and leadership. Chrétien’s remarks held an underlying reminder not to take oneself too seriously, to accept one’s own imperfections and to keep focused on a few selected values through life’s unpredictable journey. Some of the most amusing stories involved Chrétien’s interactions with the British royal family. He related a story of flying on a small plane with Queen Elizabeth. “The Queen was always speaking in French at me,” confided Chrétien to Poliquin, “You know why?” [He paused for a beat]. “She could not stand my English!” On the same trip, Chrétien admitted, he found himself singing a solo of “O Canada” in French to a crowd of non-Francophones. The scheduled Anglophone singer had cancelled at the last minute, and Chrétien, who was then minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, had yet to learn the English lyrics to the national anthem. The royal family, he reported, has never forgotten the trip. Most of the audience laughed at the anecdote, but it was carefully chosen: in politics, and in life, never forget to get out there and sing as the occasion might demand. This lesson still holds even if you’re sweating profusely, can’t carry a tune and don’t know the words to the song in question. Chrétien’s narrative, as well as his career trajectory, have made it clear that Canada is a better place when we can forgive each other our accents, inflections and mistakes.
Chrétien reminisced about the highs and lows of his career, including the personal attacks he weathered during the Quebec referendum crisis of 1995. Throughout the years, Chrétien has advanced by keeping his eyes on the prize, acknowledging his opposition, and refusing to be derailed by dissent. He advocated for so-called retail politics, stressing the significance of shaking hands with as much of the electorate as possible during his own campaigns. He also seemed very much at peace with his own observance that “when the nation is happy, the people are not [all] necessarily happy.” Over the years, Chrétien has found support and respite in his family life, as well as enjoying the benefits of sleep and “a bit of exercise.”
Family, exercise and nationhood were all interwoven in one of Chrétien’s final anecdotes of the evening. Earlier this year, a few of Chrétien’s children and grandchildren had set up a ski lesson for the retired prime minister and his great-grandson William. Coasting slowly with young William between his knees, Chrétien felt a deep pleasure in fate, grateful that he was healthy enough to teach a third generation of his family how to master a national sports. A few yards down the bunny slope, Chrétien released the boy, who continued along, pulled by on his own momentum and gravity. At the end of the outing, he told young William: “Never forget that you skied for the first time with your great-grandfather!” The boy immediately rebuked Chrétien: “No! I did it alone!” Chrétien beamed as he relayed the boy’s words to the audience: “chip of the old block!” With forty years of elected office under his belt, Jean Chrétien knows when to take credit for a transformative experience, when to give credit to others, and how to spin the whole episode into a usable, charming and funny story. Chrétien’s life to date, as he told Poliquin and the rapt audience, holds no misgivings. “I have done my best,” he concluded, fittingly, “No regrets!”
Moderated by Susan Birkwood of Carleton University, True North was a Sunday evening discussion with two Indigenous authors: Waubgeshig Rice and Eden Robinson. Coincidentally, CBC broadcasts two podcasts, Unreserved and Reclaimed, both of which feature Indigenous voices and emerging music, on Sunday evenings. I listened to both as I drove home. A quick listen to each show reveals the depth and breadth of talent in Canada’s Indigenous communities, as well as passion, humour, and verve. I hope Sunday night does not become an Indigenous programming ghetto. The sold-out crowd which responded gleefully to Rice and Robinson’s banter and reflection indicated that a wide audience for such programming certainly exists.
Waubgeshig Rice, a writer and CBC journalist from the Wasauksing First Nation, opened with a reading from his new novel Moon of Crusted Snow. The novel is a post-apocalyptic tale about a prolonged power outage at a northern reserve. The narrative includes the appearance of an unwelcome white guest who seeks refuge from conditions further south. In the passage Rice read aloud, an elder reflects that there is no word for “apocalypse” in Ojibway. The elder describes the Ojibway world ending over and over – first through being people forced off the land, then through losing their children to residential schools. “We’ve been through ‘apocalypse’ after ‘apocalypse,’ but we survive,” the elder observes.
Eden Robinson, who is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, has won multiple awards for her writing, including a place on the short-list for the Giller prize. Her reading pulled the audience from an atmospheric Northern scene right into the heart of everyday life: a teenage boy dreaming of his girlfriend smoking joints, dying her hair, looking at her phone. It’s a loving scene of normalcy. Trickster Drift, however, is a story of the supernatural infusing life – the boy, Jared, is stalked by his witch mother’s psychotic ex-husband, and is confronted by the supernatural everywhere he turns. As the son of the Trickster, he must come to terms with his true nature to address the forces at work in his life.
Moderator Susan Birkwood began the evening by asking Waubgeshig Rice about his book tour. Rice shifted uncomfortably and said touring was, “You know, fine. A bit of a grind.” He paused, then continued, “But it can be fun - a fun grind.” Eden Robinson cut through the tension with a cackle and a waggle of her eyebrows. “A ‘fun grind,’ eh??” The audience joined in her laughter and Birkwood scrambled to bring the talk back on track.
Rice tended towards darker reflection, describing how a white person recently told him that during the Ottawa tornado he had considered “going to the res” for shelter, not unlike the events in Rice’s Moon of Crusted Snow. Rice observed “He thought he would what – be welcomed? That he was entitled to be there?” Birkwood observed that the white character in Rice’s novel is “a bit of a Windigo” (an evil spirit in Algonquin-speaking people’s mythology). Rice agreed, noting that the “Windigo represents the worst of humanity – he arrives when people are at their weakest.” Rice intended his main character to be an “homage to some honourable men I knew,” pointing out that the band council in the story is also composed of admirable, capable men to combat stereotypes of reservation governments. Robinson jumped in “but he’s (Rice’s main character) got this trouble with his wife, right?” “Right,” Rice acknowledged, “there’s a few ‘rez’ characteristics in there too.”
Though Eden Robinson has written pieces with more specifically political messages – one of her short stories imagines a more extreme Indian Act with violent consequences – she would not let the night be dominated entirely by serious subjects. Bubbling with ribald jokes, Robinson peopled her reflections with loving and hilarious stories of her extended family. Her works are a maniacal mish-mash of worlds. In many of Rice’s stories, the supernatural world reflects indigenous mythology as well as science fiction. Jared is the son of a witch and the Haisla Trickster, while later in the book a ghost in a bathrobe appears and introduces himself as Arthur Dent, the main character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Birkwood wondered if Robinson’s Dr. Who references were intended to invite comparison with Indigenous mythology – a 900-year-old time lord is nothing in an indigenous timeline! Robinson laughed, however, and said that she included them “more for my amusement” than for any specific purpose.
The evening allowed festival-goers to experience two delightfully different authors and works conveying varying aspects of the Indigenous experience, from a northern reservation community to an Indigenous boy finding his way alone in Vancouver. Themes of colonialism, Indigenous identity, and intergenerational trauma emerge organically in distinct stories and characters. Listening to more Indigenous artistic expression on the way home, I reflected on how the large the space is for Indigenous art, the more varied, nuanced and individual voices can be shared - and the richer Canada’s cultural world is for it.
It was with warmth and familiarity that attendees of Arc Poetry Magazine’s 40th anniversary launch were greeted on Tuesday evening. As everyone waited for the stage to get set up, people milled about embracing old colleagues, discussing shared interests, and reminiscing over poems and memories past. Once everyone took their seats, the founding director of the Writer’s Festival, Neil Wilson, took the stage to open the event by thanking the countless people who work to make each event such a joyous success, before inviting Arc Magazine’s associate poetry editor, Frances Boyle, up to host the evening and introduce the featured authors.
First up was Ashley Hynd, whose first-ever publication was in Arc Magazine one year ago. Hynd’s poetry focuses upon reclamation and accountability, and her readings covered broader Indigenous issues as well as more familial experiences. Her work was a delight to listen to, as it was both poignantly personal and specific as well as deeply thought-provoking. Hynd’s reflections on her childhood and family held in them a sense of nostalgia that seemed to echo throughout the evening’s readings.
Next, poet Mary di Michele took the stage to read a selection of her work. A long-time contributor to Arc, she admitted she does not remember the date of her first contribution, but it was clear that she treasures her relationship with the magazine. Di Michele shared poems that spoke of the timeless realities of motherhood, as she compared her own trials and triumphs to those of the Greek lyric poet Sappho. Di Michele also paid homage to a late friend with her poem “Forgetfulness,” and to her father in “The Montreal Book of the Dead.” Both poems imagine a world where those who have passed on are still living among us. Through her beautiful words, Di Michele kept in theme with the evening, by bringing the past into the present.
Halfway through the evening, Boyle changed the pace by announcing Deborah-Anne Tunney as the winner of Arc’s Diana Brebner Prize, for her poem, Our World. The audience was then treated to a reading by Tunney, in which she reflected on the days of her youth not like a moment in time, but more like another place, as she declared, “Somewhere I’m still young.”
When Carolyn Smart took her turn, she reflected on her first time reading for Arc in 1983 with her late friend Bronwen Wallace. She recalled how Wallace used to open her readings by sharing the work of someone else, and in a touching nod to this tradition, she read one of Wallace’s poems before sharing some of her own. The poems she shared from Careen once again blurred the line between the past and present as she read from the perspectives of the notorious Bonnie and Clyde.
At the end of the evening, the crowd was addressed by Robert Hogg, whose poetry was featured in the first issue of Arc. As Hogg read some of the work that was first printed forty years ago, he said that the messages he wrote back then still felt, in some ways, quite pertinent. Perhaps, then, this is the effect of poetry, and the role Arc plays—to preserve the temporary and make it timeless. Hogg’s reading also demonstrated how poetry can carry emotions and experiences into the next moment, where they can resonate with the common collective. As Hogg read his distinctly rural poems, he reflected on how things have changed and how they have remained the same. In his poem Summer of ’63, he made the audience feel as if they too were experiencing the immortal bohemian lifestyle of Hogg and his friends in the 60s, before admitting that most of the people in the poem had now passed on.
Over all, it was a pleasant night of poetry and nostalgia. After nearly half a century, the pivotal role that Arc has played in the lives of countless Canadian writers is clear. From the sample of featured authors, it is evident that the publication provides a platform from which a diverse group of people can have their voices heard. Arc creates a sense of community within the Canadian literary community that is cherished and well-deserving of such a wonderful celebration.
Kids in pods? Virtual reality glasses beaming math problems into children’s eyes? Whose idea of a bright future was this, asked Kelly Gallagher-Mackay as she glared at a magazine cover blaring the headline “Future Schools.”
If you, too, feel horrified at this techno-dystopian vision then you’ll feel glad of the alternatives discussed by authors Nancy Steinhauer and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay in their new book Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today. Both authors appeared on stage Saturday evening with adept moderator Julie Garlen, associate professor and co-director of Child Studies at Carleton University.
Together, Steinhauer and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay explored crucial questions being increasingly asked by the Canadian public. In a world of rapidly changing technological, economic, and social conditions, how do we prepare children for the future ahead? More to the point, how can we equip people for challenges we can’t even imagine?
In confronting these questions, both authors are armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Nancy Steinhauer has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Education; she also received Canada’s Outstanding Principals Award. Co-author Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is a lawyer who also holds Ph.D. in Education Policy. Together, Steinhauer and Gallagher-Mackay wrote Pushing the Limits as a way of addressing the deep public hunger to understand how schools can ready us for life in the 21st century. Their book is a timely call to find answers that are badly needed.
Our nation is riddled with social problems, not the least of them being unemployable graduates. It is past time to ask “what are schools doing?” We can of course expect the usual stock answers, such as "Preparing children for life.” But these slogans are now offered meekly, as if in fear that the listener may laugh.
As with all our institutions, political, judicial, and medical, education must be based on first principles. Schools are a profound moral imperative, as their only legitimate purpose is to create human welfare. Now, we must stop to ask if schools are really maximizing human welfare through reading, writing, and arithmetic. Here, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay assured the audience that she is not opposed to reading and writing, only the idea that these traditional endeavors should be the sole goals of public education.
Gallagher-Mackay continued by pointing out that many of our provincial curricula were first articulated over a century ago. Back when Canadian public schools were first formed, our society was just stepping out from the Victorian age, and women were not allowed so much as a vote. Safe to say the era held an limited view of what it means to be human. This has since produced our current impoverished view of education. At present, the schooling system is the echo of a darker past. It is not so much broken as obsolete. There is an old maxim about the pointlessness of training soldiers to fight the last war. It conjures up the picture of fighting the dangers of cyberspace from horseback with sabres.
And so modern parents find that, far from strengthening childrens’ minds, schools are infantilizing them, leading to a childhood extending well into adulthood. Clearly, test-taking is not a character-building skill.
Progressive educators regularly face indignation from those protecting the status quo. Yet even more frequently, the authors find the desire to break through the barriers of a stagnant system to create something new. Fortunately, a growing number of schools are experimenting with different curriculums.
Nancy Steinhauer explains that Ottawa contains more schools with programs of choice than anywhere else in Canada. She has also been involved with “Measuring What Matters,” an initiative designed to help define the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century. These include social and emotional skills, citizenship values, and even digital citizenship; the latter is an under-appreciated yet increasingly vital part of education.
Pushing the Limits offers hope for the future of public schooling. Authors Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer step onto the ideological battlefield to bravely face the entrenched status quo. Their book provides optimism and guidance for those looking to join the steep fight ahead. The battle for education cannot be left to a policy of wait and see. It is a war for the future itself. From a previous battleground we find a sentiment resounding deeply from Abraham Lincoln. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . . As our case is new, so we must think anew.” That's pretty much the heart of it.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." – Raymond Chandler
The line-up was not the usual suspects. Three of Canada’s top murder mystery authors sat before the crowd, ready for interrogation: Ron Corbett, Barbara Fradkin, and Amy Stuart. The accusation? Writing suspenseful, thrilling, violent mysteries. The point of the inquiry? How can such lovely, seemingly normal people, write such grisly heinous crimes?
In hot pursuit of the craft of writing, participants in the Ottawa International Writers Festival embarked on an intriguing investigation into the chilling secrets behind the minds which generate Canada’s best mystery fiction. With Daniel Bezalel Richardsen as lead detective, a night of sleuthing commenced. Each author read a brief passage from their work and then joined together on stage as Richardsen unearthed the most devious and foolhardy tricks of their trade.
Accused No. 1, Barbara Fradkin, began with an admission that her friends often question how such a caring healer of souls can write about murder. Pleading not guilty, Fradkin said that the point of her writing is not violence. Instead, she argued that crime writers are always trying to set the world right. Her protagonist Amanda Doucette was born out of the headlines of “today’s modern chaos.” When Fradkin read news reports about the Boko Haram kidnappings, she asked herself: what is the story behind the story? What about the parents, the children, the aid workers? What happens in their lives after the headlines disappear? The character of Amanda was born. An aid worker on a cross-country charity tour, Amanda is trying to find redemption and a new path in life. Fradkin said her villains are ordinary people, not psychopaths. “I want to deal with us folks. What drives us to desperate ends?” There is a fine line between a hero and a villain said Fradkin. She wants her readers to ask: "What would I do in that situation? There but for the grace of God go I!” she told the audience. “We could all step over the line, but we could all step back too.”
Accused No. 2, Amy Stuart, also denied the charges. Stuart doesn’t see her books as violent. Her books are about normal people facing challenging situations. When writing, Stuart delves into the psychology behind her characters and explores what it means to love, to be lost and to lose, how we behave when we are afraid. She used location as a device in her best-seller Still Mine to place her protagonist Clare in difficult environments where the she felt lost and her sensitivity and reactions became heightened. Stuart’s books ask questions: how far would you go to protect the people you love? How far would you go to defend your values? Belief in today’s world is a moving target, claims Stuart. If a person believes something is true, they can be motivated to do terrible things in the name of that truth. In her writing, Stuart explores how far people will go and what happens when two people see or remember a “truth” differently. The lines of right and wrong are often heaped in complexities she pointed out. “I have three kids.” She told the audience. “What would you do to protect your kids?” she asked. Her answer, “There’s not much I wouldn’t do.”
Finally, Accused No. 3, Ron Corbett shocked the crowds when he outright pled guilty. “I like violence,” he said point blank to the onlooking crowds. His hard-boiled admission had them glued to their seats like a fist to a bloodied mug. Corbett began his admission of guilt: “I wanted to write a violent story. . . I wanted to write a gritty and unabashedly violent story.” But what were his motives? From where did Corbett learn his art of plotting? What were the sources for his gripping Frank Yakabuski mysteries about squatter’s cabins, fishing guides, and infamous biker gangs? Corbett said he takes his cues from his years as a journalist in Ottawa, as well as the pages of Canadian history books. “This country should own noir,” he told the captivated audience. By way of justification, he recounted the 1608 beheading of Jean Duval for plotting against Champlain. Heads were hanging on the gates of Quebec he told the audience. “This is a country that is made from violent stories,” said Corbett. “Nobody talks about it.”
Case closed. Guilty as charged.
How do you talk about a story without revealing the ending? This was a particularly difficult question for Mclean's John Geddes as he engaged Craig Davidson and Iain Reid in conversation on Monday evening. Both Davidson and Reid have written tension-filled, propulsive stories that build toward revelations which change the reader’s understanding of their respective narratives. Geddes handled the discussion well, building the audience’s interest without revealing any spoilers.
Craig Davidson opened the evening with a reading from his new novel, The Saturday Night Ghost Club. The passages which Davidson had selected showcased the strengths of his book, especially its narrative tension and profound sense of place. Memory – its malleability and fallibility and, most of all, its power – lies at the heart of this book. Davidson’s well-chosen passages immersed the audience into his narrator’s past.
Iain Reid read from the opening of his new novel, Foe. The tension and unease that run through much of the book were evident in his reading. Immediately, the audience was introduced to the main characters, Junior and Hen, whose marriage is the centre of the story. For those in the audience that hadn’t yet read the book, this small taste surely left them wanting to know more.
So what can you talk about then, if you can’t talk about plot? Well, quite a lot, actually. Both Davidson and Reid discussed their approach the writing process. Davidson talked about the evolution of his narrator. In the finished book, the narrator, Jake, is a brain surgeon but in the first drafts he was “just Jake.” As Davidson’s fascination with surgeons and the brain deepened during his research, he decided that the protagonist of The Saturday Night Ghost Club would be a neurosurgeon. Reid talked of how he had started Foe from a single image of a rural couple living in separate rooms. He wrote his way into the story, using no outline.
There is lot of common ground for these writers. Davidson’s first book, the short story collection Rust and Bone, was made into a film and both of Reid’s novels will find their way onto the screen. (The screen version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Reid’s first novel, will be written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Foe was optioned for film before it was even published.) Both Davidson and Reid view the film versions of their work as happy surprises. As pleased as they each are to have their writing translated to film, neither writer tries to exert creative control over the movie versions of their books.
Geddes, Davidson and Reed were pleasingly at ease with each other and each author’s adept anecdote delivery made the hour on stage move quickly. Want to know what happens in these books? Better get a copy!
The Manx Pub on Elgin Street is a beautiful space for a poetry reading, at once intimate and comforting. The Manx also holds a special place in the heart of Ottawa’s poetry community. Instead of the usual bar-side televisions, the Manx boasts large bookshelves stuffed with the works of those who have read at the pub. Changing displays of works by artists like Alootook Ipellie fill the walls. And, as poet Paul Vermeersch tells the packed audience on October 28, it’s the bar where he and his wife went on their first date. The Manx is more than a bar, more than a well-loved basement pub; it’s a metaphor for the poetry community in Ottawa as a whole. Here are familiar faces, but new faces, too—a room so packed that latecomers stand quietly in vestibule, or sit on the floor. This is the annual poetry night presented by Plan 99 in Ottawa, hosting Vermeersh as well as Deanna Young, Julie Bruck, and Hana Shafi.
Deanna Young takes the microphone first, reading from her newest collection Reunion. “Before I came tonight, I wasn’t sure what to read,” she says by way of introduction. “And Paul said, ‘Don’t worry—just shake it up.’ So I’m going to read poems I’ve never read before.” Young's voice has a soothing cadence, matched by the indelible rhythm of her poems—work which builds a tapestry of myth into and around everyday life. Her poems are brutally honest, refusing to shy away from bone-deep fear, blooming into vibrant imagery of damnation and salvation, transformation and stagnation, hope and murder. Life, she seems to say, is full of darkness; there are cruelties, both internal and external, which must be reconciled. “The shadows among us—How will we embrace them now?” she reads. Hanging on the wall behind her, one of Ipellie’s images frames a face reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno—a cavernous mouth split open in a laugh or a scream.
Julie Bruck reads next, and her poems, too, attempt to reconcile darkness with hope. The poems she selects are a series of portraits, as gentle as they are sorrowful. One piece is a confession of unkindness towards her mother, who suffers from dementia—a eulogy-in-progress not of her mother, but of their relationship. Another is a portrait of a young man in the wilderness asking her for directions, which, by the end of the poem, we are to understand, direct him in his quest for his own death. Other poems are more whimsical and sentimental but mourning, still, in their own way—odes to the twin fear and hope of raising a teenager, to outdated analogue technology and the lost, remembered sense of film winding or unwinding between the hands.
The last light of the day has long since been coaxed through the small windows of the bar by the time Hana Shafi begins to read, but the soft light of the bar gleams pleasantly up and off the warm copper tables. Shafi has a comforting energy, like the sort of person you feel you can tell anything, and the way she leans into the microphone makes the audience lean forward, too. It’s as though she’s about to give voice to a secret. In a way, Safi does reveal secrets—laying bare anxieties large and small, the sense that she both belongs and is rejected from her own skin, her own neighbourhood, her own art. “Who is going to love us?” one poem demands. “The severe women? The women made of thunder?” Shafi is anything but severe, but the thunder of her voice and her presence ripples through the room, her humour tempered by grief and rage.
Paul Vermeersch, the last reader of the night, is charming in a way that seems almost unreal—standing before a packed room in a teal blazer which somehow lends him both whimsy and gravitas. His poems, from his newest collection Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy, are intended, he says, “to offer a grim hope”—and so they do. He includes nursery rhymes redacted like government documents, fables which warn us away from darkness, from wilderness, from the unknown, and above all insist they transmit information designed to keep the reader safe from danger—whether that danger comes from within or without. “Only stories want us to live. The wolf lies in wait to devour us,” he says, gravely, as though for our own good. “The sun already wants to burn you. Do not provoke it.”
Taken together, these poets and poems remind us of the darkness of our times—murder, danger, violence, and anxiety. But they also remind us of kindness, of human connection, of the ways in which we can and do come together against the dark. Young, Bruck, Shafi, and Vermeersch are quick to frame their poems as cautionary tales—against cruelty, against hopelessness, and against terror. And yet the overall tone of the night convinces us, against all odds, that neither these poets nor their listeners are truly solitary in their quest for a better world. This conclusion alone is a worthy cause for hope.
Last Sunday night, in a warm conversation led by Peter Robb of Artsfile, Alix Hawley and Natalie Morrill shared wisdom that their writing has helped them to uncover. (Wayne Grady was unfortunately unable to share the stage and to discuss his most recent novel Up from Freedom because of a family bout of flu).
Both Morrill and Hawley traced their novel’s conception to images from their own childhoods. Morrill remembered being lifted by her parents to see overtop a glass shard lined cement wall in Vienna. Suspended and held there for a few moments, she saw the neglected and overgrown Wahring Cemetery, an eighteenth-century Jewish burial ground. That memory stayed with her as she grew up and came to understand why descendents were not caring for their ancestors’ graves, ultimately laying the groundwork for her first novel, The Ghost Keeper. After completing her short story collection, The Old Familiar (2008), Alix Hawley found herself remembering a pen-and-ink drawing of a man carrying his son’s bleeding body. The desire to identify that image, as well as help from a librarian, brought Hawley to the drawing she remembered in a National Geographic article about Daniel Boone. The image of Boone with his son inspired both Hawley’s first novel, All True Not a Lie in It (2015) and this year's sequel, My Name is a Knife.
The mysterious pull of those remembered images fueled the creative process for both authors. As they heard and answered the image’s questions through both research and imagination, their narratives unfolded. Both authors read aloud from their works during the evening’s presentation. Morrill had a selected a passage where her protagonist Josef watches and cares for a stealthy fox which moves about the graveyard. Hawley read a section from All True Not a Lie in It which describes Daniel Boone coming home to his wife in the dark. In each of the readings, it was easy to sense the authors’ search for the humanity that lives inside their stories, perhaps inside every story, including those unfolding in our present world. In Morrill’s selection from The Ghost Keeper, a man tries to make sense of himself and of his and his people’s past. Morrill’s character Josef stands transfixed by the complexity of the story he wishes to tell, knowing there is not one single path or person to follow in telling it with justice. According to Morrill, Josef is presented in keeping with Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth/ but tell it slant.” Morrill gives Josef a second voice, a third-person narrator, to help him tell his story. Hawley too explores truth in complexity “from the side” by giving both Daniel Boone and his wife Rebecca a voice to tell the story of their lives together. In Hawley’s selected passage, the audience heard a woman trying to make sense of both her husband and of herself.
Both Morrill and Hawley spoke of knowing instinctively that stories and characters have something to teach us as readers when we enter fictional worlds to seek truth. Hawley suggested that the novelist’s job is to take what can be known through research and to fill in the holes, or to “imagine ourselves in the gaps.” Morrill spoke of a “huge responsibility to be faithful to the facts,” as well as of the need to imagine oneself in the world of a real person. For both writers, thoughtful historical research always guides the creation of a character’s experience. Hawley discussed her need to “confront the ugliness” in her novel’s time period, while Morrill stressed her desire to shine light on both humanity and tragedy during the 1930s and 40s. In their readings and in discussion, both Natalie Morrill and Alix Hawley illustrated the importance of reading with empathy, understanding complexity, as well as the duty of combining imagination with truth, fairness and respect.
Mothers are strong influences on the page, as in life—that’s one of the striking similarities between the memoirs by Darrel J. McLeod, the author of Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age and Tom Wilson, the author of Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home.
McLeod’s mother, Bertha, had a personality larger than life. “She was the most doting mother,” McLeod remembered, referring to his early childhood. Later, home life grew chaotic and unstable, as his mother took up drinking. McLeod’s mother was a residential school survivor who managed to hold tight to her Cree heritage. In turn, she instilled a deep sense of cultural pride in McLeod.
Meanwhile, Tom Wilson writes about his two mothers in Beautiful Scars. There’s the only mother he’d ever known, Bunny Wilson, who would turn out to be his adoptive mother. And then there’s his cousin, Janie Lazare, who would turn out to be his biological mother (or as Wilson lovingly refers to her—his “cousin-mother”). The discovery of his complex parentage also sheds light on Wilson’s Mohawk roots, which ran in deep contrast to his “Steeltown” Hamilton upbringing.
When Wilson started his book, he was angry with both mothers and his adoptive father too. However, the process of writing Beautiful Scars allowed him to channel his anger and move past it. As he told the audience, his negative feelings began to dissolve as he wrote. “The love that I had . . . started to come out. It was completely freeing. And it allowed me to write honestly and truthfully,” observed Wilson. It also saved him hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy, he joked.
McLeod echoed Wilson’s reference to psychiatry —he’d already spent tens of thousands of dollars on therapy before he had started Mamaskatch. Thankfully, McLeod’s therapy enabled him to begin his book as a labour of love. Indeed, McLeod wrote Mamaskatch to help those like him, who have endured trauma.
“I didn’t want to mask the challenges and the hurt and the trauma I went through,” said McLeod. The reading McLeod shared was raw with emotion and humanity. Seamlessly interweaving English and French dialogue, he read aloud a passage from Mamaskatch in which he was a young man working as an orderly and psychiatric worker. It was particularly moving to hear of McLeod’s experience with Philippe, a psychiatric patient who had been placed on suicide watch after surviving gunshot wound to the head. In the exchange with Philippe, McLeod related the story of his sister, Debbie, who committed suicide. Later, the audience learns that three of McLeod’s siblings committed suicide. The McLeod family tragedy magnifies a national crisis: the suicide rate of Indigenous people is four times that of non-Indigenous people in Canada.
Unquestionably, these memoirs both delivered on their promise of revealing intimate details about the authors, their lives and families. For Wilson, the discovery of his adoptive history outlined in his memoir was preceded by sharing his family secret on CBC radio. Penguin Random House Canada reached out to the three-time Juno-winning Canadian musician to write his memoir after the broadcast. Wilson’s first reaction was to say no. How would he write 70,000 words when, as a musician, he was accustomed to communicating in three verses and a chorus? “That’s like going from a Fiat to a Cadillac Escalade,” noted Wilson. But Wilson brought his lyrical talent to the page, interweaving poetry with narrative. True to form, Wilson read and sang during the OIWF and Ottawa Public Library-sponsored event.
At their most basic, memoirs are life stories. But sometimes, memoirs are a glimpse into more life yet still to live. “The book is a journey I’m still on—the story is in complete motion right now,” says Wilson. Other times, memoirs have a life of their own before an author breathes them new life on the page. “It was giving life to something that already existed. I was just the channel,” says McLeod of his memoir, a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Awards. It took up the better part of six years to complete, but after two years he knew he had something special.