Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Road Trip Report

What a weekend it was. After flying to Dorval on Thursday, I caught a train to Ottawa, where I was picked up by my uncle Stewart. From there, we went out for Chinese food. It's always great to see Stewart and his partner Judith, with whom I lived for a year back in the early nineties. They were so taken with Anything But Hank! that they bought 6 copies.

The next morning was an occasion for slight anxiety. I had told the organizers of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, by email, that I wouldn't be staying at the hotel, but never got a response. I was supposed to get picked up Friday morning by Kate Hunt, a Festival staffer, to go out to Stittsville, a small town-cum-suburb west of Ottawa, for a reading at the Stittsville Public School. When it started getting late, I called the school. Fortunately, so did Kate, after finding out that I hadn't checked in to the hotel. We got to the school about 15 minutes late, but it went well from there. Over 200 6 and 7 year olds filed into the school gym. I had them sit in a semi-circle, three or four rows deep, around the three-point line of the basketball court. Reading with a cordless mic (and a device for two hearing-impaired kids attached to my ear), I walked around the area inside the three-point line, reading and showing the pictures to the kids. Kate helped out by covering the side of the semi-circle I wasn't on. The kids loved the story, laughing and reacting wonderfully. The great thing about kids is they don't pretend to like something. If only their parents had been there, I'm sure I'd have sold dozens of books. As it is, the school bought 2 copies. Whatever--it was really fun.

After the reading, Kate drove me back into Ottawa and the National Archives, the main site for festival events. I caught Steven Heighton and Sonnet L'Abbé giving a "master class" on form and emotion in poetry. Some interesting insights--and was flattered that Steven quoted a piece of criticism I wrote--but the thing could have been structured better on the whole. Had lunch with Steven and Sonnet afterwards, which was very cool. I met Steven some years back, when he was writer-in-res at Concordia, and we've corresponded some, but hadn't hung out with him before. He's an awesome poet and every bit a gentleman. As is so often the case, tho Sonnet and I live in the same town, this was the first time we'd hung out in a while, which is too bad because I enjoy her company and conversation.

Kate and I headed back out at 3, for my reading of ABH at the Inuit Children's Centre in Vanier. This was a much more intimate event than the morning's reading, with only 6 or 7 kids, but it was a treat. I get a bit nostalgic for the north sometimes and have always had a soft spot for sarcastic smartass Inuit kids. A couple of the kids in the group had clear learning/behavioural issues, but they were a good group and mostly listened attentively. The Centre seemed like a really positive place.

After dinner in the foyer of the Archives, I caught a couple of cool non-fiction talks, one by Dan Falk on the subject of time and another by the renowned physicist Leonard Susskind, with whom I broke bread in the foyer, on the subject of black holes, relativity and quantum physics. Susskind's from the Bronx and very down-to-earth. Obviously brilliant, but never going over the heads of the laypeople in the audience. Super funny guy, too. I bought his book and look forward to reading it.

After that, took in a talk by Mark Kingwell and John Lorinc on "Livable Cities." Kingwell's presentation was fascinating. Lorinc had some good things to say, but seemed to be nervous or uncomfortable with public speaking. It was hard to follow his speech for all the nervous tics in it. There was an extensive Q&A session afterwards. For obvious reasons, the question of creating sustainable, vibrant cities is on a lot of people's minds.

That was the last event of the evening, after which I made my way to the hospitality suite at the Delta Hotel, where the beer flowed like wine. All night. After hours of stimulating conversation and liquid depressants, I caught a cab back to my uncle's at 4:30 am.

I arose at 10, so I wouldn't miss Steven Pinker's interview at noon. The auditorium was packed. The host didn't seem to be all that well-prepared for the interview, but Pinker, not surprisingly, had a lot of interesting things to say. The Q&A was almost comic, as several audience members were bent on asking basically the same question about linguistic determinism, and to each in turn, Pinker said that people don't think fundamentally different thoughts because they speak different languages.

Right after Pinker was the Jailbreaks launch in the foyer. On-hand to read were Stephen Brockwell, Colin Carberry, Geoffrey Cook, Mary Dalton and Joshua Trotter. Stephen Brockwell was the official host, so he introduced me, after which I took over and introduced each of the other readers, reading sonnets by absent Ottawa-area poets in between readers. The reading went very well, and was even recorded by CTV. (What became of that footage, I have no idea.) I'm not sure, but I think there were around 30 or so people in attendance. It might have been better, but the reading was scheduled at the same time as a talk by Jay Ingram and Andrew Weaver on global warming. I know I'd've gone to that if I wasn't reading. Nevertheless, saw some old friends, as well as my aunt, and had some terrific responses from other audience members.

After the reading, I went out into the pouring rain with Colin Carberry and his wife for a drink and bite to eat at the Delta. Had a fine talk, mostly on the subject of various misadventures we'd had under the influence. Not surprisingly, our language got a bit salty and Colin said afterward we were getting dirty looks from some of the other patrons. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!

At 6, I caught the fiction reading, with David Bergen, Bill Gaston and Rawi Hage. I found Bergen's reading pretty pedestrian; there were some things I liked in Gaston's; but Hage stole the show, reading from his new novel, Cockroach. The Q&A afterward was fascinating. There was a fair bit of antagonism between Hage, host Sean Wilson and the other readers. Hage described his book as "political" at one point, to which all three others said they didn't think it was. "What are you talking about?" said Hage "My book has gay Iranian characters, of course it's political." To which Bergen, I think, said that the book wasn't political, even if Hage's intentions were. At this point it became clear to me that everyone but Hage was using the term "political" to mean that it was ideological propaganda. Canadian writers seem so well-trained to despise the political that it's become a dirty word. Once it was clear that this was not Hage's meaning, Bergen and Gaston conceded that their books, too, were political. I also liked something Hage said about his writing process; that he doesn't plan his books, he just sits down to write and see what comes out. "I'm a smart guy, I've read a lot and I'm concerned with many things going on in the world" is basically what he said, "so why shouldn't I be able to sit down and write a book?" He said he wrote the already-multiple-award-nominated Cockroach very quickly. I bought a copy and got him to sign it. I've started to read it, and really like it so far. It's way more vital than most of the contemporary fiction I've come across in this country. I told Hage I was planning to read the book and give it to someone else afterwards, for which I apologized, since I know he wouldn't make as much money as he would if I bought two. He said it was good that I was sharing the book, then laughed and said he didn't have to worry much about money these days.

At 8, I attended the Poetry Cabaret, with Meredith Quartermain, Dannabang Kuwabong and Monty Reid. This was one of the weakest events I took in. Quartermain's work, from her new book Matter, was mostly intellectual noodlings and aimless wordplay. Kuwabong's was mostly a kind of naive lyricism. Reid's, a kind of muted confessionalism, was a bit more interesting, but didn't really jingle my bells. In the Q&A, I got a bit annoyed with Quartermain's facile distinction between lyric poetry and poetry that is "interested in language." But I didn't get as annoyed as JW Curry, who stormed out of the room when Kuwabong said, at the end of a story about a woman's encounter with his work, that "she bought four books, and that's all that matters."

I headed back over to the hospitality suite, intending to stay a short time, since I had a train to Montreal at 9:50 the next morning. At 4 am, I grabbed a cab back to my uncle's for a brief rest before getting up to leave. Managed to snooze a bit on the train, but it's not a long ride. In the cab from the Montreal station, I found myself feeling nostalgic, heading north up Avenue du Parc into Mile End, a neighbourhood I lived in off and on for three years, where I was staying with my friends Leigh Kotsilidis and Zach Gaviller. Had some fresh hot Montreal bagels with them, after which we were joined by Josh Trotter and his girlfriend Aliya and later Gabe Foreman and his girlfriend Amy Chartrand. These people, along with Jeramy Dodds and Mathias Kom, I first met in 2006 when I stopped in Peterborough on my cross-country tour. We've since hung out several times hither and yon, and I have to say they're some of my favourite folks in the country. I'm glad that so many of them have relocated to Montreal, as I'll be seeing a fair bit of the city once we move back to Halifax.

After checking out the Drawn and Quarterly store, we headed out for supper on Prince Arthur at a Greek BYOB restaurant. From there, we headed west a few blocks for the Arc/Jailbreaks launch at Ye Olde Orchard Pub. Here, I saw several other friends I'd not seen in a while, including Stephanie Bolster, Susan Gillis, Carmine Starnino, Anita Lahey, Peter Richardson, Robyn Sarah, Asa Boxer, and Chris "Zeke" Hand. Anita emceed the Arc portion of the evening. Highlights were Asa's reading of his very funny poem about Ikea as a Dantean inferno and Carmine's of his poem about running into a possible alter-ego at a hotel in St. John, NB. After a musical interlude, Anita introduced me and I took over for the Jailbreaks reading, which I needn't tell you about, since I posted the audio below. A highlight for me was Carmine deciding to read Rob Allen's sonnet instead of his own, which opened the door for me to read Carmine's sonnet. The reading was a lot of fun.

But Ye Olde Orchard, thanks to its halogen lighting, was too damn hot, so we left for a pub on Duluth, where a crowd of us drank till they kicked us out. I walked back to Leigh and Zach's with Josh and Aliya, but lost them after ducking into an alley off St. Laurent for a piss. Assuming they were ahead of me, I hustled along, but didn't catch them up. When I got back, they weren't there. I was concerned that they might have got lost, since they weren't that familiar with Montreal, but after about a half hour they turned up. Seems they were waiting for me to return for the alley, but I came out of it further north than I'd gone into it, assuming they'd kept walking. We had a nightcap and a bit more chat before retiring, again well past four.

Monday, I had a late breakfast with Josh and Aliya at a cafe on Bernard. I wasn't crazy about Montreal during my sojourn there, but have always loved Mile End. There's something way cooler about cafes in Montreal than in just about any other city in Canada. Aliya, who lives in London right now, said as much. Not too many places where you can have brunch on a Monday while listening to live jazz.

I packed up and said my goodbyes to Josh and Aliya, then grabbed a cab to the Dorval airport for a flight back to Vancouver. What a very full weekend. Lots of memories. But best of all was coming in the door to see Kaleb and Rachel at the end of it all. Stimulating and gratifying as all this literary hobnobbing is, it's not what sustains a person and it's certainly not what keeps one grounded. Not that I'm not looking forward to more down the road.


Brian Campbell said...

It was good to see you. And the place was too damned hot.

Zachariah Wells said...

Likewise, good to meet you in what my buddy Lyle calls the "meatspace."

Zachary said...

It was great having you buddy. Not in the biblical sense of course. But being my namesake and i being yours I think we owe it to Canadian poetry to keep all the other Zachs out!

Come back. And you are right. "Montreal is the new Peterborough."