Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Episode Three: Montreal by Words

In the third installment of Montreal by Words, which we call the Food Episode, we talk about Montreal as a food city, a discussion with Jonathan Cheung of Appetite for Books, and we also talk to writer Jonah Campbell about his hilarious collection of short pieces, Food & Trembling.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Poet Laureates and Angry Reactions

So the poet Natasha Tretheway was named as the US Poet Laureate this week. Another well-known poet, whose name I won't mention, then wrote a scathing post on his Facebook page about her lack of talent and how poetry has been dumbed down (some clumsy metaphor about lowering the bar so low, we trip on it).

A lesson in the dangers of emotional reactions, I guess. I am all for strong opinions about writers and their work, but reacting in anger or frustration seems like such a dangerous road to go down. I learned the lesson long ago that writing just about anything while angry (Facebook posts, emails, blog posts) is never a good idea and always ends up being something I regret terribly.

Part of what Mr. Angry Poet reacts to, perhaps, is the simplicity of Trethaway's language. She is not, it's true, an overtly complex poet. Yet this tendency for certain male writers to dismiss certain female writers as talentless seems so 1962.  It gets at the heart of a common question I get: about which writers I would never invite. Last night over dinner, I was debating this with someone I had just met: whether a literary festival needs "good" writers in order to be considered successful. And it's something I feel strongly about: while "good" writers are fine, my goals as a Programming Director are to create interesting, complex and, yes, entertaining events. If that means including writers who are not considered "serious" or "good" writers, I really couldn't care less.

Another aspect of criticism easy to throw at Trethaway is how her "story" often seems to supersede her work, as if the details of her biography and those influences on her poems are an integral part of her poems. They shouldn't be. Naturally, though, her experience does reflect a certain kind of American experience and Tretheway's exploration of race and class in modern America does seem to capture something important. But her poetry is very "accessible" (the word my former advisor used to use to dismiss a writer as "not serious," as if an inaccessible writer is naturally smarter. Please. "Inaccessibility" often just strikes me as bad writing. Period).
Natasha Tretheway

Of course, we can't have a Festival with just NYT bestsellers and we do need to present a wide array of writers (representing different ages, genders, life experience, etc.) so that we can appeal to as many different kinds of public as we can. But though I am a bit of a snob in terms of my own personal reading habits, I don't approach festival programming in the same way. As I often say, it's not "my" festival.

No matter how one feels about her work, Natasha Tretheway would be a great "get" for us though I imagine now she's going to be quite in demand so if anyone's hoping to see her in 2013, it's a long shot.

Incidentally, I am fascinated by Tretheway's work and her story personally. That said, I respect Mr. Angry Poet's work a lot more and find his work to be full of subtlety, humour, and intelligence.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

William Least Heat-Moon

In discussing our long list of potential 2013 Grand Prize winners, the writer William Least Heat-Moon came up in conversation. He's a writer I kind of forgot about though I remember reading his book, PrairyErth, when I was an undergraduate and being amazed by it. The book chronicles the writer's journey on foot through a rural county of Kansas, the people he meets, the stories he hears. As in his earlier book, Blue Highways (though this one spans a larger geographical area), Heat-Moon is a fascinating travel companion. He is so open to people, almost never judgemental, and his analyses and reflections seem to represent a time in North America that is long gone (though the book is only 30 years old).

I've been re-reading Blue Highways this week and I am struck again at the complexity of thought that emanates from a simple journey. Before cell phones, before Google maps, the author has to learn about where he goes by talking to the local people, hearing their colourful language and historical memories contained in day to day stories.

There is also a good deal about class though not overtly: the people he meets are often poor, uneducated, both suspicious of and open to "Northerners" or city people (outsiders generally). But the author delves into their stories as if these poor and isolated rural people were the movers and shakers. Like Studs Terkel, who also overcame that writer's knee-jerk tendency towards misanthropy, Heat-Moon finds value in those lives we often don't value.

Though I am no Luddite, Blue Highways resonates with me because it underscores the isolation that is more common in our contemporary lives. We all have such vast pools of knowledge at our fingertips but that ability also cuts us off from one another, all staring into our own separate illuminated boxes, countless faces all staring into these machines late into the night, fewer face to face conversations, less understanding of each other through just sitting down and getting the story directly from those who live it.

Peppered with photographs of the people he meets on his journey, the book is as visually appealing as it is textually engaging. In fact, a CNN piece I found last night revisits some of the people and places the author features in his book, thirty years later.

It's been a real treat re-connecting with this writer who I was such a fan of when I was in my early 20s. Often writers we like when we are young we grow out of, but not in this case. I hope I feel as thrilled to read William Least Heat-Moon in another 20 years.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Montreal by Words, Episode 2

Episode Two of Montreal by Words

Daniel Allen Cox, the "enfant terrible" of Canadian writing, talks about his new novel,Basement of Wolves, which is set in the contemporary film world of Hollywood. Cox talks about how his travels seep into his work and how cities play a role in his creative life.

Check out the podcast here.