Writing is a solitary occupation, so it’s no surprise writers hunger for a chance to hang out, share a glass of wine (or beer) and compare notes. As Canadian poetry icon Susan Musgrave has said, writers have been described as ‘gregarious loners.’ “So when you need people, you really need them, but when you need solitude, you really need that too.”
This year’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival (July 12–15) brought a stellar cast of authors to the gorgeous lakeside setting of Nelson, BC, including Musgrave, author Esi Edugyan and husband Steven Price. Musgrave gave us all a great gift with her candour, emotional honesty and incisive humour. That she came at all when her husband, author Stephen Reid, only died a month ago is testament to her courage and generosity. Her presence alone was worth the price of entry and, to my mind, both the literary and emotional highlight of this year’s festival. Her Thursday evening workshop at the Nelson Public Library, ‘Literary Cross-Dressing: when poetry, prose and creative non-fiction start slipping into one another,’ kicked off the festival and by all accounts was a big hit with participants.
Friday’s events began with an afternoon pub-crawl of Nelson’s three new microbreweries. The ‘Literary Craft Crawl’ paired Selkirk College writing students Emma Leslie, River Pengelly (listed on the program as Callum David Pengelly), and Whitney Rothwell with three locally brewed craft beers, with musical interludes by ubiquitous Kootenay sax player Clint Swanson. Of course, Nelson has had an award-winning microbrewery since the 1980s with the Nelson Brewing Company and it was NBC who sponsored the Friday night gala event pairing three local authors with three specially brewed ales.
I was honoured to be chosen alongside Slocan Valley poet Jordan Mounteer and young Nelson writer Rayya Liebich. Author and librarian Anne DeGrace introduced each of us with a clever and poetic tribute comparing our writing and personalities with the unique qualities of each brew. She joked that writing these poetic pairings had required her to spend “way too much time online consulting beer connoisseur websites.” DeGrace paired me with NBC’s Happy Camper Summer Ale, which—among other qualities—contains a “level-headed earthy, weedy, and musky floral verdant hoppiness … and a hint of wayward yeast.” “Sounds like something brewed for a valley palate to me,” DeGrace concluded. The audience was given samples and invited to toast the authors. I opened my reading from my new novel Mountain Blues by noting that, “If I had a Zen master, he’d likely say that the spiritual condition of ‘happy camper’ is a real accomplishment in life.” She then repeated this feat of literary legerdemain for the next two authors, Rayya Liebich and Jordan Mounteer.
Saturday morning’s panel appealed to both morning types and mystery writers, featuring crime writers Judy Toews, Rachel Greenaway, Roz Nay, and Dave Butler. (For author bios, awards and publication credits visit http://emlfestival.com/the-festival/the-presenters/)
The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Literary Couples,’ so the second panel Saturday morning, ‘Creative Couples,’ featured question-and-answer sessions with Edugyan and Price, Antonia Banyard and Clint Swanson, and Susan Musgrave and Stephen Reid (in absentia). The focus of the panel was to find out how differing creative personalities manage to balance relationship, family and writing careers. Some, like Edugyan and Price, are personalities cut from the same cloth, while others like Banyard and Swanson are opposites. Musgrave observed that, “When you’re with someone in a relationship, you tend to absorb them into yourself.” Knowing how to stake out one’s individual creative space within the same household can be a challenge, and by their responses, has many possible answers. “Whatever the interests of your partner, in a relationship you show respect for those interests, even if they’re different than yours,” Price observed. And while Swanson as a musician is outgoing and gregarious, Banyard is shy and reserved. Yet they’ve managed to make it work by balancing off these two qualities: if she’s preparing for a presentation, she can bounce ideas off him about what will work for an audience. For him, her quiet calm is a steadying influence in his life. They actually prefer that they work in different disciplines and never critique one another, whereas Edugyan and Price constantly read one another’s manuscript drafts and offer constructive criticism.
The Saturday afternoon panel, ‘Risk and Resilience,’ explored what it takes to earn a living in the arts while still nurturing one’s craft. The panel, moderated by Rayya Liebich, featured musician Brian Kalbfliesch, dancer Slava Doval, poet Jordan Mounteer, and visual artist Genevieve Robertson. Clearly, as a career choice, the arts are high risk. It takes resilience to persevere in the fact of repeated rejection and projects that can take years but with no guarantee of success. Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from adversity.” When asked, “What gives you the strength and courage to persevere?” Mounteer joked that “writing earns me just enough to buy the next bottle of wine that will get me through the writing of the next poem,” highlighting the importance of a sense of humour. Doval, one of the most popular dance instructors in Nelson, said it’s important for artists to remember they’re playing the “long game,” which helps with individual rejections, “knowing that the work feeds you, it doesn’t starve you.” Kalbfliesch said it’s important for artists not to pressure themselves constantly to produce saleable work. “If you mess up, recognize that and adjust your process.” Robertson agreed, urging artists to see their studio space as a process for growth, not just production. “And get used to failure; I don’t just mean getting rejection letters, I mean whatever you’re doing.”
The Saturday night gala event featured literary readings coupled with interviews by Globe & Mail Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, a gracious, funny and charming interviewer. Edugyan read from her Man Booker and Giller Prize-winning book Half Blood Blues, a rich tale of race and resilience in the jazz scene during World War II era Germany. Her husband Steven Price next read from his new novel By Gaslight, set in Victorian-era London. Edugyan said Saturday night’s reading was the “swan song” for the novel, as she has a new one due out this fall. During her interview of the couple, Lederman asked them if their work sometimes cross-pollinates. Edugyan said that while Price was researching By Gaslight, he had books about ballooning all over their home, a theme that crept into her writing. They reiterated that they find the creative ferment of living in close quarters a source of renewal rather than conflict, even with raising small children.
Susan Musgrave read two poems from her most recent collection Origami Dove (2011) and two prose pieces from Stephen Reid’s books Jackrabbit Parole (1986) and A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison (2012). It was immediately apparent why publishers were willing to get behind Reid’s work, which renders a poetic, incisive insider’s view of the prison inmate’s life. Musgrave made it clear that her husband wasn’t primarily a criminal but an addict from an early age. Thankfully their marriage enjoyed a 12-year period of sobriety before he relapsed into his addiction and committed the 1999 robbery that sent him to prison for 14 years.
Musgrave was nothing short of a revelation, both in her readings and during the interview. Still in the raw stages of grieving, she said she felt she’d made progress when she discovered “one still unused hanky in my pocket.” At times during her interview with Lederman her composure cracked, yet she recovered quickly, giving openly and freely of herself. It was as much a life lesson as a literary lesson for the audience. Musgrave said she struggled to find poems to read from Origami Dove, realizing that so many of them were about grief. She read two of the book’s funniest, wittiest poems, ‘Al Purdy Took a Bus to the Town Where Herodotus Was Born,’ and ‘Fred Biggar Swims Nude in the Reflecting Pond with Koi.’ The latter poem was inspired by her work teaching creative writing at UBC, when she said to her students one day: “What is it with poets nowadays? You’re all so damn respectable! Why don’t you go out and break some rules for a change?” Or as the late great Gord Downie sang in Poets: “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing / don’t tell me that they’re antisocial / somehow not antisocial enough.”
Musgrave was candid about her relationship with Reid, noting the many ways it nourished her, even though “no one needs an addict in their lives.” She said that while sober he was noted as a kind and generous person known for his small acts of kindness.
For more information visit the festival website: http://emlfestival.com/the-festival/schedule-of-events/
POSTSCRIPT: EMLF festival volunteers did a superb job under trying circumstances and deserve commendation: Festival Coordinator Natasha Smith, Anne DeGrace, Tom Wayman, Verna Relkoff, Calvin Wharton, Marty Sutmoller, Rayya Liebich, and many others.