Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor
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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Alan Wade Wades In and Extends an Invitation

The new magazine 807 opened a discussion about local writing called The Politics of Here... Here, Alan Wade gives us a wonderful overview of creative Thunder Bay - the place is indeed jumping. Alan ends with an invitation

I'm so happy for an opportunity to respond to the discussion in 807 about how our community relates to the writer since Thunder Bay has had a profound effect on my writing.

Starting in 1972 I wrote a variety of different books, which had only one reader: myself. Not until I started to write about what is literally in front of me- my own community- did I create anything acceptable to a professional editor. In 2001 I returned from my job teaching at the College and there they were sitting on the steps as I came in. I didn't know which was more exciting- the two copies of the Greenmantle newspaper with my article about a local hanging or the $40 cheque.

The irony was that I had always been intrigued by local writing and local writers. When I grew up in Welland, Ontario I encountered only one local book, Welland Workers Make History. Here it was a very different story. Here I found a community alive with literature. Even before I came north in 1967 to teach at Westgate Collegiate, I had heard about Sheila Burnford's Incredible Journey and how an American publisher sold a million copies of it after McLelland and Stewart turned it down. I remember attending the book launch for Claude Liman's Landings. Wow, a writer living in my own community.

I got a similar thrill reading The Traitor Game, which I picked it up at the bookstore on Cumberland St., just south of Red River Road. I had no idea the novel was local until I started reading it. When it mentioned Port Arthur I first wondered if it might be Port Arthur in some other country. But no, it was the Port Arthur I lived in. (As I recall Fort William was mentioned only once.)

I've noticed a very strong sense of local setting in a lot of our local writing- In Nancy Bjorgo's Pierrot, Loranne Brown's Handless Maiden, Olga Landiak's Death of a Sweet Gal, Joan Skelton's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and Charlie Wilkins Breakfast at the Hoito. Sure, other communities' writers sometimes reflect a local setting- in The Suicide Murders Howard Engel's Benny Cooperman sleuths his way around Grantham (i.e., St. Catharines.) The teledrama based on this novel even shows the Lancer Restaurant on St. Paul St., where I and my buddies used to go to after hitchhiking to St. Catharines. Nonetheless, I have a very strong feeling our writers reflect our community explicitly to a greater degree than others in comparable communities.

I was turned on by talking to writers about their writing and publishers; Elinor Barr about her book on the White Otter Castle; Jennie Beck about her A World of Dragons, published by Penumbra, at the time located in Moonbeam, Ontario, near Kapuskasing (I met both individuals in Writers Northward which I belonged to in the early eighties); Leonard Dick about his Broken Spirit published by Highway Book Shop (I talked to him briefly at one of his Moccasin Joe performances at the Little Finn Hall.)

On two occasions when I was reading a piece of local writing, it turned out, through no intention of my own, that I was in the exact location being written about. Once at the window at the Waverley Library when I read in Joe Mauro's history of Thunder Bay about a confrontation between unemployed workers and the cops in 1932, I was struck by the fact this event had occurred just up the street at Regent Street and Waverley Park. I had a similar sense when sitting in the Kestitupa Restaurant I opened up my copy of The Wolf's Eye and began reading Betty Kouhi's A Canadian Story, set on Bay Street.

I've had many other similar experiences over the years with local writing. With Bill Macdonald's Whales of Superior, a book of stories told in the Kestitupa. With another of his novels in which a local gangster has a fight in the tunnel of the Marriagi Hotel. The story is fanciful but the tunnel did exist. I saw it on the last day the hotel was open, thanks to Heikki Tamminen, its last owner, whom I knew from my days working in the bush. With the thirties' novel Beauty Not Complete (found in the local collection of the Brodie Library), especially when the author talked about an accident tobogganing down the Courthouse Hill and brought back personal memories of sliding down that same hill with my daughter, hitting a bump at the bottom, and knocking the wind out of myself to the point I feared for about five minutes I might not be able to make it to work the next day.

With Joan Skelton's story in Flying Colours Turn-Table" about women who raped a man outside that courthouse. With Jack Shedden's story in Fire Flies- Winky Maki. The people I had met working in the bush were all "distilled" into this character. He was more real in that sense that the real ones I had encountered. I'll never forget talking to Jack at the Writer's Circle and he telling me about having published pool hall stories in a pool magazine. We went for coffee after and at the end of the evening it turned out that we had met over three decades previously- I had taught him history at Westgate Collegiate in the late sixties.

The 807 discussion referred briefly to writing groups but not to something I regard as significant- the number of them. I count seven- NOW, Writers' Circle, Poetry Workshop, Paratactics (another poetry group), Writers Guild, LUNA (Lakehead Unfinished Novelists' Association), and PWAC (a periodical writer's group.) I can't believe any other community has as many writing groups on a per-capita basis. When Mark Munger spoke here (at the Waverley Library) I asked him how many Duluth has and he told me exactly what I expected to hear: "One."

My association with the first two has been invaluable. The first time my writing ever saw print was in the Writers' Circle Echoes of Thunder. NOW has been kind enough to ask me to read four times and helped me feel that maybe "somebody's listening." Writers have to live a life quite apart from the rest of the world but we don't want it to be totally apart, we want ultimately to connect to others. I totally endorse Mark Munger's comment, "Only diary writers write for themselves."

For my last reading NOW actually paid me $15, bringing my lifetime "writerly" earnings to $1.495. The NOW newsletter also published some of my stories. Its Now Here This section contains juicy morsels of just what's happening with "local lit." Another "must read" on the subject is Joan Baril's website: literaryblogspot.com. I anxiously await each new issue. It gave me the name of a book of a local cop's memoirs. I had been told about it by a fellow teacher at Thunder Bay Literacy but she wasn't able to remember any details I could use to track it down. (It's by James Forbes.)

Something else alluded to in the 807 discussion which deserves a lot more comment is our lack of a small press. Even though impersonal communication has increased a great deal, you still can't beat direct face-to-face communication. I remember reading one Toronto writer saying how at a poetry reading she gave an editor approached her and said if she ever wanted to write a novel to come and see him. She did a few years later and "the novel happened." Since we don't have an editor to approach like that, it's less likely we'll get one interested in our writing. (But by no means impossible, as a considerable number of local writers have proven.)

I'm totally convinced a small press is viable. As Betty Kouhi said to me at one NOW reading, "Cape Breton with a smaller population than Thunder Bay has two small presses." Also, Northeastern Ontario, with only twice our population has three- White Mountain (New Liskeard), Your Scriveners (Sudbury), Highway (Cobalt). It used to have Penumbra, which I mentioned earlier. It has since moved "down East" (to Manotick) but has continued to publish local authors- Mary Frost and Betty Kouhi, for example.

Something not mentioned at all that I feel a strong need for is a writer's hangout, a place where I can go and bump into other writers, even or especially if I haven't met them before, and exchange ideas about what we've written, how we've written it, and most importantly, how we've failed or succeeded in attracting editors' interest. And to complain about those "pain-in-the-butt" editors who constantly harass us to send them new material (that's in our writers' dreams, of course.) l've taken one small step in this direction. Almost every Saturday at 12:30 at Starbucks, Chapter's, I get together with a few people from the Writers' Circle. If you feel the same need why don't you join us? (It's probably a good idea to get in touch with me first. Call me, Alan Wade, at 344-7994 or email me at: awade@confederationc.on.ca .)




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