October 01, 2012

Nerd Rule

By Steve Locke

Taking advantage of the caffeine and snacks on Saturday morning, a bushy-tailed workshop group had a special opportunity to peek into the quirky, cartoon mind of Binky the Space Cat author and illustrator Ashley Spires. Though her picture books and graphic novels are geared towards a younger audience, more than a few full-grown adults have confessed a love for her off-beat characters and positive messages, because really, who doesn’t love a story about a hipster sasquatch looking for friendship.

A brief adjustment period was necessary for Spires at the onset of the presentation, who had spent most of her week at Thin Air speaking to local kindergarteners, who are themselves adjusting to their first ever month of school. Then, returning to the world of grown-ups, she shared a personal picture slideshow of her creative life, including everything from her home-work space, her ever-inspirational cats, and a few old doodles that would eventually turn into something substantial.

This was a heartfelt and effective action in revealing not only her creative process but also her personal life, as the audience was automatically relieved of the burden of their creativity, and possible intimidation, by someone who had found seemingly impossible success through their own art. Spires was on the level, as compulsively creative as anyone else in the room, though ever bent on hard work being the principle means of her achievements. And what a better workshop leader than Spires, who made anything seem possible, and made even hard work sound like fun.

Spires went on to explore the world of graphic novels, which have become more prevalent on bookshelves in recent years, perhaps due to the rise of superhero-themed Hollywood media. Never mind the capes and villains, the form bridges the gap between picture books and novels, for reluctant young readers who may be intimidated by the vastly increased amount of words and pages. Moreover for artists and readers alike, this particular conjunction of text and images offers a dynamic form of storytelling that invigorates the imagination. 

In their conception, graphic novels are written very much like film screenplays. Spires offered us a particular passage of a Binky script, where colour-coded text separated the small amount that would appear on page in speech and thought bubbles, and plenty more on what would appear in each panel: everything from action to perspective, and size of panel. She then explained the process of producing thumbnail sketches similar to film storyboards, and the labourious, time consuming process of hands-on tracing, inking and painting that goes into each page, which can take five to seven days to produce. Where most artists in the field have cut out the middle-man and moved into the digital realm, Spires prefers the hands-on method, feeling more intimacy with her work, as well as appreciating the meditative effects of focus and concentration. 

In the end, workshop participants took away a new appreciation for the dedication that goes into both writing and illustrating works of art. What’s more, we learned to check our egos at the door; to be as weird and off-beat as possible, because let’s face it: that’s the new cool. 

And it’s not like we can help it.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: Poetry Bash! (Friday, September 28)

By Jeannette Bodnar

Friday night’s Poetry Bash was the last of this year’s Mainstage events. The lineup included Jonathan Ball, JonArno Lawson, Sue Goyette, Patrick Lane, and Lorna Crozier. In true Mainstage fashion, the wine was flowing, the energy was high, and the audience was ready for the wordsmiths to cast their spells.

First on stage was Jonathan Ball. He began by reading the title poem from his book Clockfire. The poem, like the others in the book, is a script for an impossible to produce play. This seemed to me the perfect beginning to the evening’s performances.

The fascinating thing about Jonathan Ball is that he pushes the boundaries of writing by working outside conventional norms. He takes chances that other writers may not and makes a conscious effort to approach his work in new and unique ways. At a previous festival event I heard him say that he doesn’t understand people who like to relax with books, he likes to be challenged by them.  It shows in the way he challenges his readers. As a writer I find that inspiring.

Next to read was JonArno Lawson. Unfortunately due to the infuriating cough that I had been battling all week, I missed most of JonArno’s reading. However, when I first arrived at MTYP I encountered two ladies who were reading through his new children’s book Old MacDonald Had Her Farm and they couldn’t have endorsed it better if they were being paid. “It should be in every school library”, one of them told me. I caught a glimpse of the colorfully illustrated book at intermission and read enough to see the fun way in which JonArno plays with language. It was also very funny, which is great for readers of any age.

Sue Goyette was last to grace the stage in the first half of the evening. Her overwhelming authenticity makes her irresistibly captivating. As a blogger I’m not sure if I’m supposed to share who my favorites are, but her reading was my favorite of the week. There I said it. She’s fun and witty and her poetry is personal and inviting in a way that makes you feel like you’re reflecting on the life of an old friend. Whether she’s reading a poem about her mother’s rival at the senior’s complex, her close encounter with a moose, or the death of her children’s father, Sue Goyette is real, colorful, and masterful at sharing her world. The thing I like most about Sue is her ability and willingness to show both her darkness and her light. At the end of the reading she was presented a stunning silver, turquoise replica of poet Bliss Carman’s ring in honor of the award (Bliss Carman Poetry Award) she won earlier this year.

After a brief intermission author Patrick Lane took the stage. Although the tone of his poems had a more serious feel, the subtle wit he infuses into his work keeps it from feeling heavy. Lane’s timeless writing always astounds me for the simple fact that I know I could read him at any age. I read his poems ten years ago, I read them now and I know ten years from now, I will still be reading and rereading his work. It’s classic and consistently superb, which is probably why he is considered by many to be one of the best poets of our time. His reading of “The Mad Boy” was engaging and lovely and stuck with me for the remainder of the night. 

Wrapping up the evening, another powerhouse of the writing scene, was Lorna Crozier. I missed a reading by Crozier last year at the University of Winnipeg and lamented to my husband for months. So you can imagine my excitement when I had the chance to see her Friday night. Seriously I was like, thirteen year old girl sees Justin Bieber at the mall excited. And of course she delivered. Reading from The Book of Marvels, Lorna charmed the audience with entertaining insight into the lives of objects through poems like “Knife”, “Bicycle” and “Ironing Board,” to name a few. It was only fitting that she ended the evening with the poem “Snow”. At an autumn festival in Winnipeg it couldn’t end any other way.

This is the first year I had the good fortune to blog for Thin Air. I met a lot of great people, was star-struck on more than one occasion, and was inspired to write more, read more, and work harder to reach out to the rich literary community that the festival brings together. I feel privileged that I had the opportunity to share this experience and can’t wait for next year’s festival to begin.   


By Steve Locke

While this weekend was Thin Air’s farewell for 2012, Charlene Diehl and her cadre of tired, yet enthusiastic staff and volunteers provided Winnipeg with yet another literary banquet to satisfy the bottomless stomachs of local bookworms. Poetry was on the menu for Friday’s mainstage readings as well as the beatific “Afterwords” event, where two of Canada’s most beloved poets graced an eager stage, yet another prize was awarded to a national treasure, and the spirit of Kerouac and Ginsberg were invoked with a bit of jazz. Also, the cheese was delicious.

Where poetry crystallizes sometimes enormous moments into edible bite-sized chunks, the first half of the mainstage “Poetry Bash!” whetted our appetites with food for thought. Reading from his books including The Politics of Knives, local Jonathan Ball explored the bloody realm between language and violence. Ball was a wolf that dropped its granny-guise, exploring violence as a theme especially where the colour red was concerned. Later, he calls upon his muse to deliver him a poem, and when she responds, “If I must be a muse, then I must be terror,” I was made aware of a Kurtz like horror of the soul, which included a swift quickening of the blood, and a sudden hunger for meat.

JonArno Lawson followed with his series of nursery rhymes for adults, which he described as being either “funny or terrible.” Playful in his use of sound patterns reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, Lawson’s lyrics uncover an acerbic and clever wit often found in both comedians and confuscians. In the line drawn between child and adult in Lawson’s poetry, the reader finds images reminiscent of school, bible stories and playtime, though their use in the wordplay suggests a requirement for adult experience to grasp their connotations. There is a sense of darkness and lost innocence in Lawson’s work, despite a creative spirit that prevails with an unassailable sense of humour.

Moments before accepting The Banff Centre’s Bliss Carmen Poetry Award, Halifax’s Sue Goyette read her poem, “Canadian Apology,” which proved that she truly deserved such an honour. Being so unabashed both as a poet and a Canadian, Goyette examined our widespread and ironically unapologetic use of the word ‘sorry,’ as a part of our identity. It is my opinion that this poem should be printed on the back of every Molson label to remind us to be sociable, and to take no prisoners in our courtesy, especially when our beer and Leonard Cohen come into question. 

After a sizeable primer for our still growling stomachs, next came the entrée, the steak wellington and scalloped potatoes of the evening. Real-life partners Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier sat nonchalantly upon the stage furniture, seemingly un-phased by the list of accolades they had achieved in their individual careers as beloved Canadian writers and poets, which proved that cool comes with experience.

Lane went first, reading from his latest collection of poems, which he self-deprecatingly described as an “elegant doorstop.” There was an age and weight to his voice and breath, which made it seem like it emanated from an old crackling record player, rather than his body. The features of his face set in stone, his great, quiet presence hinted at a lifetime of deep human observation, and even deeper human emotion. One could glaze over the character of Patrick Lane in his own poetry, glazing over him, yet aware of him in the background, watching; glimpsing at the details. 

If Lane was the spice, then Lorna Crozier was the sugar, affably exploring the essence of inanimate objects in her poems from Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. Common objects such as knives, bicycles, even ear lobes were brought to life and given identity and sensuality with a unique and grounding perspective. As an example, given the choice, a knife would prefer to cut through an orange rather than an apple, given the fluidity of movement. We then marveled at stationary bicycles, for their function in clocking the distance of a rider who isn’t moving, and in the design of ear lobes, which contain a clitoris like cluster of nerves, and are somehow perfectly fit to the shape of a tongue. It begs one to wonder at the purpose of objects without us beings to attach meaning to them. And what of us as objects?

Sleepy with gorging on all this thought-food, we all went to bed for the night, only to return to the banquet table for yet another full course meal at the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain in belle Ste. Boniface. A perfect bookend to match the lively ‘Forewords’ event a week earlier, the festival wrapped up with an open mic, backed up by a jazz duo of stand-up bass and flute, featuring local master Steve Kirby. In this intimate venue, the power was handed down from the literary gods to the people, who were affectionately invited to relive the boppin’, beatific days of the fifties and sixties where jazz was the vibe and spoken was the word. Each performance took a life of its own, as Kirby and his stage partner coaxed lyrics from the speakers, where even the nervous were allowed to fall back on a cushion of flawless improvisation to let their voices flow. 

Phew. I think that after Thin Air 2012, with my distended head full of new ideas, I think a stringent diet of blank pages is in order to level out this new weight of books and experiences I’ve recently obtained, not to mention this reinvigorated love for both the written and spoken word. Hmm, that copy of Cory Redekop’s Husk is looking particularly tasty. Geez, this is going to be tough.

And say, is there any of that cheese left?

What’s Nostalgia?

By Steve Locke

In my limited experience with romance, I can’t for the life of me come up with what one might call an “old script for love.” I admit to writing poetry for the purposes of wooing pretty girls. It hasn’t always worked as a tactic, but when it did, it really did. I’ve bought flowers, I’ve held open doors; I’ve paid for meals. At my best, I was patient, charismatic, and given to fits of rapture. I was the best human being I could possibly be. I was, for lack of a better term, happy.

At my worst, I was selfish, paranoid and jealous. I committed acts for which I am ashamed. I’ve walked away from women I loved, shoving my hands into my pockets and shrugging towards a rainy self-exile, my head aching with utter confusion and frustration. I’ve been a cliché. A bad one.

Such a thing as a script for love would suggest that there once might have been something like a guideline to help us hapless humans navigate our bodies and emotions towards grace and beauty. “New scripts” means new forms, new languages, new practices; tools we may employ to do what we’re all good at anyway: getting ourselves into a big heap of trouble. Also, this continues to prove that besides acting out our primal desires, we don’t know what the hell to do with one another. Let alone ourselves.

At Thursday’s main stage event, “New Scripts For Love,” four authors reminded us of that very truth. Diverse in gender, age, ethnic background, and sexual orientation, each speaker had something different to offer in a series of very human (or human-like) interactions as they fumbled towards intimacy.

Missy Marston’s off-world character in The Love Monster, The Leader, saw an otherness in humanity’s capacity for art and beauty, appreciating its ability to fend off suffering, even considering it to be a magical power. Like the Leader, perhaps we are all born with a “kernel of sadness” that we must cope with, to somehow make use of loneliness, lest we all crumple into ourselves. It certainly makes for good writing, and of course good writers, who continue to encourage us to endure life’s difficulties with a sense of purpose, and that we’re not alone in the universe.

Daniel Allen Cox followed with a soft spoken, yet raunchy detailing of an intimate same-sex interaction, which proves that you should watch out for the quiet ones. In Basement of Wolves, the term “new script” may be applied to homosexual intimacy, as certain body parts are described as being portals to intimacy that other men might never experience. Though homosexuality is not a new concept, modern cultures are progressing towards its acceptance, which certainly allows for new voices, and thus, new scripts to emerge.

Also is the case when considering online interactions, where new tools such as instant messaging and video chats are widely used to break the rule of absence making the heart grow fonder. Cox goes on to explore these interactions as well, questioning the validity of using emoticons and annotations in intimate chats, where single letters replace whole words. Cox’s character concedes to his online counterpart after his offer to talk over the phone is rejected, saying, “That’s just how things are done these days.”

Next was the delightful Anakena Schofield, who explained the difference between “bad” sex and “reasonable” sex, failing to mention a superlative on the positive end. In Malarky, her female lead resolves to stay afloat despite her troubles, pursuing a tryst-encounter with a less than ideal partner. In her enchanting Irish brogue, Schofield narrates the male character’s utter failure as a lover, reminding me ever so clearly of the maxim, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” But so long as one’s around, Schofield endears the reader to her so terribly flawed characters with indelible Irish humour. Later that evening at the pub, I simply had to raise a pint on behalf of my gender, knowing that if our partners would be anything like Anakena Schofield, we’d better just keep our mouths shut and do what we’re told.

An interesting juxtaposition to Schofield’s bumbling brute, Dave Williamson spun a anectode of middle-aged romance from his book, Dating. Here, despite reasonable anxiety over some blossoming bedroom debauchery, Williamson is much more elegant in his delivery as a lover and as a man. Where one fellow might be overwhelmed by their shortcomings or their complete lack of awareness, Williamson’s character operated, at least empirically, with dignity intact. The humour sprang from the tension and vulnerability in the situation, where a sudden wrong move could easily sour the mood. Thankfully, Williamson resurrected some faith in manhood as his character navigated his way to the bedroom by keeping his head, which was all that was necessary in the first place: to realize that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. For this fact, Williamson was my hero of the evening. And to a lesser degree, for being awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. That’s pretty neat, too.

So if there’s anything that I learned about new and old scripts of love, it’s to throw them out. Never mind guidelines, because we are all built with the right components to put us in, and get us through the most uncomfortable of situations. Though we have a great capacity for failure and destruction, we are also capable of a natural fluidity when we practice art and loving, hopefully reminding ourselves that it’s okay to trip over our own feet. Maybe our worst failing is believing that our lovers are more or better equipped than us; that we are all ugly and insecure, flawed and god help us, screwed. 

Patrick Lane and Big Ideas

By Tannis Sprott

I laughed. I sighed. I squirmed. I forgot to breathe, until another burst of laughter reminded me how. I was horrified. My heart broke, twice. I gasped. I was mesmerized. In the end, my heart was swept away on a river of stone, found solace, and was healed. It was a busy hour.

Patrick Lane spoke to a near capacity crowd at the Millenium Library as a part of the Big Ideas series, and read from his memoir There Is a Season, detailing his experiences as an alcoholic from the age of 14 to his eventual return to sobriety. It was an incredibly frank and tender discussion of a horrendously harrowing experience. The non-addicted person will never really understand the disease of addiction, but Lane spared nothing in his efforts to help the audience make sense of it. The intense joy, the bliss of the drug, the way everything else fades into irrelevancy until there is only the drug, filling every hour of the day. He takes us on his journey through rehab, meeting many other characters on the way - the boy who had been addicted to crack cocaine since the age of eight and had been selling it to other kids, the girl who had been hooking on the streets since the age of 11 to support her habit - knowing that some of them would be dead within six months of returning to the outside, unable in the end to stay clean or sober.

My soul ached as he described his fear of returning to writing once he returned home. Never having been a sober writer, he was terrified that somehow his voice was tied to the alcohol and was now lost, and too terrified to find out. This book, which began as a collection of writings on his garden, allowed him to find his voice again. That voice has blossomed, opening up entirely new branches to explore.

According to Lane, one in 20 people in our society suffers from an addiction. If you can only imagine the number of people connected to each one of those individuals - family, friends, lovers, parents, sons and daughters - then the entire country should be reading this book. He fearlessly took us to his darkest of days, and with great levity showed us his way out. In the end, his was a message of hope. "Don't give up on the addicted." he advised. Having heard his story, I can now more clearly understand why.

Welcome back, Patrick. It's so good to hear your voice.

Fables for Our Time: Highlights

By Colin Ward

On Wednesday's Mainstage, Festival Director Charlene Diehl extended greetings to the attendees and introductions to the authors. First up was Mike Barnes, reading from "The Reasonable Ogre"--specifically the illustrated story "Silver." In it, a man seeking the source of his village's failing river is told by a mysterious voice to "give up what is precious or go no further."

Esmé Claire Keith rendered up some wonderfully nuanced dialogue from "Not Being on a Boat," featuring the main character dealing with a debt collector. Pasha Malla's reading from "People Park" was as energetic as it was enigmatic.

At the break a new pair of readers took the stage, bringing with them an entirely different approach:  the poetification of prose.

Seán Virgo's reading was, flat out, the best I've ever seen—yes, even better than Cordelia Stube’s performance at Tuesday’s Book Chat. He was personable, unpretentious, didn't crowd the microphone, and spoke with a gorgeous Irish lilt. If and when the podcast is uploaded I'd encourage you to listen to it. The television networks should be hiring this guy to do their voice-overs. Not knowing any of the writers, I made a point of approaching Mr. Virgo afterwards, finding him to be among the warmest people I've encountered.

While Seán's work sounded much like finished verse, Rawi Hage's reading from "Carnival" resembled a detailed outline of a poem, packed as it was with metaphor, analogies and symbols. He wrote of the two types of cab drivers: the Spiders, who wait to be summoned by dispatchers, versus the Flies, who travel about looking for fares, waiting only for "rains to make them busy." The drivers refer to each other by their cab numbers (e.g. #56's wife is having a baby). One revered driver is called "Mr. Green" because of his ability to work long shifts by napping during red lights, coming to life when the light turns green...or when the waitress at a slow diner finally brings his salad.

Again, I'd like to thank the organizers and volunteers. Great job!

AFTERNOON BOOK CHATS with Mike Barnes & Pasha Malla

By Jeannette Bodnar

So I finally made it out to one of the Afternoon Book Chats held at McNally Robinson. Truth-be-told I’ve been sick all week and spent most of Tuesday in a Dimetapp haze. By Wednesday I was able to peel myself off my mattress and suppress my obnoxious cough long enough to make a public appearance.

And I’m so glad I did.

The afternoon featured authors Mike Barnes and Pasha Malla in an intimate conversation mediated by Charlene Diehl. Mike spoke about his new book The Reasonable Ogre: Tales for the Sick and Well, and Pasha about his novel People Park. After reading from each of their respective works, the authors spoke candidly about the process of blending magical elements into the world of realism.

Let me begin with Pasha Malla.

Pasha describes People Park as, “my first novel, other than the one I wrote when I was six, about five kids going through the back of a cupboard into a magical land.” And while his attempt to rewrite Narnia may not have left the ground, it seems as though his early writings were, if nothing else, precursors to his current project. It made me think of a writing exercise I once did in which I had to reflect on my favorite childhood stories and think about how they influenced me now. At the time I couldn’t see the connection. In retrospect my prof may have had something.

When Pasha is asked about the magical elements of the book he refers to it as an extension of his reality. He is attracted, he says, “to telling a story and having someone believe it.” The book itself seems as though it represents what Pasha is trying to do. One of the central characters is a magician who is an illustrationist. Pasha emphasizes the word illustrationist, as opposed to illusionist. “He’s not interested in telling lies, he’s interested in showing the truth,” he says. A parody of what Pasha himself is trying to do. Although he admits, that the idea that he is some sort of oracle is ridiculous. 

Mike also tries to convey the truth through magic in The Reasonable Ogre. The book, which was done in collaboration with Toronto artist Segbingway, is beautifully illustrated and echoes the feeling of a graphic novel but is somehow not quite that. Mike describes the stories in the book as operating on a surface level throughout, yet beneath that having layers of meaning. The illustrations, which he describes as inspired by Asian brushstroke, woodcut, and manga, have an extended narrative of their own.

Essentially, both Barnes and Malla are highlighting the truth of their realities by inviting their readers into an altered one. 

For the rest of the event Mike and Pasha talked a lot about the writing process and the truths and fallacies about writing as they saw them. There were some great audience questions and some interesting perspectives about breaking the “rules” of writing that we’ve all become accustom to hearing. Both authors seemed very genuine when discussing their own challenges and shared the emotional impact that this type of writing can have. As a developing writer I’m always amazed at how different one writer’s process and experience is from the next. 

Wednesday was my first Afternoon Book Chat. And though I’ve loved all the events I’ve attended so far, I really enjoyed the intimacy of this one. I’m not sure if it was the warmth of the sun in atrium, or the Tales for the Sick and Well, or maybe it was just the comfort of discussing great books in a relaxed setting, but by the end of the afternoon I was feeling much better. 

September 27, 2012

Afternoon Book Chat: Carrie Snyder and Cordelia Strube

By Colin Ward

Charlene Diehl was the MC for Tuesday's Afternoon Book Chat, featuring authors Cordelia Strube and Carrie Snyder. We began with introductions and very brief readings from Milosz and The Juliet Stories. Charlene followed this with a conversation about writing methods and approachs.
This was a study in contrasts. Cordelia was assertive and confident and her reading from Milosz focused on dialogue. It was a performance, including various voices, accents, and gestures. Her writing was inspired by advice from a politician to get a 16-year-old autistic son arrested, that being the only way he could get the care he needed due to recent government cuts.
Carrie was more reserved. Her parents had been "sandalistas" (peace activists, originally from the United States) in Nicaragua during the Contra terrorist attacks. The Juliet Stories is a fictionalized account of the daughter--Juliet--of such a couple.
The floor was opened to questions, the first being the most obvious:  how autobiographic were these novels? Cordelia replied that she was "too boring" to be the subject of a novel. Carrie joked about her father teasing her about the "morally relativistic" father-figure in The Juliet Stories.
Another question focused on the role that metaphors and similes played in their writing. Both authors downplayed their importance, saying that their straightforward approach precluded the need for such explanatory parallels.
Thanks to the these fascinating writers and to all of the Thin Air organizers that made this discussion possible! 

Under a Prairie Sky

By Tannis Sprott

The atmosphere was electric, the show was essentially sold out, the applause was thunderous as Winnipeg gave a rousing welcome to Richard Ford and David Bergen on the Main Stage Tuesday evening. They were reading from their new novels, Ford's Canada and Bergen's The Age of Hope, both of which are set on the Canadian prairie. The large crowd listened with an intensity that was palpable in the room, soaking up every word as the authors discussed the journeys of their main characters.

We accompany Bergen's Hope Koop through five decades of her life living in the small Mennonite town of Eden as she struggles to define and accept who she is. Ford introduces us to Dell Parsons, a 15 year old American boy who is abandoned after his parents are arrested for bank robbery. In order to avoid his becoming a ward of the state, Dell is smuggled across the border into Saskatchewan to live with Arthur Remlinger, another ex-American with a mysterious past. He ends up living in an isolated shack in the dying town of Partreau, doing odd jobs for Remlinger.

There was a third character present in the room that night that was woven through the lives and stories of both Dell and Hope, the prairie, in all its wonder and beauty and sparseness and isolation. The prairie acts as a mirror, reflecting an emptiness within each of the main characters. Even though Hope was born and raised in the prairie, she never feels like she belongs in that little town. She senses that she is different from those around her, and struggles with that difference her entire life. Dell, as the son of an Air Force captain moving from base to base, also has never felt he belonged anywhere. His isolation becomes even more potent when he is abandoned in a foreign country. He pushes aside his fear and worry by focusing on the work he is assigned, but at night, as he sits outside his shack alone in the great openness under the prairie sky that offers nowhere to hide, all that uncertainty comes flooding back. His soul is empty, he can never go back to being the person he was before but has no idea how to move forward either. And all of this punctuated by a back drop of stunning photography by Mike Grandmaison, pictures of such beauty as to stop your breath.

Then, the audience has the immense privilege to eavesdrop on the conversation between Ford and Bergen, as they compared notes on the process of writing, on describing the arc of a person's life and honouring the empty spaces in that life as well as the action. They were both adamant that you could write about something that you had not personally experienced. After all, the words "woman", "housewife" and "mother" don't appear anywhere on David Bergen's resume, and although Richard Ford was once a 15 year old boy, his parents never robbed a bank or abandoned him. It is the incredible gift of imagination and a healthy dose of daring that allows authors to tell other people's stories. The wonder of a novel is that it asks the reader to pay attention, to be drawn in and to honour those stories. We were certainly held in rapt attention that night.

An Unforgettable Afternoon

By Tannis Sprott

Thin Air is always a surprise. Surprisingly profound. Profoundly moving. I snuck into the school stage program on Monday afternoon to catch Karen Levine talking about her non-fiction book Hana's Suitcase with Grade 5 and 6 students from Gray Academy of Jewish Education. It is the story of Hana Brady, born in Czechoslovakia in 1931, and murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 13. I left an hour later moved to tears by the story of Hana, and filled with admiration for those kids, their courage in tackling a difficult subject, the depth of their curiosity, their struggle to relate Hana's life to their own.

It all began with a young Japanese educator, Fumiko Ishioka, who ran the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre, and was searching for a way to engage young people in learning about the holocaust. She visited Auschwitz and requested the loan of any artifacts that would have belonged to children, and was given Hana's suitcase. It elicited such a strong response from her young students that she began a year long quest to discover who Hana was. She eventually tracked down Hana's older brother George, now living in Toronto, who had survived the concentration camp, and helped piece together the fragments of Hana's life. Karen Levine read about Hana's suitcase in the Canadian Jewish News, and was inspired to turn it into a CBC documentary, and later, a book.

As the author spoke about Hana and her brother, she tracked the dissolution of their family life as one thing after another was stripped from them, and revealed how they ended up in the concentration camp. It was Dr. Joseph Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death",  who decided their fates. George, older and stronger, was sent off to be a labourer. Hana, being younger and smaller, was sentenced to the gas chamber mere hours after arriving at Auschwitz. I found myself weeping as the author told their story to a backdrop of family pictures featuring two happy, smiling kids, cross country skiing, skating, dressed in costume for a play. They could have been anybody's kids, and therein lies the power of the story.

The children in the audience were spellbound, and when it came time to ask questions, so many hands shot up that it looked like a forest of tree limbs reaching for the sky, quivering in the breeze. Many of their questions were unbelievably poignant. "Why didn't the Jews fight back?" "How did George survive?" "What did they do with the bodies when they came out of the gas chamber?" "Did they ever catch Dr. Mengele?" "Were the Jews happy when Hitler died?" "Why didn't the rest of the world help them?"

There is such a temptation to shield and protect our children from bad stories. Levine refuses to do that. She honours Hana's short life by respectfully relating every detail they discovered, by answering every question that is asked, by pointing out that it is important to learn from Hana's experiences because genocide is still with us today. She also encouraged them to explore many of the larger issues with their history teachers. Thanks to that suitcase, children all over the world have been catapulted into her world, ensuring that Hana's story, and that of the holocaust, is never forgotten. Hana's life may have been short, but her reach is long. It was a powerful afternoon, and I will long remember Hana and those Winnipeg school kids.

September 26, 2012

In Case you missed it…Again: Monday Mainstage

By Jeannette Bodnar

So, it’s day four of the festival and I’m still not sure what to expect. Each venue has proven to be both great and yet different from the one before. It’s the first night of the Mainstage series so I know it will be strong. The theme is "Life Lessons" and although I don’t recognize all the writers, I trust that the evening will deliver.

 I arrive at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre early and find a seat close to the front. The organizers have done an exceptional job of creating the perfect balance of cozy and sophisticated. The chic EQ3 furniture that decorates the stage is framed by a bookstore table on the left and wine and cheese bar on the right. As I watch little micro communities form around the room, I curse myself for forgetting my camera, again. 

It’s a handsome crowd. Maybe it’s the energy that makes them this way. There is definitely a feeling of community in the air. 
“Hey, how are you?”—“I haven’t seen you for ages.”—“This is so and so.”—“Come. Sit with us.”  
You get the picture.

 So often when you think about writers, the image is narrowed to the lone author in front of her computer, cold coffee and cat beside her. It’s easy to forget that there is a whole community, and communities within the community, that are the lifeblood of the writing world. 

As Charlene Diehl gets ready to take the stage, conversations are wrapped up, wine is replenished, and seats are taken. Charlene welcomes everyone and thanks the sponsors, then draws attention to the empty chair that occupies the front right corner of the stage. The chair is for PEN Canada, a reminder to advocate for the rights of silenced writers. 

“It takes courage to tell people’s difficult stories”, she tells the crowd. 

The first to take the stage is Richard Van Camp, an author I have not yet read. He reads from his new book Godless but Loyal to Heaven. The beauty of this reading is that it feels quite like a dream. When Van Camp finishes I awake to the applause of the audience. It irritates me that I have never read him before. There are writers and there are storytellers. I feel he is storyteller and that writing is just a convenient tool that he uses for those who don’t have the privilege of hearing him speak. 

Next up is Stella Leventoyannis Harvey. She reads from her book Nicolai’s Daughters. The story takes place in both Canada and Greece and deals with family relationships from the perspective of Nicolai and his daughter Alexia. Even though I’m not Greek, the passages that Harvey reads are relatable on multiple levels. The themes are both universal and yet very Canadian at the same time. Family secrets, multigenerational conflict, and the struggle to understand a culture you’ve never had the opportunity to be part of, make this book a must read for so many people.

Carrie Snyder is the final author in the first half of the evening. The Juliet Stories takes place in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Snyder’s reading makes me think that there is an emergence of a new kind of historical fiction happening. For many of us, the 80s isn’t that long ago. However it seems as though there are more books coming out that are set during this era. Snyder’s book, from the perspective of 10 year old Juliet, comes across as heartfelt and convincing. As she reads about Juliet and her mother, I can feel the sticky heat of Nicaragua. Snyder successfully gives her reader the world through Juliet, a definite warm-me-up book to read during the cold winter months.

During the intermission, I grab a refill on water and sit down to reflect on the readings. Those who aren’t grabbing refills at the bar are swarmed around the bookstore table. The authors are frantically signing books whilst simultaneously engaged in conversation with eager readers. Richard Van Camp grabs a seat in front of me before the second half and I must say I’m a little star-struck.

The second half begins.

Meira Cook takes the stage. I’ve heard Cook read before, and admit she was one of the reasons I was drawn to Monday night’s venue. I was first introduced to her poetry last year and was immediately hooked. She reads from her new novel The House on Sugarbush Road. The passage is about love story between two of the characters and the ways in which the words are weaved reflect her strengths as a poet. The story, which takes place in Johannesburg in the 90s, is enticing enough, but it's Cook's skill at placing just the right sounds together that make each sentence seem in harmony with the last. Even though The House on Sugarbush Road is a novel, it feels as though it should be read aloud.

Following Cook is Cordelia Strube, another name that drew me in. She immediately changes the tone in the room from serious to humorous; first by admitting she’s been hiding backstage, then by chastising Charlene for making her communicate a “life lesson” in 12 minutes. Strube introduces us to seven of the ten central characters of her new novel Milosz. She delivers her story with bang-on accents and treats us to a performance akin to a well done one woman play. Her playwriting experience shines through in her writing. The dialogue is sharp and funny and pulls the audience into the room with her characters. In a span of 12 minutes, I know the people she is writing about, I can see them, I can feel their history. Her reading is outstanding.

Last up for the evening is Jess Walter. I believe he was supposed to be reading from Beautiful Ruins. However, Walter has a different agenda, which includes a tutorial on how to learn an Irish accent off YouTube, a recount of a book signing at Costco where he cut up his novel and handed out sample sentences, and a poem about mom’s underwear.—My kids will never be allowed to help with laundry again.—When he finally decides to talk about his book he refers to a Harper’s review that called it “his most romantic book yet,” to which he responds is “the equivalent of McDonald’s most gourmet meal yet.” In the end he reads a sentence from the book and despite not really hearing anything about Beautiful Ruins, Walter’s humor has hooked my curiosity.

All in all, it was another fantastic event at Thin Air. I know this post was long, but I feel as though each writer deserves to be highlighted because the talent that is showcased at this festival is exceptional. If you didn’t make it out on Monday, there are still plenty of events to attend. Thin Air is for writers and readers and lovers of words and I can’t wait to fill you in on the week ahead.

September 25, 2012

One Great City (I Told You So)

By Steve Locke

In 2007, I left Winnipeg for Vancouver for what would be a five-year mission to pursue a miseducation in the writing craft. With me came many personal artifacts including a vintage Jets jersey that was bought at a garage sale, and a collection of CDs by local musicians such as Sixty Stories, The New Meanies, and The Transistor Sound & Lighting Co. If these names are unfamiliar, or ring some distant muffled bell, it’s because they haven’t been bands for years. Most had released one or two seminal albums that garnered attention on MuchMusic, back when the cable TV station actually supported homegrown artists. Hearing news of their disbanding or departure only reinforced that “oh well” mentality that Winnipeggers learn to adopt when their football team consistently loses, or their close friend moves away, or when winter hits. 

Sunday evening, attendees of Thin Air’s “Voices from Oodena” were given a pick-me-up while sitting on the cold concrete steps of the Oodena Celebration Circle at the Forks. The outdoor event glowed with the presence of local talents under a setting sun, writers who uncovered myths and ephemera to enchant and reward Winnpeggers simply for choosing to stick around town, and even those who have chosen to return, such as myself.

Like one of the event’s sponsors articulated, I once believed that books were written by someone else - about somewhere else. In Vancouver, or “Terminal City,” where nothing is nailed down in all the fog and movement, I held onto my music as one of the few things that kept me real. And after being somewhere else for a while, that night I felt like I finally landed in a blossom of home and self, both made so immaculately real…and surreal.

Chadwick Ginther proved that Manitoba can be used as a fantasy setting in the same vein as Middle Earth. When you consider the local appreciation for Norse mythology in the names of places like Gimli and the municipality of Bifrost, having the mischievous god Loki as a character in his novel, “Thunder Road,” seems all too fitting. Where pop culture places Loki in grand New York City as a villain in “The Avengers,” it’s a beautiful and refreshing thing to put our fair province on the map as only a Manitoban can do.

All five senses were tantalized in the vivid poetry of both Sarah Klassen and Rhea Tregebov. I have a particular fondness for Rhea, being a former student of hers at UBC and in our bonding as ex-pat Winnipeggers. I engaged with her descriptions of the familiar scents of home cooked pickerel and wild rice with mushrooms, and the benevolence of warm days in September. Klassen, who is no stranger to the classroom herself, drew her imagery from the rivers and bridges that permeate the city, ever educating her audience as I finally learned the meaning of the words “Slaw Rebchuk.” Her description of “bone deep cold” invoked a plethora of sense memories that I am all too proud to have experienced.

In the mystery of the gigantic, looming edifice of the yet incomplete Human Rights Museum, France Adams offered a take on its forthcoming impact. While we continue to wonder at what the building will look like on the inside, Adams revealed both the frailty potential in human communion, cleverly questioning as well as reinforcing the idea of us being a “Friendly Manitoba” for future generations. 

Well after sunset, yet warmed by each other’s company and fine literary works, Niigaan Sinclair ended the evening by answering a question that had been on my mind: What is this place? In seamless Anishinabeg storytelling tradition, Sinclair unraveled the mystery of the place I had come to visit since I was a teenager. During what seemed like a completely improvised “reading,” I was a six-year old boy, enamoured with the stories and meanings of words like “Manitou” and “Oodena.”

In case you didn’t know, Oodena refers to the centre or heart, in this case, of the city, where life, music and stories emanate from. What a better place for citizens of Winnipeg to rediscover the centre within themselves, to identify and be identified as of this place where two rivers meet. Especially is the case for one who has recently returned from afar, whose centre is beating ever so clearly now, so real.

September 24, 2012

Performance, Poetry, and Seventeen Syllables

By Colin Ward

At the Free Press Cafe on Saturday night the Thin Air Writers Festival held "Forewords," a night of performance, poetry, literature and, above all, humour. Normally, crowd control isn't a problem at readings. This one was filled beyond capacity.
Dylan Mowatt rapped an ode to the indigent:  "Give change to the homeless man and ask him what change means."
Next up were the soft romantic musings of Faisa.  The first was a recent effort read off a cell phone.  All of the other poems were performed.
Third came J-La, whose fast paced verse was as graphic as it was autobiographic.
The fourth slam team member was the master, Aaron Simm.  He related a narrative of a boxer ignoring bloodthirsty fans, taking it easy on a beaten opponent.  "Love is not a knockout," he sighed.  "It's in letting the other person walk away."
#1 slammer Steve Currie [w]rapped up the poetry performances with a prison tale, speaking of "...poor custody of dreams." 
"We prefer to stay lost, like Pluto," he intoned, going on to reference "Jovian Jehovian might."
After a break, "Husk" author Corey Redekop gave new meaning to the expression "toilet humour" with his story of gay zombie actor Sheldon Funk.
Capping off a fun evening was the Haiku Death Match:  4 poets telling 17-syllable jokes.  One excerpt mentioned:  "I wrote a telegram to Stephen Harper:  Stop."  U.S. politicians escaped unscathed.  (To wit, no one went with:  "Hoople:  defined as 'rootless', 'disorganized', 'twit'.  Thus, 'Mitt the Hoople'.")
Thanks to the venue workers, participants and organizers, especially Director Charlene Diehl and Master of Ceremonies Bruce Symaka, for a fun evening!

…When Your Mother’s in the Audience

THIN AIR2012's ForeWords Event

by Steve Locke

Saturday night, the Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival kicked off with a sold-out, raucous event that busted a few stitches, and surprisingly enough for some of the performers (myself included), did not result in any audience member’s indignation at our very low-brow humour. Judging by the fits of laughter, Winnipeg, your mind is in the gutter.

THIN AIR2012's ForeWords event filled up faster than an N*Sync album signing, where ticket holders were locked in to enjoy performances by Winnipeg’s Poetry Slam Team, a reading by ex-Pegger Corey Redekop from his zombie novel, “Husk,” as well as the festival’s inaugural Haiku Death Match. With the doors shut and a SOLD OUT sign Jiffy marker’d and taped to the window, this meant that unfortunate stragglers had to be turned away. But given the Cheshire grin worn by festival director Charlene Diehl throughout the evening, this will not be the only event of its kind.

Perhaps on part due to the affable hosting talents of Bruce Symaka, the largely “mature” audience was on board from the get-go. More intense and animated than your traditional poetry reading, none held back, unleashing bad puns, cuss words, and sometimes violent imagery to an unshaken crowd, which, to their credit, prepared them for what was to come.

This meant that local slam team, Steve Currie, Aaron, J-La, Faiza, and Dylan Mowatt and could take a break from their competition-style poetry to flex their performance muscles on home turf. On their first go as a team, these unassuming pedestrians have risen above the curb to distill our city’s ongoing story into five distinct voices, each one confident and eager to represent Winnipeg next month at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Saskatoon.

After a snack provided by the Free Press Café staff, another unassuming pedestrian, Corey Redekop took to the stage with a reading of his unorthodox and impeccably vulgar zombie novel. Taking a step away from the traditional zombie forms employed in modern films, we follow a struggling Toronto actor as he undergoes an unsettling life and death transition while determined to make an impression at his next audition. When you consider that death results in the complete loss of human dignity, Redekop provides unparalleled descriptions of bodily functions in the most awkward and disarming situations, including a failed attempt to use a lavatory on a moving bus, where the speaker became “the astronaut of the loo.” Use your imagination, folks.

 What a better set-up for the festival’s first Haiku Death Match, where beyond the application of a seventeen-syllable structure, the deeply philosophical poetic style was utterly butchered with the best intentions in mind. Here, four competitors including Aaron Simm of the slam team, two drunken louts (again, myself included) and Corey Redekop himself, went head-to-head in rapid-fire succession. Each round of short form tomfoolery progressed with the audience employing paper plates to vote on their favourite “haiku”. Congratulations go to Death Match Champion, the ineffable Matthew Moskal.

I can say that the personal highlights of the death match include the banter of my fellow performers, watching Corey Redekop double over in laughter onstage, and his perfuse apologies to his mother who was largely un-phased by the nasty offerings (which says a lot about that family). Oh, and how can I forget that certain haiku involving a rooster and a vacuum cleaner?

Again folks, use your imaginations. And keep your minds in the gutter, eh?

In case you couldn’t make it

THIN AIR 2012 - Forewords: Saturday, September 22, Free Press News Café
by Jeannette Bodnar

I arrived at the Free Press News Café just in time for my husband and I to grab the second last table. Although the building was packed, it felt comfortable. Like a family dinner but without the resentment and the cousin that’s not allowed to play with matches. Even though it’s autumn, the energy in the building felt like spring, like youth, like beginnings; the perfect opening weekend energy. 
Charlene Diehl and Bruce Symaka took the stage and wasted no time getting the night started. First on the ticket, slam poetry. 
Now I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve seen spoken word, but never live, and never from Winnipeg artists (not for lack of want). In fact, for the past few years my husband and I have spent many a Friday night sharing $10 bottles of wine and YouTubing old DefJam footage. More ritual than “social life” per se, but you’ll take what you can get when you have two kids and mounting student debt. Still, I’m uncertain how Manitoba’s finest can compare.
Judging by the audience reaction, I was not the only one blown away. I can’t summarize how amazing this group is. In fact, I feel like a jackass using the word amazing because I know if they were writing this blog they would never use a conventional word like amazing. Not because they would feel it was beneath them, just because it is. 
After they finished, Corey Redekop compared them to the Rolling Stones and I laughed because two people allegedly snuck into the sold out venue. I now suspect they were groupies, although, no lingerie was thrown on stage so maybe not.
After a brief intermission, Corey read from his book Husk. As you would expect from a Zombie novel the passages were quite grotesque and insanely funny. Just ask the woman behind me who, judging by the intensity of her laughter, I’m pretty sure peed just a little bit in her pants. I’m not sure how long Corey was on stage I just know it should have been longer.
During the final intermission he signed my copy of Husk and I signed his. I realized that I should probably never be published for the simple fact that I inevitably sign everything the same way I signed my grade eight year book. “Never change Corey—your BFF”.
After a final intermission Corey and three of Winnipeg’s finest poets took to the stage for a Haiku Death Match. I didn’t think things could get funnier than a reading about a Zombie who eats his boyfriend. In retrospect, I hope the woman behind me took advantage of the intermission for a bathroom break. I’m not exaggerating when I say that people were laughing so hard that there were tears and snorts. A particular highlight was after Aaron Simm’s poem about peeling potatoes without pants on. During which time the most perfect pause in the laughter and chatter happened, so that audience was treated to woman admitting that she just pictured Aaron naked. You know who are lady, and so do we (wink). I loved this part of the night so much that I’ve decided I’m going to push for Thin Air haiku fortune cookies for next year’s festival.
Anyway that was my night. It was an amazing opening weekend and I can’t wait for the week ahead. 
Never change people—your BFF.    

September 20, 2012

Looking Back: THIN AIR 2011

By Nan Forler

This time of year, as nights become cooler and pumpkin lattes start brewing in neighbourhood coffee shops, I find myself being drawn to local bookstores, eagerly anticipating the new fall releases. But this year, I am feeling a bit homesick for my new favourite autumn reading event: The Winnipeg THIN AIR Festival.  

Last September, I was very fortunate to have been invited to THIN AIR as a featured author in the Writers to the Schools program. I had taken part in writer’s festivals before, but this was the first time I was actually flown in, complete with a hotel room and hospitality suite. I am certain all future events will pale in comparison!

THIN AIR is led by Charlene Diehl, a fiercely passionate advocate of Canadian books, described by one of the authors as the kind of person who makes a party come alive. She very intentionally sets a social tone, encouraging interaction between writers and readers, and creating a celebration of books with lively discussion. 

Immediately upon meeting Charlene, she encouraged me to hop in the back of her car with Elizabeth Hay for an afternoon book chat at McNally Robinson. The evening readings carried on this atmosphere. They were held on a party-esque stage set, where audience members were invited onto the stage during intermission to mingle with the authors, or enjoy a drink on the comfy couch.

For me, the highlight of the week was my road trip to Winkler, Manitoba. Charlene and her fabulous team arranged school visits to this area, matching my new book, Winterberries and Apple Blossoms: Reflections and Flavors of a Mennonite Life, with the children of rural Manitoba, many of whom had a Mennonite background.  

I travelled with a fun and adventurous entourage, including Eva, a festival volunteer, her sister, Tina, and Charlene’s mom, Anna Grace. We braved relentless rain and 100 km/hour winds as we travelled from school to school, stopping in Roland, Manitoba, to have a blustery photo taken in front of “The World’s Largest Pumpkin.”

In the midst of this season of book releases and reviews, it was the children in the schools I visited who provided the true reminder that books are a living, breathing entity that come to life in their active imaginations.  

When sharing the message of the bystander in Bird Child, the children were anxious to relate their personal experiences to me about responding to bullying situations in the schoolyard. As I introduced Winterberries and Apple Blossoms, I was able to witness their animated reactions, as they recognized their own lives in the paintings and poems depicting coming-of-age in a Mennonite community.

From the rural kids in Winkler, many of whom were Mexican Mennonites, who filed in silently, then sat, arms crossed, listening attentively, hanging on every word, to the multicultural classes in Winnipeg the following day, who bounded in, uninhibited and curious, their arms around me afterwards to be first to ask a question, I was witness to the incredible joy children experience in being read to.

Sitting in the darkened theatre for the THIN AIR events that evening, being read to by the likes of Guy Vanderhaeghe and Lynn Coady, I was struck once again by the human connection that comes from this solitary act of writing.  
I felt so honoured to have been a part of this book-affirming week in Winnipeg and I wish all the best to you lucky souls who will be enjoying THIN AIR this month.

Happy Reading!

September 16, 2012

Film and Poetry: Hitchcock, Lynch, Tarkovsky, and the Politics of Knives

by Jonathan Ball

My recent book, The Politics of Knives features nine long poems with interlinking elements. One common thread is the influence of film on my poetry, specifically the work of three filmmakers: Hitchcock, Lynch, and Tarkovsky.

Hitchcock’s film Psycho is the most obvious of these influences, given that one of the book’s nine poems is called “Psycho” and describes the film poetically, with a perverse focus on the story’s protagonist, Marion Crane. Unconventionally, Crane is murdered partway through Hitchcock’s film, which then has to seek a new protagonist (after her death, the camera seems lost, but it soon settles on Bates, the “psycho” of the title). 

Many of Hitchcock’s films attempt to trouble the act of the audience watching the film, by turning audience interest into the subject of the film itself. We watch Crane just as Norman watches her, through a hole in the wall that simulates the eye of the camera (in a shot where, unsettlingly, we share the killer’s point of view). Most strikingly, after she’s stabbed, Marion reaches up for help — reaching out towards us, as if she knows we’re watching. And enjoying the movie. We don’t help her.

Lynch’s mastery comes from dramatic shifts in tone, his ability to move in an instant from a banal to a nightmarish realm. He continually sacrifices sense for tone, and in the course of this shift he creates strange, poetic worlds that we move through emotionally but which make little logical sense, although there is a poetic logic that underlies and gives order to Lynch’s worlds. 

I try to use language in a similar manner throughout the book, which has a sort of grammatical slipperiness. A sentence will begin as if describing a scene (“The mist dissolved…”) but then switch the grammar to describe an event (“The mist dissolved what it did not need”) with an alien actor (here, the mist becomes a sort of living force). 

Tarkovsky’s poetic approach to filmmaking, and his occasional use of genre material (horror and science fiction plots) have inspired me, but especially influential are his occasional, striking long takes.  The book’s final poem, 
“That Most Terrible of Dogs,” is structured like a long film take — like a slow movement across a cultural wasteland, toward some inevitable terror.  

Jonathan Ball joins Lorna Crozier, Sue Goyette, Patrick Lane, and JonArno Lawson for THIN AIR 2012's Poetry Bash, Friday, September 28th, 8:00pm on the Mainstage, MTYP at the Forks. Tickets are $12/$10 students and seniors.

Ball also helps kicks off the festival on opening night as an advocate for Manitoba Reads. He's be promoting Automatic World by Stuan Sinclair in a celebration of the province's rich writing culture. Friday, September 21st, 8:00pm at CCFM/Centre culturel franco-manitobain. Tickets $5.
Visit him online at www.jonathanball.com or @jonathanballcom.