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.