Why I go to Writers Festivals

January 24, 2018

So a few months ago, I attended an event at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival where my close friend, poet, novelist, and educator Aislinn Hunter, was interviewing renowned author Eileen Myles. I went, not because I was familiar with Myles’ work, though what I found on YouTube more than piqued my interest, but because I was intrigued to see what would happen when these two writers tangled minds.

The conversation moved gymnastically through the subjects of the souls of dogs, puppetry in all its forms, gender pronouns, poetry, loneliness, love, death, and how to live. The exchange had a lively push and pull, Aislinn pushing toward the intellectual, Eileen pushing back toward the earthy, both with enlivening gusts of irreverence, pith, and play.

After the event, I was waiting for Aislinn so we could walk together to the hospitality suite at the other end of Granville Island before we drove back to the North Shore of Vancouver. I would have more fun than usual there, talking with Nathan Englander about the dirty war in Argentina, John Vaillant about parental sadness when your kids break up with someone you’ve come to care about, wondering with Jon McGregor if there’s any connection between the experience of sexual harassment and physical fights between males. I talked both with Hal Wake, the outgoing creative director and Leslie Hurtig, the incoming one. I chatted with new friend Elee Kraljii Gardiner and spoke with Claire Cameron, a fellow fan of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work, about my recent visit with Hrdy.

I waited for Aislinn to finish talking to her friends and admirers, hovering by the line of people waiting for Eileen to sign their books. My friend, Betsy Warland, was in the line. We hugged and chatted, and it happened that when it was Betsy’s turn to connect with Eileen, I was there. Aislinn had given Eileen Betsy’s new book, Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas, a highly original work that is both memoir, poetic essay, poetry, a deep dive into identity, camouflage, self and its fraught relationship with the world outside. I was witness not so much to what they said, as I am at least superficially discrete, but their eye contact. In the Buddhist view of the world where we are all one, Betsy and Eileen might feel that about each other more smoothly than many of us.

As I get older I am experiencing more and more moments of surprising conflation, when a memory from the past meets a moment in the present and a vibration starts up between the two events, like the aura before an epileptic episode or when you first get an idea for a story, a small hit of the oceanic feeling. The vibration of the two moments coming together like some kind of nuclear fusion of time causes a feedback loop of building resonance. These moments are like a foretaste of the completion of life, when a person’s story is finished and everything inside the story starts interacting and bouncing around like electrons in an atom.

I am pretty sure everyone in the audience - straight, gay, intersex, trans, male, female, lesbian, bull dyke, in a long-term relationship or single, was a little in love and turned on by Eileen at least once during the evening. Eileen is a charged being. They have shoulder-length, straight gray hair, a haircut not a salon visit, and wear jeans, boots, a loose plaid shirt over a body that is lean and strong. They are a clear-eyed, knife-edge, disarmingly honest bundle of physical and intellectual energy. Eileen seems like a fully actualized sexual being who sees the sexual being in everyone, which is alluring and charming in itself.

I first met Betsy when I was broke, living in the warehouse of Pulp Press, in a bad relationship, learning how to typeset, and writing short stories I showed to no one. I remember her striding into the office delivering her manuscript of poetry with a freedom and confidence I envied and admired. Ten years ago she invited me to work as a mentor for Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, a program she originated and runs, giving writers a way of leveling up their manuscripts through the close mentorship of another writer. Since then we have seen each other through deaths, the coming of age of our children, personal health crises, and the crises of our friends, we have shared the journeys of manuscripts that weren’t easy sells for the marketplace but were ambitious and as deep as we knew how to make them. We had drunk and been merry. This last year, a lot of Betsy’s close people had died. So had Tom Petty, a death Eileen called unbearable. So had Gord Downie, so had Leonard Cohen, so had David Bowie. Last week, so did our friend Nancy Richler, a wonderful writer and kind, incisive, thoughtful human being. This week, so did the groundbreaking Ursula Le Guin. Cancer was kicking us all in the balls, and if it wasn’t cancer, it was something to do with the circulation of blood.

I witnessed that moment of connection between Eileen and Betsy, a moment that may not travel further than itself, and glanced across the room at Aislinn, with whom I share both toughness and extreme vulnerability, mischief and reverence, and her husband Glenn who had radiation and chemo for a brain tumour this year, and Elee, who almost died last year, and Ingrid, Betsy’s partner, the twin sister of the husband of my first friend in Vancouver, and I, who had my own tangle with breast cancer a couple of years ago, and I felt myself part of a community that extends loosely over time, that is a community that has no use, no self-reinforcing ideology, that is not an army, or nationality, or culture, or religion, but is a community of words and ideas and bodies and memories and experience and love, and I felt a charge in the room, in the way I felt the charge of the future in my adolescence. This is why I go to writer’s fest events. For this kind of surprise. This kind of beautiful confluence.





These moments are like a foretaste of the completion of life, when a person’s story is finished and everything inside the story starts interacting and bouncing around like electrons in an atom.