Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

BookTour 2010: Banff/In(ter)ventions

Share |

Conferences are typically uneven events, pulling together disparate voices from disparate sensibilities. Conversely, the conference I was heading to at Banff (back to Banff, I should add, after two weeks down in Pincher Creek) seemed intentionally geared towards attracting a rather narrow band of participants. The title of the event was, vaguely, In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge. It was inevitable that participants would be compelled to deconstruct such an opaque name, and I think various parts of the phrase came up half a dozen times. Perhaps because I was distracted for being filled with my Southern Alberta sojourn, I didn’t expect that my conference would actually began on the shuttle out. I happily found myself seated with Adeena Karasick, across from Maria Damon, in front of Nick Montfort, etc. Only a lonely fellow at the back of the bus, and an Austrian couple at the very front were not part of the literary avant-garde’s quest for a cliff to jump off. Conversation was lively, and the Americans practiced saying words like “hoodoo” and “coulee”.

The group on the bus was a veritable foreshadowing of the conference. Nick, it turned out, was one of the stars of the event, being a featured poet on the first evening. He also gave a paper, moderated an important panel, and asked a handful of the most interesting questions from the peanut gallery – he definitely helped take the conference away from those voices that only wanted to talk about themselves. He had things about himself to talk about, too, of course. His poetry involves perl (?) scripts that automatically generate texts within prescribed limits. His reading was excellent, and certainly the highlight of the digital interactions for the entire event (which turned out to be, with one exception, pretty lame). Maria was a replacement for Marjorie Perloff who had to cancel for reasons that I would later come to agree with. Other cancellations included Caroline Bergvall and Daphne Marlatt – three strong female voices whose absence (coupled with the absence of others like Lisa Robertson, Sina Queyras, a. rawlings, and others) were broadly felt. Canadian women were well represented by Larissa Lai and Erin Moure – two who did all that could be done to broaden the terrain. The diversity of the participants was, however, notably narrow.

In contrast to constriction, my room at the Banff Centre was enormous, boasting a king sized bed, a writing desk, a sitting area, and an eight person bathroom. There was a large picture of E. Pauline Johnson (the only acknowledgement of native Canadians I detected) there to smile me into sleep, which felt strangely comforting. The opposite wall of windows looked out onto the base of Tunnel Mountain.

Gary Barwin and I read the next afternoon. It was scheduled as a simultaneous panel, which meant missing a series of writers I would have very much liked to see. Our sound check also required missing the previous panel. Gary and I got to cultivate our jitters into a nervous, playful energy that seemed to fit the piece we delivered. The room was full, and filled with folks like Charles Bernstein, Al Filreis, Adeena, Karl Jirgens (from Windsor), and so on. Nobody seemed to object to our version of sound poetry, despite the fact that we did not wear our gorilla masks. Oddly, we were paired with two academic papers – one on Duchamp and the other on virtual reality at Brown University. During the Q&A, we were asked what connections we found between the three presentations. Everybody laughed.

Erin Moure was the featured poet that night, and by all accounts she was an enormous success. I whisked off with derek beaulieu, Christian Bök, Kenny Goldsmith, Susan J. Barbour, Marie Smart and Craig Dworkin to the Banff Springs Hotel for the rest of the evening. I was, quite honestly, blown away by the scope, scale, and elegance of the space. The only other CP hotel that approximates it might be the Chateau Frontenac. I snuck away from the group for a moment to marvel and, in the central square, came across an imposing sculpture of a rotund fellow pointing heroically into the future. It seemed inspired, so I read the caption. Inevitably for this country, no revolutionary, he was the CEO and his famous quote engraved beneath read something like: “The tourists won’t come unless we build something for them.” Now there’s vision. Nick Montfort and Adeena joined us at the bar, eventually.

Charles Bernstein’s reading on the last night was extremely potent. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, especially after his dedication and tribute to his late daughter. Though it is strange to find such an iconic LANGUAGE poet dealing with feelings in his work, he did so deftly, honestly, and powerfully. It never felt that he had to sacrifice his aesthetics to reach certain moments of expressivity, rather it felt like he was encountering an enormous loss and using all the tools at his disposal to handle it. He received a standing ovation, which I was happen to ovate within.

In shutting down the show, I was very pleased to find that almost all of my books had sold and in good numbers (I had even restocked the book table halfway through). The cheque more than covered all of my expenses associated with the event. This proves that the diversity of the event was even narrower than I had imagined: these weren’t just experimental writers, these were experimental writers with book budgets.

The conference was specifically designed to prevent the writers from accessing the landscape (lest a sequel to The Prelude should arise?), but Gary and I skipped a panel to climb Tunnel Mountain. It was by far the most dangerous and edgy thing I encountered all weekend, but even there the paths were carved, stairs set, the deer well-behaved, and other travellers wandered up and down in front of and behind us. The sun was shining, and I bid adieu to Alberta after over three weeks in its embrace. I sat with Stephen Osborne, editor of GEIST, on the shuttle out, which seemed appropriate. He filled me with lore and got me into a Vancouver state of mind.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page