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Getting Your Book On

Notes from Montreal’s 2006 Blue Metropolis literary festival

Last week, Canada's literati flocked to a hotel towering above Montreal's Place des Arts for the eighth annual Blue Metropolis literary festival. There they spent five days participating in workshops, kicking back in readings and canoodling with CBC radio hosts. In case you missed the action, here are some recaps of the most noteworthy events; from a tribute to Montreal poet Irving Layton to Gourmet magazine's highly anticipated "City of Food" panel.

Remembering Irving Layton
"Telling it like it is"

Irving Layton-now there was a Montrealer. The man knew how to strut. He made Canadian poetry cool. He wrote poems for political leaders, poems for his new baby daughter and poems about doing it. Layton was a people's poet. This January, he died.

For one hour, family, friends and devotees of Layton piled into the Grand Salon to tell tales about the "short, stocky guy with a tie and briefcase." The tribute featured a foursome-Samantha Bernstein, Seymour Mayne, Musla Schwartz, and Donald Winkler- who knew Layton as a father, teacher, and friend. Everyone brought their gossip and their poetry books, ready to share.

"The first time I met my dad I was sixteen," related Bernstein, "I showed up with a poem and a guitar." Bernstein, Layton's child from his fourth wife, is now twenty-five and a poet herself. Reading some of her own work, it is clear that she inherited something of her father's "tell-it-like-it-is" style: "There you were," she rhymed, "between Laxative and Lazarus."

Many in attendance that night were Layton's old students-particularly from his teaching days at Herzliah, a Jewish high school. Imagine being a kid and having Layton march into class and ask you how to spell E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S? It seems the poet's cutting witticism was matched only by his sincere compassion for all present in his class. He once brought his students to his house to pillage his personal library. Schwartz told of a poetry course Layton as teaching when she first moved to Montreal from Poland. "He was capable of entering our emotions, our dreams, our fears," she said, her voice gruff with a heavy accent. "It wasn't words he was giving, but heart." Layton, she insisted, was the inspiration behind her PhD in comparative literature.

"Like all of us in this city," added author and friend Mayne, "he was an outsider. He was in one community and on the edge of others." Today, Layton's fifty works of poetry (and the park bench where he was tutored Latin in order to pass university) have become Montreal landmarks.

What, Me Funny?
Stroking the funny bone

It is one thing to write funny stuff, but quite another to write funny stuff and have your audience-especially one that will be writing your book review-take you seriously. To solve this quandary, a bunch of humourists-Morris Panych, Lynn Cody, Drew Hayden Taylor, and David McGimpsey-were put in a small room together in front of an audience to talk plainly about their careers in comedy and, for McGimpsey, to crack cheap jokes about the Mike Bullard show.

"Comedy writing is not a choice but an affliction," suggested Panych during the panel discussion. "The first of your problems is that everyone hangs around you at parties waiting for you to say something hilarious." Even star comedian Steve Martin, one panelist quipped, is "terrible at dinner parties."

Actually, it turns out the real tragedy in comedy is that everyone thinks they are funny. And while certain things are tried-and-true for getting some laughs (like slapstick) writing a good comedic novel or a play is not as easy as it looks. One of the secrets to success, they say, is in the timing. Ba-doom-CHING!

As for cultural differences in cracking up, Native Canadian humourist Drew Hayden Taylor offered this recipe: "Humour is like cooking chicken-it's all chicken, you just use different spices."

Admittedly, the best jokes are the hardest to take. The best comics are able talk about the unfunny stuff, to tell the truth about themselves. If this is true the panelists were baring their soles-there were only a couple of awkward silences; the audience laughed steadily for seventy-five minutes.

The City of Food
Montreal can have its cake and eat it too

What do you get when Gourmet magazine starts smacking its lips about how great your city is for food? You get a dinner party of words to celebrate the culinary mecca that is Montreal and a unanimous agreement on how its diverse culture makes the city worthy of its decadent moniker, the "City of Food."

At a panel disappointedly lacking Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl (who was laid-up due to a plane delay), travel editor William Sertl and contributors Taras Grescoe and Adam Gollner explained Gourmet's decision to devote an entire issue to the city:

"Ruth pushed for Montreal. The time was right ... it's not that close [to New York] and it's not that big a city that everyone knows," explained Sertl, "Montreal was a bit unknown to us ... it was new, genuine." After whetting appetites with starters on the poutine issue (Sertl, who didn't know poutine existed, was surprised to find that he liked it), the audience was more than delighted to listen to the panelists' mouth-watering descriptions of Montreal's food culture.

While each panelist effortlessly divulged their best and worst food experiences in the city and name-dropped many a restaurant, Grescoe and Gollner were hesitant and tight-lipped when it came to revealing their "Montreal's-best-kept-secret" restaurant to a wide-eyed audience-and rightfully so. Though Sertl promised that everything could be found in the magazine, a real Montrealer wouldn't even need it-they would just go out and find out about it themselves.

Pop Culture, Hyper and Otherwise
Slumming it with Jerry Lewis?

Do stories that reference Jerry Lewis or academic lectures about Elvis really do the intelligent reader or scholar any good? According to the discussion by an all-Montreal pop culture panel-writers Jon Paul Fiorentino, Catherine Kidd, Jason Camlot, and David McGimpsey-the answer is ... Hell yes!

When you really get down to it, all literature is pop culture; it's just a matter of timing. True, the natural references and metaphors Shakespeare gravitated towards are different than those employed by writers today, but the motivation for their inclusion remains the same. "The things that were most important to me come from popular culture and they become resonant subject matter for exploring certain things in my writing," noted Camlot, an associate professor at Concordia, whose latest book Attention All Typewriters has an entire story made up of old rock songs.

And then there is the age-old debate about whether or not TV is an "idiot box" and whether TV junkies are idiots. Here, one's defense could about "cultural literacy," said Fiorentino-and it's true. Certainly TV can make you big and fat and lazy, but you certainly can't be "culturally literate" in 2006 without at least talking about television programs. Then there's the Internet. Those who damn the Internet as creating antisocial chat-room monsters are forgetting that the traditional (even "celebrated") bookworm was historically known as a hermit short on social graces, as well.

Other pressing questions arose. Is the printed book going out of style? (No sir) Are people going crazy for hypertext? (Not too hyper) How can a spoken-word performance be captured in the printed word? (With the work of fabulous independent Montreal publisher, Conundrum Press) And, finally, how can we offset the staggering decline of male readers? (What if Grand Theft Auto, a violent video game popular with teenage boys, told more of "a story" along with its interactive gunshot murders and its sweet cars?)

Comix: A Blue View
Working out the sanctity of the graphic novel

Rupert Bottenburg has so many issues regarding the matrimony between narrative and illustration that he might as well get a subscription. The Montreal Comix Jam organizer treated the Blue Metropolis panel on graphic novels like his own private rant line-and the conflicting opinions on the state of adult comics today made for an especially lively panel.

Bottenberg is simply not interested in the industry's predisposition for loosely based autobiographical storylines that revolve around "tremendously narcissistic" and "directionless, twenty-something hipsters"-what he likes to call "bedwetting" comics.

"If I'm going to passively invest in the inner and outer life of someone else, the life must be more interesting than mine," he asserted.

Offering something of a foil to Bottenberg's contempt, local poet and illustrator Sherwin Tjia offered this defense: "I like to examine the small and everyday things. I find them manifestly interesting...I don't think you have to leave home to have an interesting life. It's not epic, but it's interesting."

Emmanuel Guibert, illustrator of the travel-comic book series, Le Photographe, provided some diplomatic middle ground, saying room exists for both the stories that Bottenberg envisions and those that Tjia creates. His work on Le Photographe is proof of this, "I tell the everyday stories of a man living in Afghanistan." Guibert also reminded the panel that what really matters is the successful union of narrative and illustration; the commitment to sincerity, craft and style. Even Bottenberg couldn't agree more, in bedwetting sickness and in health, for better or for worse.