Writing a New Chapter

Edmonton is embracing its newfound identity as a literary city.

One evening this past March, a bunch of writers descended upon the Mercer Tavern to officially welcome a new peer to town. Angie Abdou, the author of four books – including the 2011 Canada Reads finalist, The Bone Cage – had accepted a teaching position at Athabasca University and had arrived in Edmonton just the day before from the British Columbia mountain town of Fernie.

The new job was great, of course. But Abdou was equally thrilled about the local writing scene, which she’d previously looked at with envy from afar. “What really provoked my jealousy was the conviviality,” Abdou says, “the mystery writers mixing with the literary novelists mixing with the non-fiction writers mixing with the poets.” Indeed, each of those genres was represented around the tables at the Mercer. Now, she was officially one of them. “I’ve never been welcomed into a community with such warmth.”

Sentiments like Abdou’s are becoming more common. So are the flashier accolades, like national awards, that turn the rest of the country’s attention up to the 53rd parallel, however briefly. Hold on – there’s more. Edmonton is one of a handful of Canadian cities with its own poet laureate. It has launched the most decorated new literary magazine this side of The Walrus. Local writers are constantly banding together to publish and promote their work on new channels, from Twitter hashtags to coffee sleeves. And more of them are settling in all the time. To be sure, there have been ups and downs since Robert Kroetsch and Rudy Wiebe first put us on the map in the 1970s, but there’s no way around it: Edmonton is once again a writer’s city.

Locals have been quietly boasting about the renewed strength of the scene for some time now. If you ask them what defines it, first they’ll agree with Abdou about the camaraderie among writers here. Then they’ll rattle off names and statistics like they’ve memorized trading cards. Lynn Coady won the Giller Prize. Marina Endicott won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Todd Babiak pens award-winning comedies of manners and bestselling thrillers. In the world of newspapers, longform reporting by Jana Pruden and Karen Kleiss has netted the Edmonton Journal national and international accolades. Prefer magazines? Curtis Gillespie recently tied the record for most National Magazine Award wins in a single year. Together, Gillespie and Coady launched Eighteen Bridges magazine, which itself has racked up 31 NMA nominations and eight wins in its first three years. (Ed. note: And, Avenue was named top magazine in Alberta)

If that chorus of support has seemed even louder than usual, you can thank social media for the added volume. Edmontonians were early, aggressive adopters of Twitter in general – in 2013, our city hashtag #YEG was the second most-popular trend in the entire country – and the writing community has eagerly seized the platform for its own purposes, too. The YEGwrites Twitter and Facebook accounts, run by Randy Williams, have become online corkboards for all literary news and events around the city. Meanwhile, when Jason Lee Norman, editor of the winter-in-Edmonton anthology 40 Below, launched his series of local short stories custom-printed onto coffee sleeves, he tagged them all #yegwords and encouraged cafe patrons to upload photos of their latte discoveries. Even the most solitary of writers or readers can join these conversations, or start their own, with a few quick keystrokes.

To be sure, there have been ups and downs since Robert Kroetsch and Rudy Wiebe first put us on the map in the 1970s, but there’s no way around it: Edmonton is once again a writer’s city.

What’s less visible than the people, but no less vital to the community’s overall health, is the infrastructure: the complex ecosystem of organizations, grants, jobs, publications, reading opportunities and myriad other bits and pieces that allow our writing scene to stay in high gear. It helps that Edmonton, as the home of the Alberta Legislature, already has a home-team advantage within the province. Organizations ranging from the Writers Guild of Alberta – the largest such guild in the country – to the Book Publishers Association of Alberta to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts all have their headquarters here. “That proximity counts,” says Peter Midgley, past president of the WGA. We’re also home to established publishers of books and magazines alike, as well as multiple festivals dedicated to the literary arts. Local writers of all stripes benefit from having that machinery so close at hand.

Of course, they also benefit from steady paycheques, as royalties from pure book sales are mysterious and often-cruel mistresses. In in the area, there are three universities – the University of Alberta, MacEwan University and Athabasca – with creative writing departments. The Canadian Literature Centre, run out of the U of A, is a separate research hub that brings together academics, authors and publishers; it also hosts the annual Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture (this year’s was delivered by Coady in April). The U of A and MacEwan, as well as the Edmonton Public Library, also fund annual writer-in-residence positions, which combine dedicated writing time with mentorship and public outreach. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Arts Council bankrolls writing-related projects directly, to the tune of more than $950,000 in grants (in the literary arts and theatre) in 2013 alone.

The real catalyst to the Edmonton writing scene in recent years, however, is the ease and excitement with which it has welcomed new voices – and not just those like Abdou, whose rsum is already stacked. The writers guild runs approximately 10 to 15 programs each year in town, targeted at everyone from professionals to hobby writers and even school groups. As Midgley says, “The future of the writing community in Edmonton is going to depend on young writers.” No matter their age, new writers have no shortage of opportunities to get their work in front of people. Reading series like the Olive and the Glass Door welcome new talent, and even larger festivals like LitFest and the Edmonton Poetry Festival frequently program local writers alongside distinguished visitors.

Midgley himself came here from South Africa in 1999. “The minute people found out I write, I was invited to events,” he says. “I was made part of them. I was given an opportunity to speak.” That inclusivity is, he says, a cornerstone of Edmonton’s writing community, extended even to those who work in other languages. “More than other cities, we’ve acknowledged that we don’t live in a linguistically homogenous society.”

For their part, readers have risen to the occasion. Local titles routinely fill the  bestseller list at Audreys Books on Jasper Avenue. The #YEGwrites hashtag is as often populated by locavore readers as it is writers. Even as the newspaper industry continues shedding resources in an attempt to weather Hurricane Internet, it’s telling that the Journal continues investing in a weekly books column dedicated to local reading and writing.

(This is as good a place as any to pause for a bit of disclosure. I co-write the aforementioned books column. I also had a story published on one of those coffee sleeves, and was even sitting at the Mercer, helping welcome Angie Abdou to town. Perhaps you think that makes me fatally biased. I prefer to think of myself as Exhibit Q in my own thesis.)

None of this, however, is to suggest that the writing community is immune to threat – far from it. While the passion of individual writers doesn’t wax and wane according to budget cycles, the infrastructure that supports them is much more vulnerable. With the recent plunge in oil prices, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts was facing a five per cent cut in funding from the provincial government for the coming year prior to the May election. Organizations like the WGA cobble together their programming budgets and modest staff salaries from several different pots of funding, and the margins for survival are already thin.

If these cuts go through, Midgley says, the repercussions to Edmonton’s writing scene could be dire. “People will continue to work on less and less – for a limited amount of time,” he says. “If there is no end in sight, [the infrastructure is] going to collapse. And my fear is this vibrant community we have now is going to disappear.” At the very least, without organizational support, it will become that much harder to convince young writers to make a go of it here. On his blog, novelist and professor Thomas Wharton recounted telling a student who admitted he hated living in Edmonton to turn that anger into fuel for a new story. That’s sound advice – as Wharton notes, it worked for Margaret Atwood in the ’70s. But it will only take you so far.

“I do think we need to have a writers’ initiative that looks at some of these issues as part of a larger strategy. We can do more.” -Coun. Michael Walters

City council also has a role to play in all of this. Despite having councillors and a mayor whose attitudes towards the writing community are, as Coun. Michael Walters puts it, “very positive, down to a person,” there is always more that could be done in terms of concrete civic supports. In 2008, council approved the 10-year Art of Living plan, which was designed to promote Edmonton as a hub of arts and culture. Since then, the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize has quintupled in value to $10,000, to name one example.

Yet Walters, a poet himself – though not quite as active as he once was – is the first to admit that this isn’t enough. “I do think we need to have a writers’ initiative that looks at some of these issues as part of a larger strategy,” he says. “We can do more.”

In fact, Walters campaigned on such a strategy. His “City of Writers” initiative imagined an Edmonton where City Hall routinely hosts book launches and noon-hour reading series, where distinguished visitors are routinely given books by local authors as gifts, and where dedicated writers’ residences – similar to ArtsHab for visual artists – spur cultural and economic renewal. A city, in short, where putting writers in the limelight “becomes a habit.” It’s a nice idea, but it hasn’t materialized yet.

One way that writers have, however, been embedded in civic discourse to great effect, is through the City’s poet laureate. Edmonton first introduced the position in 2005, and it’s one of only five Canadian cities that has one. It’s also a position that has, in true Edmontonian fashion, been modified and tinkered with by those who’ve filled it. Over the past decade, traditional poets like Alice Major have served as laureate. But so have those who incorporate theatre and song (Anna Marie Sewell) and spoken word (Mary Pinkoski, whose term expired this June) into their work. In 2009, council even elected rapper Rollie Pemberton, better known as Cadence Weapon, to the job. In addition to his official duties, Pemberton delighted in announcing himself as Edmonton’s poet laureate whenever he stepped onstage for rap shows across North America and Europe, then launching into songs like “Oliver Square,” which are dense with references to local landmarks and intersections.

“If I can be as regional as possible, I will do it,” Pemberton told me when I interviewed him for Avenue in 2011. “It’s amusing for me, but it’s also valuable. I get a real kick about doing shit like that.”

Bringing the literary arts to new corners of the city, pushing the boundaries of genre and form, and putting local work onto an international stage: These are accomplishments that council, and the city at large, should be proud of. Edmonton has no shortage of writers with similar ambitions. They will stay here if they are given good enough reasons.

Michael Hingston’s 2013 novel, The Dilettantes, is published by Freehand Books

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