The ImagiNation Festival in Quebec City was great fun. It was cold for Spring, even by Quebec standards, a chilly -9 C at times. But, despite the cold, it was still exciting to wander the streets of the old town, and stand by the citadel, in the shadow of the statue to the great explorer Samuel de Champlain, looking out over the giant St. Laurence river and four hundred years of exploration and history. Gazing out over the implacable river, impersonal, almost inhuman in its immensity, it’s impossible not to daydream a little about the lives played out on the river, running the frequent, and hazardous, month-long voyages from the old world to the new, trading furs for guns and liquor. It was, in its time, the wild East – the frontier. It’s still my favourite word in the English language, and – like Canada’s modern history – starts with the French.
Quebec, or ‘Kebek’ in Huron, on the other hand, starts with the First Nations. It means ‘where the river narrows’. It was a beautiful, evocative setting for a literature festival, which brought together a range of writers, from Governor-General award nominee Clifford Jackman, whose dark, nihilistic Western novel has already been bought up by Hollywood, to one of Canada’s best known publishers Douglas Gibson, whose anecdote-filled memoir about publishing some of the world’s most famous authors was one of the best attended events.
My own gig, in the old library at the Morrin Centre – I think Canada’s oldest library – was exciting, not least to be reading in the same room as Dickens once read on one of his North American tours. I was the only poet to be invited to the festival, which was a real privilege. A copy of Beetle is now part of the library’s collection, in keeping with the tradition of the festival. I find that quietly thrilling. Perhaps one day my grandchildren will visit, following their own path up the St. Laurence, and find it there. Perhaps seeing the dedication – to my daughter Katja, who I love so much – will help explain my life to her, or to her children. Perhaps that will narrow the distance between us in some way, and make up for the fact that I can’t always be there as she grows up. I hope so. Any relationship – especially that of a father and his children – needs to be defined by something more than absence. We need to meet in that place where the river narrows.
Doug and I were invited to have dinner with one of the festival directors, who also happens to be one of Canada’s best novelists, Neil Bissoondath. We had a great night, and I asked a lot of questions about writing and publishing a novel. Neil, who came to the reading, mischeviously pointed out that Beetle sounds like a novel-in-waiting. Maybe he’s right. Poetry certainly helps with prose. And I think that’s where I’m heading next, over the summer: a novel about Afghanistan, or more specifically about the relationship between a female intelligence officer and the agent that she’s running, a flamboyant Pakistani arms dealer. It’s based on a short story I wrote this year, and tentatively entitled ‘Leviathan’. Meanwhile, a new collection of poetry is slowly taking shape. Very slowly. But that’s the nature of writing – form follows content, or at least it should. And right now, I’m interested in character, and the telling of stories. We’ll see where it goes over the summer.