A literary feast under the Table(lands)

Writers at Woody Point literary festival showcases authors and musicians from Newfoundland and Canada in the heart of Gros Morne National Park. With files and photos from Justin Brake.

Literature provides a written history that is often omitted from textbooks. Like music, stories provide a feel for the land and its people rather than simply accounting for the known facts. A well-crafted  novel or poem can transport us to another time and place. At their best, they bring us face-to-face with our deeper selves, as if speaking to the universal human experience. Feelings of connectedness and goodwill were unbridled at last week’s 9th Annual Writers at Woody Point literary festival.

It is always a challenge to start a new festival, but the town of about 400 residents is an ideal setting for such an event. Situated in the southwest corner of Gros Morne National Park on the banks of Bonne Bay with stunning views of Gros Morne Mountain and the Tablelands, Woody Point is itself ample inspiration for a song, poem or novel.

A view of Bonne Bay from Woody Point.

“It was a little ‘by the seat of our pants,’” artistic director Alison Gzowski said, reminiscing of the inaugural festival in 2004. “We didn’t know how it would go, if people would like it — we did it, and it was just magical.” Indeed, in less than a decade the festival has become a fixture in the town.

The event’s success may be due to its unassuming character; Writers at Woody Point unrolls naturally and without pretence. With a nod to Newfoundland’s strong lyrical history, musicians and authors share the spotlight throughout; internationally-renowned authors stand shoulder-to-shoulder with locals at the tightly packed events. Michael Ondaatje, who was attending the festival for the first time, described it as “one of the most joyous festival’s I’ve been to,” noting the interplay of musicians and authors “makes everything three-dimensional.”

Amelia Curran entertained crowds at the Heritage Theatre and Merchant Warehouse, debuting songs from her new album "Spectators".

Festival goers were treated to concerts by Amelia Curran, who debuted two songs from her forthcoming album Spectators, The Sharecroppers – a trio of schoolteachers from Corner Brook, and a special ‘Guitar Summit’ featuring Duane Andrews, Sandy Morris and Shane Murphy.

My Thursday arrival meant missing the first two days of the festival, which saw Alan Doyle and Andrew James O’Brien and the Searchers perform to a packed house each night at the old Woody Point Heritage Theatre. The century-old building has been beautifully restored and now serves as ground-zero for the event. Events are also hosted downtown at the newly renovated Merchant Warehouse and at Galliott Studios, a trendy café that doubles as an art studio and gallery.

Galliott Studios.

Thursday was an opportune time to arrive, however, as festival goers honoured the life and works of the late Al Pittman, whose writing and spirit are credited with nurturing the arts in Newfoundland. That afternoon, prior to my arrival, Project Bookmark Canada unveiled their first instalment outside Ontario – an excerpt from Pittman’s Thirty for Sixty – at the Seaside Suites. The initiative, led by Ontario-based writer Miranda Hill, installs placards bearing of Canadian literature in the exact location the scene is set, allowing passers-by to stay a while at the intersection of the real and the imaginary.

“I thought it was fitting, Al being so instrumental in the forward movement of literature in Newfoundland,” Hill told me Sunday afternoon, “and the Sea Breeze Lounge, the former tavern on that site, being so much an important part of the community and Al’s writing. And it was wonderful to be able to do that with Writers at Woody Point because the idea behind Project Bookmark Canada is to inspire people to see their spaces differently, appreciate the stories around them.”

Thursday evening, Pittman’s daughter Emily, Newfoundland author Michael Crummey and celebrated Canadian author Michael Ondaatje each took their turn reading from the late poet’s work to a standing-room-only crowd in the Merchant Warehouse.

Michael Ondaatje reads from his 2011 book "The Cat's Table" Friday evening at the Merchant Warehouse.

A respectfully silent audience looked on, yet the atmosphere remained cheerful. After the readings and performances a spontaneous session broke out in the bar below, featuring Duane Andrews and Des Walsh on fiddle, Charlie Payne on the accordion, and festival musician-in-residence Sandy Morris on guitar.

Friday’s festivities opened with a free reading by Linda Spalding whose newest novel, The Purchase, is set for release in September. The early morning crowd huddled inside Galliott Studios, where the walls act as a gallery space amongst the coffee tables, lead to owner Jennifer Galliott’s ceramic studio and finally onto an enviable deck overlooking Bonne Bay. Spalding’s book, centred on the character of her great great grandfather, seeks to understand how we navigate the murky world of new identities and shifting values. Her focus is less on the minutiae of daily life, instead preferring to address the questions, “What was going on in their brains (and) what kind of changes did they go through?”

Perhaps the most unique event of the festival is Writers in the Wild, a guided hike on one of the Gros Morne trails near the abandoned logging village of Lomond, with occasional stops to witness dramatic, musical and literary performances.

Corner Brook author Tara Manuel performs during the "Writers in the Wild" hike near Lomond in Gros Morne National Park.

This year’s hike featured a bittersweet dramatic performance by Tara Manuel that left onlookers recalling the naive security of childhood. One attendee observed that St. John’s group All the Wiles, who played an acoustic set under a large tree, seemed entirely in their element, “as if they had just risen out of the ground.” The walk concluded with a reading by Crummey, a last-minute addition to the festival (by virtue of his attendance as a spectator) and whose poems evoking his childhood in Buchans, NL brought tears to some eyes.

Newfoundland has gained a reputation as a hotbed for literature, with a growing number of hometown authors being recognized on the mainland and beyond — but it has not always been that way.

“[T]he big difference between when I left (Newfoundland) to when I came back (14 years later), was that those writers were being recognized outside Newfoundland as really good writers,” Crummey explained, referring to contemporaries Michael Winter, Lisa Moore and Ramona Dearing.

Michael Crummey shared some of his poetry with a crowd of about 50 along the shores of the Lomond River Estuary Saturday afternoon.

During our Sunday afternoon interview, Ondaatje cited the exchange of literature as a central role of writers’ festivals. “[W]hat’s sad,” he told me, “is that some of the literature or art of a region gets stuck there, you know? And it could be a Toronto writer who’s not known anywhere else, or an Alberta writer, and these festivals are essential for…spreading the words.” Events like Writers at Woody Point and publications like Brick, which is co-edited by Ondaatje, his wife Linda Spalding and a few others, act as meeting grounds for the writing community. “[I]t’s very important,” Ondaatje continued, “for writers at any stage to not separate themselves from that culture.”

The festival is careful to foster that creative community – although the emphasis is on Newfoundland writers, organizers strive to  bring in about half of the authors from the mainland and abroad.

The festival’s final event was appropriately held in the beautiful Heritage Theatre, where stained glass and arched windows through which soft, coloured light fell upon the painted wooden floor. Writers, musicians, and spectators filled the space; the atmosphere was nearly bursting with energy and emotion.

St. John's folk group All The Wiles close out the festival Sunday afternoon at the Heritage Theatre.

It seemed that, by then, formalities had been largely discarded – host Shelagh Rogers joked with writers and musicians, and the crowd responded enthusiastically to each quip. Donna Morrissey’s final reading, from her forthcoming novel The Deception of Livvy Higgs, was dark and hilarious; had the crowd not burst into laughter they may have cried. All the Wiles closed the festival with a set that had everybody in the theatre clapping, stomping, and singing along. If this festival is any indication of the strength of literature in Newfoundland, we are in fine form and I for one cannot wait for the 10th Annual Writers at Woody Point.

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