2011 Frye Festival

I Went To A Poetry Reading And A Rock Concert Broke Out

May 1, 2011 11:01 PM

The Frye Fest is now over, and I'm left with many fine memories, thoroughly entertained. There were many wonderful moments at readings, and I've made a list of works I must check out, or at least hope to at some point in this chaotic life.  Note to self:  Less Facebook Scrabble, more reading.

I do a lot of music writing, so imagine my surprise that not only were there lots of good performances at the Frye Fest, I was actually introduced to some wonderful artists, seeing them perform for the first time.  This bunch of volunteers for a literary festival did an excellent job lining up fine music, and musicians who worked well in the context of this kind of event.

Music is part of the festival because, of course, it fits hand-in-glove, usually includes lyrics, and also helps draw in a broader audience for the festival.  There's also such connections as the jazz-poetry coffee houses of the late 50's, which were the precursor to today's literary festivals, as Margaret Atwood taught us.  The Frye Fest has created its own version of these, in events such as the Frye Jam, Soiree Frye and Beer and Books, which featured a mix of music and readings.

One of the last events of the festival was the annual Frye Jam, held well into the early morning hours of Sunday.  Readers were joined onstage by the excellent Moncton jazz group Les Paiens, who accompanied them with improvised music worked out earlier in the day in rehearsal.  The group is perfect for this, as they are all excellent on their instruments, happy to create in this jam atmosphere, and always able to stay in the background, letting the words take the lead.  The lineup of writers was Helene Doiron, Susan Juby, Daniel Dugas, Doug Harris, Mark Anthony Jarman, Dyane Leger, and Shandi Mitchell.   Jarman was more than ready for the jam, bringing along a harmonica as well, and finishing his poem by moving into a funky blues jam, proving himself to be adept on the harp.jarman_m.jpg

Les Paiens were joined for the evening by guitarist Joe Grass, mentioned blog-wise earlier this week.  Grass is my personal find of the week, a Moncton native now working out of Montreal.  I now have his two CD's, and his phone number, and plan to do a full feature on the guy very soon, which I'll post on the CBC.CA/NB site.-1.jpg

The evening was also used to showcase some more new young talent in the area.  Phil Flowers is an up-and-coming singer-songwriter in Moncton who has just released his first CD, something else I'll review soon, and Vivianne Roy is a good sounding young Acadian singer, who looks to be a star in the making.  And still having so much fun after her main stage performance Thursday at the Capitol Theatre was Marie-Jo Therio.  Not even on the bill, she showed up late into the night with her accordion, ready to jam with Grass and Les Paiens.

But first, there was the small matter of the musical guest star of the evening, Montreal's Bernard Adamus.  His biggest hit is "Brun", but the young crowd who stayed behind after the poets knew most of his songs by heart.  Adamus was in Moncton for the first time, and was shocked to find out the Acadian community knew his songs, and that the party was so fun.  I can honestly say the atmosphere of the whole evening was tremendous, with people actually listening to the poetry, loving the music, being happy, having a party.  It was, as one vet of the scene said, a magic Moncton moment, and from this observer's seasoned eyes, a night that rivaled any musical experience I've had in the country.

A More Educated Opinion

May 1, 2011 9:51 PM

My bad. In speaking about Margaret Atwood's keynote lecture at the Frye Festival Saturday night, I forgot that I don't really know anything about Northrop Frye or mythology. While I was scratching my head, others with a little more on the ball were nodding appreciatively. So, I should correct the opinion I published below, and allow someone who did understand the talk and Q and A session after to give an accurate review.

This comes from a Ph.D. candidate pal, Sara Parks Ricker, currently studying at McGill in Montreal, who also attended the lecture, as addressed to me:

You are wrong about what she said (or didn't say).

Her talk not only taught us about myth-making in Canadian literature (and indeed the Canadian psyche), but she also gave us a refresher course on biblical mythology, Greek mythology, and Fryean mythic archetypes! She started by reminding us (or telling newbies for the first time) that Canada was once known as not having a mythology, and that she was studying at a time when Canadian thinkers like McLuhan were beginning to rise to the occasion of creating one for us, and that she considered herself part of that movement and still does, with her current trilogy being nothing short of modern epic myth especially for us. She completely used Frye's archetypal method throughout the talk, connecting ancient Greek examples with classic English literary examples with modern examples, right up to the point when she delighted/shocked us with the announcement that science was simply the new mythology, not that different from the cosmologies of the ancients. The way she described Frye's basic archetypes was terse enough to make us laugh and give us a hunch that she had critiqued him for being overly simplistic, but then she turned around and kept coming back to examples at every stage of her talk to let us know that she tipped her hat to the many ways he was obviously right. She took Frye's adamant belief that "there are no bad genres, only bad examples of the genre" to its logical extreme in her joke about ads being "folk poetry" while at the same time reminding us that there is nothing to live for if the consumerist genres are all we have left, challenging us to rise to Canada's defense. She made the important distinction so dear to Frye about myth having nothing to do with truth/falsehood and everything to do with stories where we as Canadians can insert ourselves as protagonists, and not only for art's sake, but for reasons of dire political import. Anyone familiar with Frye's work would know she wasn't quoting him, but EMBODYING him, and (in the greatest compliment possible from his perspective) tweaking him to improve his hegemonic oversights without throwing the baby out with the critical bathwater. And when she drops anecdotes about not being allowed into a library because girls were too distracting or women poets committing suicide or people asking more often about her hair than about her work, you can bet they are not random.

The medium is the message.

In short, "long answers about whatever interests Margaret Atwood at the time" are nothing short of the best thinking that is coming out of Canada right now, bar none. Don't think for two seconds that if she decided to tell us about what she had for lunch it wouldn't be political, richly multivalent, and a perfect fit with the rest of her overall oeuvre. Hers is an educated imagination at its absolute best.

And you saw a stand-up comic?

Have you heard the one about Margaret Atwood?

May 1, 2011 2:22 AM

I've just spent two hours in the company of Margaret Atwood.  Myself, and 800 close Monctonian pals, hoping for the true tales of scandal and romance at Victoria College, University of Toronto, in the late 1950's, when Atwood was Frye's pupil.  Or maybe we wanted insight into mythology, the advertised topic of Atwood's lecture at the Frye Fest.   Really, I didn't learn a thing.  Wait, that's not true.  I learned that Atwood's favourite fan question is "Is your hair really like that, or do you have it done?".  And I learned that she has read the entire Conan The Conquerer book series.
I guess what I really learned is that Margaret Atwood is a laugh riot. She loves to make a joke, and is actually quite silly and lovable, even though it's sometimes nearly impossible to follow her.  But she's Margaret Atwood, and she can get away with it.
Pity poor interviewer Rhonda Whitaker.  Even her most harmless questions would send Atwood on a ten-minute twisting tale that eventually would reveal the answer.  More often than not, the answer turned out to be "no", such as the time she asked Atwood if Frye was an influence on her Can. Lit. guide, Survival.  We did hear about her days on the board of the publisher House Of Anansie, a book on v.d., and something about a stewardess and a dominatrix.  At one point, she randomly brought up the stage musical version of The Lord Of The Rings ...something about mythology caused it .... finally flustering the patient and polite Whitaker.

Not that it mattered a whit.  You have to love someone so clearly enjoying life, especially as she's wandering around with some Great Big Thoughts in her head.  The questions didn't really matter, and in truth she only ever took half a course from Frye.  She did regale us with top-of-her-head hilarious anecdotes, such as being a female poet in the 60's, when people would ask her in hushed tones if she was going to commit suicide (the Sylvia Plath thing, you know).  And, her parents were both from Nova Scotia, which tweaked our Maritime pride.  Plus they honeymooned by canoeing down the St. John River, because they had no money.

I came for some inspiration, or education, or insight.  Instead I saw the best stand-up comic around.  It was just as fulfilling.

Pour me a pint, here comes a poet

April 29, 2011 9:55 PM

Books AND Beer.  If you're trying to sell literature in New Brunswick, that's a damn good way to do it.  It got my attention.  Although...there were just as many glasses of red wine in the packed City Grille in Moncton.  And I'd bet for most patrons, this wasn't their first book reading.  Still, it wasn't my first beer either, and I sure appreciated the chance to enjoy both at once.

A Friday happy hour of literature might be a hard sell for some bars, but it actually works very well.  Having a civilized drink and hearing someone tell you a good story is better than hearing my friends drone on about the Canadiens once again.  Sorry, drinking friends, you're getting morose.4875411709_910538ebd2.jpg

Montreal native Doug Harris read from his first novel, the well-received YOU comma Idiot, the story of a slacker and his friends.  Harris has captured the loser's life well, and the excerpt he read was truly funny, but at the same time gave such a vivid description of what makes an idiot tick, the guy became your friend (and for some of us, perhaps he felt a little too close to home).The-Scare-in-the-Crow-194x300.jpg

Tammy Armstrong is a Fredericton (born in St. Stephen) poet and writer, who read from her collection The Scare In The Crow.  As she explained, its theme is our relationships with animals, good and bad.  The work she chose had to do with the rather horrifying 19th century practice of plume hunting, as exotic birds were killed for their colourful tail-feathers.  At the time, they adorned fashionable hats, and the feathers were literally worth their weight in gold, selling for the same price.  In the prose poem, we follow one hunter in Florida, disgusted with himself for taking part in the carnage, but unable to resist the lust of the huge profits.

The event was capped off by Sylvia Tyson.  As explained in an earlier blog (scroll on down below), Tyson has just released her first novel, and has come up with a unique way to do readings.  Her book, Joyner's Dream, is about eight generations of musicians and scoundrels, a family that passes on a variety of things, good and bad.   There's the love of music and the occupation they get from it, and a mysterious violin named Old Nick, plus a propensity towards thievery, and a disposition towards serious depression.  While Tyson reads, she also brings in taped music that she composed, that fits the parts those parts of the story.  And, at a couple of appropriate moments, we get to hear that famous singing voice as she switches from the voice of the character to that of the performer.  It's entertaining, unique, and a surprise.  Instead of hiding her famous musical past, she embraces it and uses it to her advantage in this new career.

I was so captivated, I forgot about my second beer.  Damn you, classy literature, you've won me over, and distracted me from my former passion.

Atwood Delivers

April 29, 2011 8:47 AM

-1.jpgFrye festival-goers enjoyed their first meeting with Margaret Atwood Thursday night, at the annual Soiree Frye.  Appearing along with other festival writers and musicians, Atwood was an immediate hit with the crowd.  It was far and away the most successful Soiree Frye in the twelve years of the festival, with more than 600 people filling the Capitol Theatre.

The evening began with two musicians originally from the city, and now living in Montreal.  Marie-Jo Therio is one of the major stars of the Francophone scene, a theatrical performer known for her enthusiasm and brilliant voice.  Joining her was a rising guitar star, Joe Grass, who works with such major Montreal artists as Patrick Watson and Daniel Belanger, and has just released a new disc, Deadlocks.  Although the two are friends, they had never performed together before.  They played on a selection of each others material, with songs interspersed throughout the evening's readings to great effect.

In the bilingual spirit of the Frye Fest, writers alternated between French and English.  Reading were Moncton poet Dyane Leger, visiting author Gilles Leroy from Paris, and new Canadian novelist Shandi Mitchell.  Also on stage were the winners of the Festival's writing contest, high school students from all over the province, sharing $4500 in prize money.

Then it was time for the woman host Dawn Arnold called "Canada's greatest public thinker."  Atwood's list of titles is long, and her career is now measured in numbers:  16 honorary degrees, 55 major literary awards.  Atwood appeared happy and relaxed to be at the festival, reminding all she was a student of Northrop Frye's, at Victoria College in the 1950's.  She called the festival "an astounding success", and added "Who would have thought?  Certainly not Northrop Frye.  I'm sure he would be bemused....or something."

Atwood then read from her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, which she said was about "the total annihilation of the human race."  When the laughter passed, she added, "Not everybody finds that amusing."  Despite the bleak theme of the book, the passage she chose was in fact quite a riot, leaving the audience with a warm first impression of the writer.  Atwood will deliver the key address at the festival Saturday night, again at the Capitol Theatre.

The evening continued nearby at the City Grille with the Night Howl, a late-night mashup of words and music.  Writers featured were Daniel Dugas and Gabriel Robichaud.  Robichaud is the official Poet Flye this year, but for this event he took off his crown and delivered his own set of poetry and a short story, hitting with humour and a confident performance.  Once again Joe Grass took the stage, now wowing the crowd with his solo set.  Grass is a one-of-a-kind talent, a songwriter with exceptional guitar skills, surely a star in the making.  Marie-Jo Therio again joined him for several songs on accordian, obviously enjoying the chance to continue playing with him.  Everyone in the audience felt they had been part of a magic Moncton evening.

Sylvia Tyson's New Groove

April 28, 2011 4:59 PM

Sylvia Tyson has had a steady stream of fascinating careers since she started singing folk music in 1959. She was in the world famous duo Ian & Sylvia until 1975, and much of her work involved finding obscure folk songs from Canada and abroad, and introducing them to the bigger folk world. She introduced French Canadian music to the Grenwich Village scene, was a close friend and influence for Bob Dylan and many others, and then became a hit songwriter. Her You Were On My Mind was a Top Five single in 1965 for the group We Five. Along the way she started appearing on TV, eventually hosting a weekly show with Ian, and once solo, she became a broadcaster, notably hosting CBC Radio's Touch The Earth. Since 2000, she's been a member of the successful group Quartette, and has also kept more than busy as a board member for several arts organizations.

Now, you can add another career to the resume. In March, she released her first novel, called Joyner's Dream. It's the story of eight generations of one musical family, and follows them from the late 1700's to today around North America. There are scoundrels and thieves, and a couple of items passed on to each new member, a violin, and some harsh depression.


Tyson is in Moncton for the Frye Festival, only the second literary festival she's ever been part of, plus she's done a handful of readings so far. "It's been interesting doing the readings," she enthuses. "The response has been great, I'm very gratified. At the first one I did in Port Coburn (Ontario) these two ladies came up to me after the show and said 'Oh, we just loved it, it was like being read a bedtime story.'"

She says it wasn't a conscious decision to write a book, it just took over her thinking. "I don't know if I ever had that conversation with myself. It's kind of like topseed, it just kind of grew. I actually knew who all of the people were in the book, before I even knew what the storyline would be. These voices started asserting themselves, and I started writing them down. I don't usually question why I start something, I just start doing it to see where it goes. I think perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind I thought, if I write a book, it will get me off the road for awhile, but apparantly not so."

The road will hold her for the next few months, as her time is taken up by book promotion. As for her singing career, it's meant no solo work, and the group Quartette has been less active, although she says they'll be doing more this fall. She says it hasn't been difficult adding this new style of writing to her portfolio. "There are similarties. One thing it did do was give me the luxury of expanding ideas, because a song is basically four minutes long. It has repetition in it, and it has to rhyme. So you have to be very careful what words you use, and you only get to use them once, and you don't really get to expand it, it's distilled storytelling, songs. So my book is over 400 pages, it was over 500 after my first draft."

You can enjoy the best of both worlds from Sylvia Tyson at the Frye Festival. On Friday, Apr. 29, she'll do a free reading at the Frye Book Club, at 2 PM at the Moncton Public Library. And at 5 PM, she's the featured musician at the Books And Beer event, at the City Grille.

A Chat With Dawn Arnold

April 27, 2011 6:15 PM

Everyone in Moncton knows Frye Festival Chair Dawn Arnold. As the spokesperson, driving force, and chief programmer, she's been the whirlwind that has put literary and literature on the front pages in the area for the twelve years of the festival. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and personality is a major reason for the success.


Always available for promotion, Arnold sat down to talk about accomplishing one of her major goals, bringing internationally-known Canadian author Margaret Atwood to the city this year. You'd think she'd be going like crazy, now that the festival has arrived. "No," she laughs. "My work is almost done now, the volunteers take over, they are the ones working hard, I get to enjoy it now."

The story of Arnold convincing Atwood to come to Moncton is almost a local legend now. The literary star has been topped the most-wanted list for the festival since day one. "There are three names that are far and away the most requested, when you ask people who they'd like to see here," confirms Arnold. "J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and Margaret Atwood. And Atwood is tops." The request has been in to Atwood's agent for years now, but always coming back with polite regrets. Two years ago, there was a chance meeting in an airport. "I was in line at security, going to the States, getting that powder on my hands to check for bomb residue," recalls Arnold. "I looked behind me, and said to my girlfriend, 'That's Margaret Atwood'." Figuring it was now or never, Arnold screwed up her courage, approached her, introduced herself, and made the invitation in person. "She told me had heard good things about the festival, but she was too busy that year, which would have been 2010. Then, she said she would come the next year. And sure enough...."


Atwood's appearances start Thursday night at the Frye Fest. The first one is the annual Soiree Frye, which features readings with some of the writers, some of the music, and a meet-and-greet. Arnold's stoked about the whole night at the Capitol Theatre: "So a french and english musician will be on stage. What's so incredibly cool about this, one's Francophone, Marie-Jo Therio, and Anglophone, Joe Grasse, they both grew up in Moncton, and they've never played together before. That's Soiree Frye with Margaret Atwood. And then, Saturday night, she's going to deliver the Antonine Maillet-Northrop Frye Lecture. And what is so cool about that is she actually studied under Frye. She will be presenting stories that I don't think she's ever told before, about her experience. It's called "Mythology and Me: The Late 1950's at Victoria College". I have read it, and it's quite brilliant, I have to say, very funny. She's really funny, huh? She's a very funny woman. So she will give that talk, and then will be interviewed on stage, a question and answer. And then she's agreed to sign books, which is excellent."

That's what you'll find in the program when you search for Atwood's appearances, but Arnold says there's another: "Those were the only two things we asked her to do, and it was made very clear that that was it. But then we had one more thing that we asked her to do. That was a fundraiser, because we have a foundation, and currently every dollar that you put into the foundation is matched, one dollar by the provincial government and one dollar by the federal government, so it's in our best interest to put as much money in there as we can get. So we asked her if she would consider coming to a lunch, just 25 people, and she had to do nothing. And she said, "Okay but don't ask me to do anything else!" So we got her to do that, and then I started panicking, thinking I'm going to sell tickets at $200, people are going to expect something. Anyway, it's going to be very intimate, at a beautiful little restaurant in Dieppe, that has all-organic food from a hundred mile radius. We're going to ask everybody that comes to tell a Margaret Atwood story to her. So we're hoping to entertain her and give her a little flavour of our community."

So, what can Arnold possibly do in the future, to match or top Atwood's appearance? "I'm composing a letter to J.K. Rowling in my head. I have no idea what I'm going to do." Well, she can start by enjoying the ride this year.

Official Launch

April 26, 2011 9:02 PM

It's now official, the 12th annual Frye Fest is underway. And so far, no SARS, volcano ash, canceled flights and unfortunate illnesses have appeared to force any authors out of the agenda. As festival Chair Dawn Arnold has said, it seems they are bothered by at least one act of nature each year, but with fingers crossed they are moving forward with the full slate of twenty-eight.
As usual, the Poet Flyé was on hand to officially open the event. The usual group of dignitaries, festival folk, and major sponsors take a twirl at the podium, but as per Festival tradition, this year's official poet was crowned, and set to his task. 21-year old Gabriel Robichaud must now compose an epic saga about the 2011 Frye, and deliver it Sunday morning at the airport, at Poet Flyé dit Bye-Bye!, accompanied by the excellent group Les Paiens. Robichaud seems perfect for the job; he's a performer as well as a writer, and got into the spirit of his position, playing the role of Festival King (or fool, depending on your take on it). The crown and robes help as well.
At the opening, Dawn Arnold was proud to point out the huge numbers of school kids getting to meet "a real live author" this week. 10,000 N.B. students will be involved in the Authors in the Schools program, which has always been an integral part of the festival. I was asked earlier if there was an economic spin-off to the event, similar to the ECMA's or Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival. You can be sure some hotel rooms were rented, some restaurants will see more business, and certainly a few drinks will be hoisted. Downtown Moncton gets an impact. But the real benefit is going to be felt in the future. Among those 10,000 kids are ones that will be introduced to the fun of reading and writing, who will remember that writers are just folks who want to tell stories, and that they can too if they wish. Literacy rates will be affected. Many of the volunteers of the festival spend time throughout the year working for literacy groups, helping improve the lives of young people. Every one of the volunteers, organizers, and authors is devoted to that cause, and much of the excitement you'll feel this week comes from that enthusiasm.

Also, there's a noticeable giddiness in the atmosphere already. Maybe it's because Margaret Atwood will be here Thursday. Maybe it's because there are so many fun events, including Books And Beer, Frye Jam, and Night Howl. Maybe it's all the events for children, and authors such as Geronimo Stilton and Annie Groovie. Or maybe it's just that in year twelve, they know what they're doing, and know they have a good one coming up.

Frye Festival Underway in Moncton

April 26, 2011 9:05 AM

Moncton's Frye Festival is now in its 12th year, and has become one of the most successful literary festivals in the country. Not the biggest, but it's certainly one of the boldest, and the only one of its particular kind, bilingual. Here you'll find french and english writers and audiences mixing at the same events, with no worries. If you speak or understand both languages, great. If not, nobody cares. The idea is to present both equally, in this most bilingual area,paying tribute instead of playing language politics.

The festival gets underway officially on Tuesday, April 26th, but there's simply too much fun to be had, too many good ideas and writers to go around, so organizers created an early show this year for the Monday night. Called "Prelude: Emerging New Brunswick Writers", the evening featured readings by six up-and-coming poets and prose writers,as presented by the New Brunswick Writers Federation. Or, as the Federation's Executive Director Lee Thompson put it, "the underexposed underbelly of New Brunswick writing." Typical of the Frye Festival,there were three francophones, three anglophones, three women and three men.

The works often featured obvious New Brunswick references, much appreciated by the crowd at The City Grill performance space. Ian LeTourneau, Dalhousie born but now teaching at Fredericton's St. Thomas University, started the program in that vein with a poem inspired by the well-known walking bridge in Fredericton, called A Cubist's View Of The St. John River. Even the mundane subjects had regional connections for the listener, such as his ode to eating a Golden Delicious apple.

Sherry Coffee of Fredericton provided the emotional highlight,reading from her story "A Pattern Of Walking". It's the intense and captivating life story of a woman who decides to walk from New York City to her native Siberia, and what drove her to this dramatic journey.

Jennifer Houle, who grew up in Shediac, chose poems about the area,everything from battling the traffic of Moncton's Wheeler Boulevard, to the local plant life of Barachois.

The comedic side of the night came from Jonathan Roy, a young writer who railed against Dieppe's hotel/indoor amusement park, the indelicately named Crystal Palace.

It was a fine reminder of just how fun the festival can be, with one-of-a-kind performances, new ideas on how to present writers and their works, and tremendous exposure for the literary arts to the wider public, and school kids of the Greater Moncton area.

Full festival schedule

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