Conversation Queen

This year’s edition of the biennial Whitehorse Poetry Festival sees one of Canada’s most informed, experienced and eloquent lovers of literature at three different events this weekend.

Eleanor Wachtel has been the host of CBC Radio’s Writers and Companysince she formed and started the weekly show in 1990. In fact, she’s been a CBC Radio arts and literature commentator since 1979, and began that after years of writing for Books in Canada and other publications.

The list of writers Wachtel has interviewed on Writers and Company is long and fascinating. It includes numerous Nobel Prize winners from various fields of research, graphic novelists, authors exiled for their fiction, primatologists, opera directors and, of course, poets.

At Friday night’s “Poetry Bash” (see Jessica Simon’s article on page 15), Wachtel hosts readings by eight poets. Saturday, she offers “Craft Talk: The Lives of Writers” in late morning, then interviews Rhea Tregebov (Vancouver) and Karen Solie (Toronto) in the afternoon.

“To me conversation is obviously very valuable, and not just because it’s how I engage writers,” she reflects.

“It’s what people are comfortable with … even when you’re texting and twittering all the time, I would think that when people gather together the appetite for conversation is still primary.”

Besides travelling between ideas, a quick look at Wachtel’s travel blog shows that she also journeys at intervals to interview the people behind the thoughts – most recently to Morocco and Spain.

After talking with so many writers, is she concerned that the craft is getting snipped and clipped by social media, texting and twittering?

“It seems to me there’s still an appetite for a whole range of work,” she says.

“One thing that’s still being produced and read in large quantities are big fat novels … and what’s interesting is a number of writers such as Gary Shteyngart and Jennifer Egan are now using texting in their [fiction].”

As for poetry, Wachtel says the appetite for it “seems to go up and down.”

“Poetry seems to be associated with highly emotional points in our lives. We turn to poetry and see it appearing at weddings, funerals, celebrations.

“And then in popular culture we’ll see it in movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and then there’s a little ‘boom’ in that writer’s work.”

The personal impact of listening to poets read aloud is equally important to the smooth-voiced radio host.

“I think festivals are the perfect place for poetry, so the idea of having the Whitehorse Poetry Festival, and poetry slams and any event where you’re getting poets together – to hear poets read their own work is just the best thing.”

Does Wachtel’s frequent travel, combined with constant movement among the different worlds that writers create, affect her personal sense of a “geography of the mind”?

“I think I always feel I’m an urban Canadian, if I had to attach myself to some geographic landscape. I find travel very stimulating because it opens up a whole cultural and political world – there are always connections and reverberations with other writers across time, even if they’re writing in different languages, as is the case in Spain.

“I live in the book I’m reading at the time. I don’t think specifically about the city I’m in unless I’m reading about it; I’m in the landscape of the book.

“[Novelist Hisham] Matar, who I’m reading right now, is an interesting example.

“He’s originally from Libya, then spent time in Cairo and now lives in England. So I don’t think I’m thinking about Canada or Toronto, but at the same time – I don’t know if you can hear the birds – I’m very conscious that it’s spring here and I can hear the birds.

“And … I still have a place on one of the Gulf Islands, so that place of intense green is still very important to me.”

The birds in her backyard were, yes, audible during our phone conversation, so I was curious about her home office. Turns out she was reading in her backyard that morning, but has an office bursting with books (she heads to the CBC studios for interviews and technical meetings, but works on scripts and reading at home).

“I resolved not to have books everywhere in the house, but to have them in a few rooms, and the office is one of them,” she says. “The thing is, once all the shelves are full, they take over on the floor.”

Will e-books and e-readers address some of that sheer square footage?

Right now, Wachtel says, she still receives advance copies of books in paper form.

“I imagine eventually publishers will be offering e-books, and at some point we’ll look up and say, ‘How did we manage without this before?’

“But I still like books, especially because if you read something that you like you can give it to a friend, which you can’t do with a file on an e-reader. It doesn’t have the warmth and immediacy of sharing it with someone.”

The immediacy begins on Friday at 7:30 pm at the Yukon Arts Centre. For details, email [email protected].

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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