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First st. John's literary festival sparks interest

St. John's is the current home of "Galore" author Michael Crummey, the inspiration for Lisa Moore's "Alligator" and the setting for many historical tales by Jack Fitzgerald. But it is also a city that has never had its own literary festival.

In 2010, that has changed.

The first annual Sparks literary festival will be held in St. John's Sunday, Jan. 17, featuring 16 local writers and celebrating writing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

St. John's is the current home of "Galore" author Michael Crummey, the inspiration for Lisa Moore's "Alligator" and the setting for many historical tales by Jack Fitzgerald. But it is also a city that has never had its own literary festival.

In 2010, that has changed.

The first annual Sparks literary festival will be held in St. John's Sunday, Jan. 17, featuring 16 local writers and celebrating writing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The festival is being held at the Petro Canada Hall School of Music at Memorial University and is receiving financial support from the university's Faculty of Arts.

A mix of genres and categories

Among the 16 invited authors for Sparks are Janet McNaughton and Joan Clark. McNaughton said they were approached about Sparks in 2009, when Clark was launching her latest novel aimed at young adults, "Road to Bliss," and McNaughton was promoting the release of "Dragon Seer."

McNaughton - who has also written books for children, completed magazine articles and worked as an editor - said she would normally have to leave the island to participate in a festival that included her young adult work.

"I was delighted, I really was, because young adult writers are serious writers who put time into their work," she said. "It isn't often they are actually asked and included. It's a very nice validation."

Poet and author of the fall release "Never More There," Stephen Rowe appreciated his invitation, too.

"It's not every day you get the opportunity to read in front of other writers, both established and up-and-coming," said Rowe, who is looking forward to the chance to speak with fellow poet Don McKay during Sparks.

Also a poet, as well as a professor of creative writing and the driving force behind the Sparks literary festival, Mary Dalton said the festival was designed to touch all writing genres and categories.

The day-long Sparks festival (even the March Hare started somewhere) is being split into four sessions of readings followed by a moderated panel discussion with the authors.

"Each session has a mix of genres, so you might have a novelist, a poet, someone who has written a book for young adults, someone who has written non-fiction," Dalton said.

Room to grow

"The main principal is people who have new books within the last year. People who, in my judgment, have had really good new books within the last year. Then, a couple of award-winning students. A couple of the finest students from the creative writing program that we have here at Memorial. And then some members of the creative writing faculty are reading," she said.

Dalton said not all genres or desired authors have been included in the festival this year.

"The intention is celebration of writers in Newfoundland and Labrador," said Dalton. "There are no Labrador writers this year, but that's not to say that won't happen."

Although Memorial University had writer and, particularly, playwright Andy Jones as a writer-in-residence in 2009, playwrights are also not represented in the first Sparks literary festival.

"This year there aren't playwrights in the festival, but playwrights are writers and if you think of the drama and theatre scene here, that's a whole other big number," said Dalton, who added she expects to see the inclusion of playwrights and screenwriters in the future.

"This is conceived of as the first in a series. It's an inaugural event," she said.

And it is a big deal or the literary community.

Sure, as literary events go, St. John's has done OK. There have been stop-overs by authors connected with the Corner Brook-based March Hare literary festival as well as various book launches and one-off author events - but never an annual festival all our own.

"As a festival initiated in and happening in St. John's, this is a first. A first for St. John's, a first for the university," said Dalton, who expects Sparks to fully define itself - let's say to hit full flame - given some time.

Vibrant literary community

McNaughton said she is happy just to see the first St. John's literary festival up and running.

"It's something that one might have expected to happen sooner," she said.

"What we have here is an entire community of poets and novelists and young adult writers - it's an entire range. I'm really happy that this is happening because St. John's has an incredible community of writers."

Dalton agreed.

"You know, people have said it before, in terms of the population, the artistic activity here is astonishing and one of the areas in which it is really astonishing is in the literature," she said.

In fact, when she spoke with The Telegram about Sparks, Dalton was sitting in her office at Memorial University with bookshelves on every wall filled with chapbooks and titles and texts from Newfoundland and Labrador authors.

"Think of the population of the size of Newfoundland. Then think of the number of writers who are not simply competent but who are very fine writers. Not all of them have achieved a national reputation. (Yet) many of them have," she said.

"It does sound like a bit of puffery that the activity is astonishing, but there's a reason that that gets said," added Dalton, who has witnessed the development of writers in the province not only from her work at the university and as a reader, but also as an editor for several years of the now-defunct literary journal TickleAce.

Not only author readings

From that experience, recognizing not all of the province's skilled writers have yet been published in full manuscript form, Dalton has found ways to include existing literary journals in Sparks.

Throughout the festival day, displays from Riddle Fence, the Newfoundland Quarterly, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies and, potentially, Them Days from Labrador will be available to visitors.

In addition to the journals, there will be displays on letterpress publishing, featuring books from Running the Goat, Walking Bird Press and printing by Duncan Major.

On top of the readings, displays, discussions and opportunities to interact with the authors, the festival is sponsoring a haiku competition (see sidebar).

All of the events at Sparks are free and "open to all." Free parking is available in Lot 15, between the school of music and Burton's Pond.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Michael Crummey

Schedule

All sessions: Sunday, Jan. 17, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Session 1

Chaired by Mary Dalton. Readings by: Michael Crummey, Lynette Adams, Robert Finley, Janet McNaughton (10:30 to 11:30 a.m.), followed by a panel discussion.

Session 2

Chaired by Lawrence Matthews. Readings by: Susan Ingersoll, Chad Pelley, Patrick Warner, Jessica Grant (1 to 2 p.m.), followed by a panel discussion.

Session 3

Chaired by Susan Ingersoll. Readings by: Leslie Vryenhoek, Tom Dawe, Stephen Rowe, Lisa Moore (2:30 to 3:30 p.m.), followed by a panel discussion.

Session 4

Chaired by Mary Dalton. Readings by: Russell Wangersky, Randy Drover, Joan Clark, Don McKay (4:30 to 5:30 p.m.), followed by a panel discussion and announcement of Haiku competition winner. Closing remarks from Mary Dalton will be followed by a post-festival reception (6 p.m. to 7 p.m.).

Organizations: Petro Canada Hall School of Music, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Walking Bird Press Burton's

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

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