Festivals & Events

A Literary Experience

Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival brings together those with a love for language

“There is something magical that happens when you bring people together to focus on ideas and on the forms those ideas are encapsulated within, <a href=

pestilence ” says Juan Barker, approved publicity director for the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival, more about which takes place this July. Photo by Seadance Photography ” src=”https://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Seadance_Writers_Festival-9293-602×400.jpg” width=”602″ height=”400″ /> “There is something magical that happens when you bring people together to focus on ideas and on the forms those ideas are encapsulated within,” says Juan Barker, publicity director for the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival, which takes place this July. Photo by Seadance Photography

Reading is, generally, a deeply private experience. The reader finds a quiet, ideally solitary place, and as she opens her book and looks down at the pages, she shuts out the world around her. (It pretty much works the same with an e-reader.) You could say she’s in communication with the author, but if so, it’s in a distant, disembodied way.

She’ll experience all kinds of intense emotions, and think all kinds of interesting thoughts, as she reads, but all of this is hidden. When she’s done, she may well feel profoundly changed—but it won’t show.

Generally, our typical reader likes it that way. Perhaps that makes it all the more interesting when, once in a while, she abandons her solitude and participates in an event that makes reading communal, makes it visible and audible, playful and multi-disciplinary, and even festive. She still has intense emotions and interesting thoughts, but she shares these with a temporary community, and so everyone—including the author—emerges changed, each in their own way.

Juan Barker, publicity director for the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival, knows this phenomenon well. He sees it happen year after year at this popular event, which brings about 500 participants and a dozen featured writers to Denman Island, where they transform the “downtown” area into a lively literary scene, with multiple venues offering solo readings, themed panel discussions, workshops, shared meals, and annual surprises such as a parade, a thesaurus-clad mascot, and multi-media performances.

“There is something magical that happens when you bring people together to focus on ideas and on the forms those ideas are encapsulated within,” says Barker.

“When people come out of isolation and participate in this kind of sharing, it’s almost like a communal ritual. I’ve seen audiences moved to tears, heard from people that they came to understand the world in a different way.

“As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living,” Barker adds. “A writers’ festival is an opportunity to do that, to examine who we are, how we live together, how our society works, and how we feel about that.”

This year, the festival’s main program takes place July 17 to 20, with the workshop series beginning on July 14. The participating authors range from the well-known to the up-and-coming. The festival spans genres, including poetry, fiction both short and long, and non-fiction. There will be opportunities to listen to stories, be transported by language, and reflect on the political issues of our times.

“Putting together the program each year is always lots of fun,” says Barker. “The trick is to get a balance between the legacy writers and the newer writers, and between different genres. Sometimes certain themes emerge.”

This year’s festival will open with a tribute to libraries. “Libraries are all about communities having repositories of knowledge and stories,” says Barker. “Every community strives to do that in some way. We thought this year was a good year to do this because there is a perception that…” He pauses to consider his words carefully. “Well, some would say that scientific libraries in Canada have been or are in peril. So let’s just say that might have been a motivation for our committee.”

The closing event of the festival will feature Maude Barlow (Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water) and Chris Turner (The War on Science and The Geography of Hope) in an event billed simply as “a free-ranging discussion with two of Canada’s most eloquent voices against the corporate control of almost everything.”

“These sort of events always stimulate some really lively conversations, both at the time and afterwards,” says Barker.

The stimulation of lively conversation is one of the guiding goals of the eight-member committee that makes the festival happen each year. This volunteer group meets several times a month in the winter, and much more often in the months and weeks leading up to the event. The committee members are, above all, passionate readers. They are also experienced and savvy event organizers. Barker brings a background in theatre production and conflict resolution, and a professional connection to the world of publishing, as co-owner of an independent bookstore on Denman Island.

The committee also includes Denman writer and media personality Des Kennedy, award-winning author of nine fiction and non-fiction books, including his most recent, Heart And Soil: The Revolutionary Good of Gardens, which is currently riding high on the BC best-seller list. Kennedy brings valuable experience as a veteran of literary festivals near and far, providing insight into what works elsewhere.

But the main model for the Denman event doesn’t come from the literary world. Rather, Barker and team take their inspiration from another form—the music festival.
“Over the years we’ve changed the format to make it more festive,” explains Barker. The venues are all basically next door to each other, which encourages plenty of intermingling.

“One way we’re different from most literary festivals is that the authors are here for the whole event, not just for their slot. We encourage them to bring their spouses and families. So you see them not just on the main stage and also at solo sessions; you see them in the audience, at lunches and dinners, or you might take a workshop with them. So the format naturally breaks down the barriers between performer and audience.

“It’s not just about listening to authors read. There are discussions and interactions. There’s a lot of back and forth between everyone involved. Writers attend other writers’ events and pick up references. And that brings a kind of evolving zeitgeist at the festival. Ideas develop over the three days. Imagery is created that gets woven through the festival. There’s always an element of surprise. You never quite know what’s going to happen.”

Writer Steven Price, who attended last year as a presenting reader and returns this year to teach the Writer-in-Residence program, concurs. “It’s a unique and rather exciting literary festival. It’s the kind of event where the feel changes dramatically every year. It’s never a repeatable experience.

“Every literary festival has its own feel. The Denman festival is small but I wouldn’t say modest. Inside, at the events themselves, there’s an incredible intensity, a real energy that is wonderful both as a reader and a listener. But then when you step outside of the hall there’s a very relaxed, casual feel. Everyone is approachable and the weekend has a wonderful social element. There’s a warmth and welcoming quality to it that’s rare in an ambitious literary festival,” says Price.

The festival is enthusiastically, and creatively, supported by the Denman community. Approximately 70 people volunteer for all the myriad tasks associated with the festival, from decorating the halls to billeting the authors. Also, there are spin-off events in the community—the General Store last year held a complementary “jazz and poetry on the porch” event, and the Denman Audio Arts Collective set up an outdoor stage with live music, carefully scheduled to fill in the gaps in the Readers and Writers Festival program.

An additional creative touch—and a fun dose of internet fame—was brought last year by Jori Phillips, a Vancouver art school student and third generation Denman Islander. Phillips attended the festival in an eye-catching dress she’d made entirely out of the pages of an old thesaurus. Phillips spent two months making the dress, which features a fitted corset, ruffled bodice, layered skirt, and stylish scalloped patterns created by clever folding techniques. It’s wearable art—and you can expand your vocabulary by reading it!

Wearing a banner that proclaimed her to be “Miss Spelled,” Phillips became a sensation not just at the festival, but much further afield, as photos posted of her on social media went viral. Within days she’d racked up 80,000 views on Reddit, and been featured on major print, television, radio and digital media outlets around the world.
“I’m an avid reader, and I loved the idea of a girl who reads so much that she becomes the book,” says Phillips.

Barker says Phillips will be back this year with something new, but he doesn’t yet know what. “I’m confident she won’t disappoint us,” he says.

The festival of course inspires not only fashion designers but also writers. The annual event provides a boost of energy and motivation for all aspiring or practising writers who attend—but in particular, Denman Island writers.

“One element of our festival that is unique is our focus on local writers,” says Barker, adding that the festival always offers several sessions where Denman writers read their work, and often has an additional session for young writers (this year the children and youth will be reading with the adults). These are always well attended, including by some of the more established writers showcased at the festival, adding to the sense of community that builds during the festival.

As well, the workshops provide local writers with high quality instruction that otherwise might entail an expensive trip to Vancouver or Victoria. And it brings writers together, stimulating relationships that form the basis of a local literary culture that remains active and fertile throughout the year.

Bill Engleson, a Denman Island writer who last year published his first novel, Like a Child to Home, has participated in the festival every year since he moved to the Island six years ago, taking workshops, attending readings, and reading his own work at the local writers’ sessions.

“I’m blessed that I don’t have to leave home to get access to something like this,” says Engleson. “I always take a few workshops, and that gives me some formal education that I can draw on throughout the year. And participating as a reader gives me the chance to present my work, to improve my reading and presentation skills.”

Engleson has been part of a local writers’ group that formed out of last year’s festival, coordinated by a member of the festival organizing committee. They have been meeting twice a month all year to share and give feedback on each others’ work, and will be presenting the results of that work at this year’s Denman Writers Reading sessions. “The festival is aimed at supporting a culture of reading and writing,” says Barker. It clearly is working.

Barker has been involved in organizing the festival since 2007. He can’t precisely say when the festival started, but suggests that its history traces back to the early 1990s, when a Denman writer named Hillel Wright held an International Poetry Festival on the Island. Coming full circle, Wright has recently moved back to Denman and will be reading his work this year.

Since then, the festival has re-invented itself several times, taking different formats until settling, about eight years ago, into its current shape with various genres, multiple venues, workshops and meals. It works, says Barker, and there are no plans to change it radically.

“Right now we are at our capacity with about 500 guests per year. We don’t physically have space to expand. So instead we can work on quality,” says Barker.
He encourages visitors to immerse themselves in the event. “Sure, come for one session if that’s all you can do. But it’s so much more powerful to come for the whole three days. You’ll see how ideas are introduced in one session and then picked up by someone speaking at another session. There’s an extra transcendence that happens by the end of Sunday. It’s like when you go to a music festival. It can be a cumulative experience that builds over time,” he says.

For three days, you can think only about books, words, stories, and ideas, in the company of like-minded literate co-adventurers. You can go home with an expanded mind, an awakened heart, and an armful of new books, and settle down for a year of quiet, solitary reading, knowing that what appears to be a deeply private activity is also an experience of profound connection.

For more information visit www.denmanislandwritersfestival.com