Writing Component, Printmakers’ Ambition Grow at 6th Dawson Print Fest

Parks Canada has graciously opened the heritage Dawson Daily News building each year for the Print & Publishing Festival.

Having been involved from the inside with the Dawson Daily News Print & Publishing Festival since its conception and inception seven years ago, it is easy to lose one’s perspective. But taking in this year’s activities I was suddenly struck with how the Festival has grown and matured in both size and scope. For starters, having its own standalone date, and now running from Wednesday through Sunday, the Festival is no longer just a subdued weekend event bundled in as part of another happening, but carries its own presence and authority.

But there are more dimensions to the evolution than simply length. The Writing side of the festival, which has been my greatest area of interest, has blossomed, thanks in no small part to the support of the Writer’s Trust of Canada and Yukon Public Libraries. This year’s visiting writers included Ivan Coyote, Carleigh Baker, Laurel Perry, David A. Robertson, John K. Samson and Christine Fellows. From a spectacular Friday night ensemble performance at the newly re-opened Palace Grand Theatre (which was broadcast live on CFYT 106.9 FM, “The Spirit of Dawson”), to well-attended, individual writing workshops held throughout the weekend in the classrooms of the Yukon School of the Visual Arts, these authors and storytellers covered a variety of topics, from memoir writing to reconciliation and indigenous issues. Local media guru Chris Healey also gave a presentation on the potential impact of block chain technology on writing in the future.

A rapt visitor takes in the printmakers’ work at the 6th Dawson Daily News Print & Publishing Festival

Saturday night’s keynote address was by Winnipeg writer David Alexander Robertson. Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation, discussed the role storytelling has played, and can continue to play, when it comes to reconciliation in Canada, and about how Indigenous history can be taught through literature.

Presentations/workshops are just one way that the PrintFest has striven to foster the local literary arts. Thursday night also saw an Open Mic night at local watering hole The Pit, hosted by Dawson poet Tara Borin. It was a lively and well-attended event (on both sides of the stage), but what was most impressive (beyond the enthusiasm of the presenters) was the variety and quality of the pieces delivered during the evening, lending testimony to the artistry that runs rampant in Dawson City.

In a similar vein, I had the privilege to co-host “End Quote,” the Festival’s concluding Sunday night event, also broadcast on local radio. In addition to headliner writers (comprising the past, present, and future of the Berton House writing residency), the evening’s focus was local talent. The audience was treated to prodigious samples of poetry and prose (both fiction and non-fiction), as well as song-writing, from Dawson literary artists.

Visiting printmaker Ryan O’Malley works on carving a wood block plate.

Even the familiar visual arts aspects of PrintFest seem to have matured and matriculated. The printmakers come (some, Like Peter Braune and John Steins have been there from the beginning) and still demonstrate, teach, and evangelise about their craft, but during their occupancy of the heritage Dawson Daily News building each year the variety and quality of prints produced has blossomed. So has the participation from local artists and tourists wanting to learn about printmaking, and these students of the craft also dazzled with some of the prints they created with help from the visiting masters, such as Joyce Majiski, Cassie Normandy O’Malley and Ryan O’Malley, and Ken Anderson.

If nothing, the physical size of both the prints and the ambition of the printmakers conceiving them has certainly increased. In addition to the printing of two impressive large works that occupied a full sheet of plywood, the printmakers went outside on Saturday afternoon to try printing with some less-than-conventional means. First, a road packer (I personally still think of them as steamrollers, even though steam hasn’t powered them in a century) was trucked in to press a series of multicolured abstract prints. Then local musher Brian Wilmhurst brought in a team of his sled dogs to tug a roller across a series of block prints. (This particular demonstration did not go completely according to plan. The dogs, now that they were artists, decided they were going to shatter convention (as well as the roller’s bolt) and escape the confines of pedestrian expectation.)

Plans are already underway for the 7th Edition of the Festival, and if the previous six years are any indication, the event will only continue to gain in popularity and impact.

The Dawson City Print & Publishing Festival is Presented in partnership by the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, Dawson City Community Library, Writers’ Trust of Canada, and Parks Canada Klondike National Historic Sites with generous support from the Yukon Tourism & Culture Arts Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts.



Quote, End Quote

I haven’t written anything on this blog for a while because I’ve been too busy, well, writing. I’ve been preoccupied doing a final rewrite of a new novel, entitled Bury Your Horses (although, based on past experience, this may not end up being the final name at publication time — Flam Grub was originally conceived as Name Droppings, while Skyfisher began life as The Lowdown on the High and Mighty) .

I’ve been labouring away at this for months now, engrossed in an onerous and lonely period of Zen-like concentration and painstaking craftsmanship. At the moment the book still belongs to me alone, and consequently all the motivation for creation has to come from within on an almost daily basis. It’s also therefore the time when I sometimes howl at the Moirae for cursing me with the affliction of being a writer. Please pardon the conceit of putting myself in the same sentence as Franz Kafka, but I know what he meant when he said: “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.”

That’s just one of many quotes I’ve come across that let me know I’m not alone in my suffering. That’s little comfort, however, when I’m having a tough time at the keyboard and find myself wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else, all the while knowing that it’s a futile wish, because I’m trapped by my own compulsion. Dorothy Parker probably said it best when she quipped: “I hate writing. I love having written.”

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that you can find so many quotes about writing by writers. Words are, after all, our stock and trade, and we do love to hear the sound of our own musings. What may be surprising to some is how darkly writers view their own profession. Take two contemporaries from the last century, Gene Fowler and Ernest Hemingway, who came up with uncannily similar observations. The former wrote: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Hemingway’s version reads: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Of course, nowadays we writers tend to suffer over a blank computer screen, not a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter (let alone blank parchment beneath a dripping quill), but the craft nevertheless remains no less of a blood sport. I do feel, though, that computer technology has made it too easy for anyone to aspire to be a writer, with everything from built-in grammar checkers to one-touch self-published e-books. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not railing at the technology per se. I started writing on typewriters but would never give up my word processor. I just think those fingers pecking at the computer keyboard should have at least a brain, and ideally a soul, connected to them. More writers should pay attention to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s observation that, “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.”

As far as self-publishing goes, my biggest criticism is the absence of an editor in the process. I’m not just talking about those that proofread a manuscript to see if you any words out, or misspealt something, but about the acquisitions editors who vet books and the story editors who can refine manuscripts into a better product. Now, admittedly most of us writers have a love-hate relationship with our editors, swearing at them as much as we swear by them, but we generally tolerate them because, as Russell Lynes wrote, “No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.” Oh, it’s easy to lash out at editors (and publishers, and distributors, and agents, and publicists, and critics, and readers for that matter) but remember what T.S. Eliot observed: “Most editors are failed writers — but so are most writers.”

E.L. Doctorow contended that “writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” and maybe there is something innately deranged about people who feel compelled to spend years regularly fleeing reality to write something that in the end may only be read by a handful of people. Perhaps in the future The Human Genome Project will isolate the writer’s gene and bioengineer a cure, but until then, I suppose authors will continue to suffer at their own hands as they have for millennia, driven by low motives or high ideals — take your pick. And, me, as I plug along I will have to continue to take solace in the words of others.

“A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than for other people.”
— Thomas Mann

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her.
The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”
— Ray Bradbury