WFNB AGM Weekend – Friday

Something very magical happens when you gather a group of artistic minds together for an event or conference. It’s just so intense — you never know what might happen.

What a fantastic weekend I had at the Writers’ Federation Annual General Meeting! So much fun! So many new friends! It isn’t an exaggeration to say my life has been changed by this experience. It may even be an understatement to simply say my life has been changed by this experience. Andrea has some pictures up if you’d like to check them out.

It’s kind of bizarre how nervous and excited I get before these things. Thursday night I went to bed early (well relatively early for me, in the 2am’ish slot) because I wanted to be well-rested for everything on Friday, and I still had a lot of work and details to be finished before I could go.

I tossed and turned and sighed and rolled around and turned on the light and turned it off again. And got up to go to the bathroom and went back to bed and got up to get a drink and went back to bed again and looked at the clock to see the time. And watched the grey light of predawn creep into my room and felt the sunrise on my face and listened to the neighbours drive past on their way to work. And waited for sleep to come . . . and waited . . . and waited.

The last time I checked it was close to 8am, discouraging to say the least. My eyes burned and my skin felt dry and tight in that way it does when you’ve stayed awake all night. I finally fell asleep for a few hours, but of course it was too late and threw my whole schedule out of whack.

So then I was late leaving, late getting to the hotel, late checking in, late to the Meet ‘n Greet — but thankfully so excited that my lack of sleep didn’t even matter. I was alert, observant, and ecstatic to be back amongst old friends and forming new friendships.

Marilyn Lerch walked past me in the lobby as I checked in and I did a little mental dance of joy. “The writers are really here! And poets! Oh, how I love the company of poets!”

My room was exceptional. I had a fantastic view of the river with the ice rushing past. I would have been content to work on my novel all weekend reclining in the wing-backed chair staring out the window with a glass of red wine by my side. There’s something so freeing and peaceful for me to leave the computer at home and venture out with only notebook and pen.

Mary Hutchman, the Executive Director of the WFNB, greeted me with hugs and smiles in the foyer outside the Angler’s Reel Restaurant. It’s always great to see her again. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years but we’ve stayed in touch by email and I’ve been working more closely with her recently, volunteering some time toward the WFNB website.

Off to a great start, I went inside to meet and greet everyone else.

First, I ran into Laurence Hutchman, past-president of the WFNB. I always look forward to Laurence’s poetry readings because he’s so emotive and you never know what to expect with his poems, whether they’ll shake you to your emotional core or be very playful and devilish. He pointed me to a large table overrun by writers, who didn’t look familiar at first glance, and then I noticed Andrea waving to me.

I learned later that she was a little freaked out about the whole experience just like me, but I would have never known from her chattering, keeping everyone in fits of giggles.

I pulled up a chair ordered a glass of red wine and searched the faces for people I knew. The only people recognisable to me had a local connection — Wayne Curtis, Doug Underhill and Judy Bowman who is the president of the WFNB.

It was a bit surreal, insinuating myself into so much talent. I hadn’t eaten all day and the wine rushed straight to my head adding to my overall disembodied feeling. I didn’t have time to grab any food before we left for the next event.

I hitched a ride to the poetry readings at French Fort Cove with Wayne Curtis. We’re both originally from the Blackville area but never met before. I knew him through his books, which I’ve read and enjoyed immensely, and he knew me because he receives Bread ‘n Molasses in his email.

The WFNB AGM always kicks off with an event by the League of Canadian Poets. Friday evening was cloudy, windy and cold, so I didn’t know if we would actually go through with the readings at the Cove or if we might decide to stay by the fireplace at the Angler’s Reel. In true Miramichi style we forged on according to plan and braved the elements for an event like no other that will certainly be noted in the WFNB history book.

Over a dozen poets and even more spectators; native drumming and prayers; bleak cloudy skies; a fiddler’s frozen fingers numbly plucking at strings; a snow packed and slippery path up a steep hill; bone-chilling winds; parkas zipped to chins and stocking caps pulled low over ears — this is the stuff of legends and will be remembered for a long time to come.

Before our hike around the French Fort Cove, we formed a circle with women on one side and men on the other. I think the drummer’s name was Joe Ward and he was from Eel Ground First Nation. He asked us to close our eyes as he spoke to the great eagle.

I felt very uncomfortable with my eyes closed in this group of mostly strangers, extremely vulnerable with the wind whipping my hair and the sound of traffic speeding by on the highway, almost as if I were naked in public.

I peaked, forming tiny slits with my eyes, comforted by the sight of the ground before my feet. It was as if he could see through the hair that fell over my eyes, as if he could see into my down-turned face —

“Close your eyes,” he demanded and I felt like the child caught disobeying.

“I know you’re afraid,” he soothed. “You’ve forgotten how to trust.”

He said when children are told to close their eyes they do so without fear or hesitation because they know how to trust, but adults have forgotten that part of themselves. He spoke to the eagle and asked him to touch everyone in our circle, guiding and protecting us on our journey. His voice lulled and relaxed me to the point where I felt comfortable with my eyes closed.

Then he drummed and sang.

In the grey light behind my closed lids with the wind whistling around my ears and the tips of my hair stinging my cheeks, I felt weightless — like an eagle myself, flying above the circle, swooping and gliding to the rhythm of the drums. The traffic noise faded, overpowered by the singing and drumming that seemed to keep beat with my pounding heart.

Insisting our eyes remained closed, he continued to speak when he finished drumming, thanking the eagle.

When the ceremony finished and I could finally open my eyes I felt calm, peaceful, and yet somewhat disoriented like when you’ve first returned home after a long trip, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

I gave my head a shake and followed the throng down the path and into the woods.

I cannot remember the names of everyone who read their poetry. I can’t even remember the names of all the poets whose readings impacted me the most. There were just too many new names to put to new faces in such a short time . . . in the best of circumstances I’m terrible with names and this was not even close to being the best of circumstances.

I was freezing, hungry and worried whether the arthritis in my knees would make the walk unbearable.

The first half of the hike was the most windy and cold. A young man waited on the boardwalk with his fiddle and began to play as we approached . . . I think his name was Matthew. I felt like a character in The Pied Piper as our procession followed the music. It was an excellent touch.

After hearing a few poets we decided the weather had won and we would return to the hotel to continue the readings beside the fireplace with steaming mugs of hot chocolate. But in order to get back to the parking lot we had to complete the hike. We found a sheltered area in the trail where the wind was not so terrible and the remaining poets read.

I loved Michael deBeyer’s poem about the dusk being love, even though the sky was overcast and he didn’t get the sunset he hoped for. Laurence decided to go the playful devilish route and really heated everyone up with his sizzling reading. Roger Moore left everyone feeling giddy as he cracked jokes and recited his poetry in the exciting way I’m sure only Roger can.

Overall, the French Fort Cove Poetry event was a great success, something people will remember and talk about for many years to come.

Returning to the hotel two and a half hours later, I realised I could no longer feel my fingers and I was weak with starvation. I gulped back a glass of wine to help me thaw, ordered the biggest burger on the menu and settled myself in at the round table with a dozen others. I was teased for being the only Miramichier to show up at an event like that without gloves, a hat, or even a coat. Everyone had a good laugh. Of course, I had worn a jacket . . . but I could’ve dressed warmer.

Too tired to participate much, I focused on my food and absorbed all the conversation about upcoming festivals, book launchings, tours and readings, raising my head from time to time to answer questions when asked about my writing or the website. Slowly, the group trickled off to their rooms leaving only four of us around this huge table.

I chatted with one of the poets who had read earlier. I asked him a ton of questions about his work, and about the literary scene in Fredericton as well as Sackville, New Brunswick. He told me about this wonderful festival put on by the school boards in Labrador that he had participated in a few years ago, and how inspirational the experience had been for him. He told me about the Northrop Frye Festival being held in Moncton the following weekend, answered all my questions with the patience of a saint and urged me to attend if I could.

It’s rare for me to feel so relaxed with someone so quickly, but he had such a mild and pleasant manner about him I stayed up much later than I planned. I love unpretentious poets! There is nobody better to talk with. At some point I asked about his other work (everyone generally has some “other” work whether it’s another art medium or in another field altogether) and he said he ran a small independent publishing house.

I’m sure he could see the light bulb flash behind my eyes as I figured out exactly whom I had been chatting with all evening. For a few minutes I was a little tongue-tied because for many years I’ve hoped to run into Joe Blades of Broken Jaw Press. I gushed something about being a big fan, but he took my silliness in perfect stride without even poking fun at me for being a little star-struck and going on to help me make some good contacts for an article I’ll write later. Turns out the hard working driven artist I admired from articles and interviews is also a good guy, which is always nice.

Even with my lack of sleep, a few drinks and all the fresh air I still didn’t fall asleep right away when I went back to my room. I set my alarm and re-set my alarm and checked it again to make sure because I was worried I would sleep through the meeting and workshops. I tried to read but couldn’t focus, debated ordering a movie but didn’t want to spend the money if I was just going to fall asleep anyway, and finally ended up watching Life Television until almost 3am.

Then drifted into a light sleep filled with wind and eagles, poetry and drums.

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