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25 Years of the Federation of BC Writers

December 12th, 2007

Editorial Note: Trevor Carolan was a founding member of the Federation and its first Executive Director. In l986 he left to coordinate the XV Olympic Winter Games literary arts festival in Calgary. He has since had a varied career: working on behalf of aboriginal land claims in northern BC, struggling to end logging in Vancouver’s public watersheds and against the development of its North Shore forests, and serving as a municipal councillor. Following a term as Director of literary programs at The Banff Centre, he resumed English teaching at UCFV in Abbotsford.]

WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP IT’S BEEN

During a recent visit to the Federation office near Stanley Park, I remarked to Fernanda Viveiros how the state of the place reminded me of the Fed’s first office beside the Birks Building Clock downtown in the mid-eighties. That’s where Carolyn Zonailo, Jan Drabek, K.O. Kanne, Sonia Craddock, Bella Chen, myself and others spent long hours looking after the organization amid piled boxes of documents, books, publicity announcements, and a couple of desks cleared for action.

“A blast from the past?” Fernanda asked.

“Yeah, a real rave from the grave.”

We got to talking about whether things have changed appreciably for writers since the heady days back in 1981-82 when the hard work was being done to create an organization for B.C. writers similar to that of Alberta and other provinces. I’m not sure if we fully answered that searching question, but Fernanda’s inquiries brought to mind some old remembrances of the Fed’s early days.

In 1978, I’d returned to BC after a couple of university years in California. Like many another hopeful, I was turning out poems and stories but had limited knowledge about getting them published. My expanding collage of rejection slips was just beginning to give way to a rash of acceptances when I saw a notice at the New Westminster public library advertising a costly $40 day-long writers conference at UBC. Sponsored by the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) it was themed “Is Survival Possible in the Local Freelance Market?”

I was dying to know the answer myself, so I registered. I’m still not sure whether it was the best investment I ever made, or whether that conference flat-out wrecked my life because I’ve been carpentering a living ever since by working with words. You know how the story goes: the dealer always gives you the first few tastes for free: I joined PWAC, made useful personal connections that helped my work appear more frequently in print, and soon found myself hooked on the writing life. Have been ever since.

Writing freelance is all about living by your wits, following your passion and scribbling it down. From magazine work I swerved back to poetry, then to translation. From there, to compiling anthologies and on to creative non-fiction. Joseph Campbell sums it up when he says, “Follow your bliss.”

Part of the early buzz for me was representing PWAC in a discussion group with emissaries of other writers groups—The Writers Union, Poet’s League, Playwrights Guild, ACTRA, Canadian Authors Association—regarding formation of a BC provincial writers organization. Involvement with one or another of these various national literary outfits had already, for most of us, demonstrated the wisdom of getting plugged in. National organizations provide conduits to funding and publishing opportunities, plus fellowship and the dynamism that comes from a larger group’s collective writing and editorial expertise. Joining has its advantages.

There are probably as many versions of how the Federation actually began as there were individuals who attended the ongoing series of meetings in 1981 where we discussed the concept on behalf of our respective organizations. In a file I recorded the names of a dozen writer reps who attended these meetings. At one, for example, three were from the Writers Union (Sandy Duncan, BC rep; Keith Maillard, national executive; and Jan Drabek). Three were from C.A.A. (Frank Gerber; Betty Millway; Madeleine Allsbury). Two were from Guild of Canadian Playwrights (Richard Payne; Leonard Angel). Others were Gary Marcuse for ACTRA; Mona Fertig for The Literary Storefront; Robin Skelton for the League of Canadian Poets; and myself for PWAC. Already there was a lot of talent in the room. We’d bring news and views from our groups, air and share ideas, strike sub-committees. The questions of the day were: how to define more acutely what exactly a BC Fed. could achieve; what a set of by-laws might look like; what kind of structure would be best; what kind of membership should a Federation have—one tier, for professionals only? Open, for anyone who’d like to join? Or two-tier, a combined membership with full voting privileges plus non-voting associates?

From time to time other reps came and went. Calgary’s Aritha Van Hirk, in town for a teaching gig at UBC and fresh from winning the $50,000 Seal First Books Award was an active and vocal proponent of BC getting hip to the success of the Alberta Writers Guild next door. Writers there were tapping into generous piles of cash courtesy of provincial oil revenues. Surely BC could follow? Aritha broke the mold of dowdy literary haberdashery by wearing a fur coat and tooling around Vancouver in a Porsche. She looked like she knew something about literary economics.

From the beginning, the Writers Union and CAA. were dedicated in their vision and efforts. Aritha for the Writers Union, Frank Gerber of the CAA, and myself for PWAC formed a sub-committee to consider the best models organizational structure. Sandy Duncan and others sought models for various organizations for constitutional by-laws. An organizing committee began planning a founding meeting.

That meeting was held on Saturday, March 20, 1982 at Langara College. The day’s registration fee was $10. The turnout included establishment figures, street poets, freelancers, a few names from the news, what have you. Some legal help had been volunteered, so we’d drafted a proposed set of by-laws and the necessary paperwork to let us solicit memberships. Out of towners who arrived were billeted by local writers. The announcement flyer read:

Please come prepared with ideas and suggestions. The Federation of
British Columbia Writers will only succeed if you give it your invaluable
support and if we are able to speak as a strong and united body of writers.
This meeting will be essential in shaping the direction and the future of the
federation.

I kept notes. Ron Stanaitis of PWAC manned the registration table—it was a good place to see who was coming and going. Once things got underway, there was agitation early on regarding membership criteria. Some voices wanted a strictly professional body; others said we already had those with our national outfits, and that we needed a large, open organization to get the government’s attention. There were the usual difficulties regarding an orderly process of discussion, and there was general shakiness regarding rules of order. Fortunately, Sandy Duncan provided strong leadership in moving things along and the work got done.

Names and faces in the crowd included a regal David Watmough who would be elected first Chair; James Barber in an arty red-tie; Christie Harris; Mona Fertig from the Literary Storefront; Andreas Schroeder who proclaimed “being published can be an act of God”; bill bissett, championing ultra-democratic open membership; Jan Drabek; the natty Michael Mercer, playwright; David Conn, serving as Treasurer; Aritha; Scott Dunlop; curly-headed Keith Maillard; freelance Daniel Wood; Province literary essayist Alan Twigg; Dona Sturmanis; Richard Payne; ACTRA President Christopher Moore; Jennifer Alley; K.O. Kanne.

Through the morning, issues were debated intensely. What specific advantages could be gained from a provincial writers organization? Would the Federation be able to discipline its members like a union? How could the Fed help its members earn more? How might we contribute toward making ‘thinking for a living’ respectable? Could we establish a ‘talent bank’ and advertise our members’ skills? Could we lobby for putting a member of the BC Arts Board?

The most contested point was that of who qualified as a member. Discussion dragged on through various political sub-debates for two full hours. Nipping outside for a quiet breath of air, I met Alan Twigg. He noted the irony of an intense artistic membership debate here on the west coast where many, by nature, are not joiners. On my way back in David Watmough passed by: “The rumblings of discontent continue,” he said. “Some of them think we professionals are elitist. I say it’s beginning to smack of populism!”

Keith Maillard finally ended the membership impasse with compromise wording. Magazine writer Donna McCluskey turned to me and said, “With all the brainpower in this room, how come nobody thought of this before?”

Michael Mercer pressed for a vote on acceptance of the by-laws and it was carried. It was left to vote for the Federation’s first executive council. Watmough for Chair; James Barber, first Vice-Chair; K.O. Kanne, Second Vice. Other council reps included John Lent, Tom Wayman, Fred Wah, Christie Harris, Michael Mercer and Christopher Moore. It was all a bit historic.

The array of people you could, and still can meet through Federation activity is astonishing. I know that I learned a lot—about writing, about conducting oneself as a writer, about working collegially with other creative people, about collaboratively sharing labour, about the publishing trade and generating publicity, about how to organize events, compile budgets, write newsletters, teach workshops. That’s a pretty good return on your membership dollar. I’ve made a living using these acquired skills ever since.

During the early and mid-eighties Fed poetry and literary readings became regular features. The Women’s Resource Centre at 1144 Robson St., La Queña at 1111 Commercial Drive, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and The Classical Joint at 231 Carrall Street in Gastown all hosted Federation events. Andreas Nottinger who ran The Classical Joint was especially sympathetic and eventually his club became a regular venue for such Thursday night readings which were followed by saxman Gavin Walker’s jazz unit. By applying for local cultural grants the Fed was able to pay writers $100 for their appearances and stick posters up around town to publicize the shows.

The Fed’s trademark-look posters were made for us by the late Rocket Ron Brunette and his partner Paul Kryzewski at Pi Ka Graphics on Clark Drive. Over the years readers included Anne Marriott, Sandy Duncan, Robin Skelton, Carolyn Zonailo, Peter Trower, bill bissett, Carol Itter, Robert Harlow, Joanna Byers, Judith Copithorne, Britt Haggarty, Lidia Wolanskyji, myself and many others. Lidia W. who co-hosted Co-Op Radio’s VanLit program talked up the readings for us, as did Jack Christie on his popular Friday afternoon show Pigeon Park Review.

Occasionally the Fed collaborated with university, ethnic, and political fellow travelers to host special readings by visiting writers like Hungary’s George Faludy and Estonia’s Jaan Kaplinksi, and L.A.’s punk-chic La Loca (Pam Karol). This era is noted
in Keith McKellar’s Neon Eulogy: Vancouver Café and Street (Ekstasis, 2001).

It’s worth remembering that a block around the corner from the Joint, Mona Fertig
had launched her Literary Storefront operation at 314 West Cordova St. Mona’s path-breaking Storefront paved the way for regular reading events and dozens of BC writers had an opportunity to work out their material thanks to her efforts. My own first downtown reading came at one of the Storefront’s Sunday afternoon open-mikes. Dona Sturmanis ran her publishing enterprise out of an office in back of the Storefront, and the Writers Union of Canada also shared office space there with Ingrid Klassen sharing operating duties. On one shining occasion the CBC’s then star news program The Journal made a rare trek out to Vancouver to film a presentation on W.P. Kinsella, whose career was hot than a firecracker at the time. The Storefront was the natural site for it and all that afternoon local writers caught a glimpse what literary celebrity could actually look like as truckloads of camera and lighting equipment was lugged up and down the stairs for the gig. The Storefront’s collection of taped reading are still held by the Vancouver Public Library.

Later, when bookseller Wayne Holder and Tom Ilves (now President of Estonia) carried on management of the Storefront from Mona, Vancouver’s literary community was able to rub shoulders with imported guests including playwright Edward Albee, and poets Joseph Brodsky, William Everson and Stephen Spender. Heady stuff back then.

In 1984, the Federation committed to running a downtown office on Granville St. Small and cramped with books it had a desk, typewriter, extra chairs and an electric kettle. At least we had a regular place for meetings, although monthly executive gatherings were still more comfortable at various members’ homes. As the Federation’s first paid Executive Director at the princely sum of $300 monthly, I was able to devote time to scouting up funding opportunities to support Federation activities. In the fall of 1984, we ran an item in the Fed newsletter calling for project ideas for the city of Vancouver’s Centennial celebrations in l986. It would all be in aid of the huge whoop-up now known as Expo 86 and the Mulroney government in Ottawa put up $500,000 for cultural hoopla that year.

One of the overlooked benefits of volunteering on boards of directors is that you learn how to solicit funding support through grant-writing. It’s a chore and nobody ever really wants to do it, but once you learn the techniques of successful application-building strategies, you’re in—heck, why not? So the Fed threw its hat in the ring and we landed $10,000, our first major independent score apart from the provincial government’s annual operational support grant that was also steadily growing under the diplomatic helm of president Jan Drabek. Employing a good cop/bad cop routine, Jan and I began journeying to Victoria to harangue Ministry of Tourism and Culture officials. While I hollered at them for more, Drabek in the well-dressed, urbane style that would eventually see him appointed an ambassador by President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, soothed the ruffled bureaucrats with a more “modest” grant request. In this way we managed to bump up the provincial grant from $5000 to $10,000 and it would keep growing for some years.

Anyway, when the summer of Expo 86 rolled around, the Federation had a super-duper twister pitch of an idea for books and literary folks. Learning that professional librarians would be gathering for an AGM in the city, and knowing that literary journalist par excellence Alan Twigg was hard at work researching his Vancouver and Its Writers (Harbour, 1986), it seemed natural to bridge the two. And so “The Malcolm Lowry Brown Bag Mystery Literary Tour” was born. Working with Alan we mapped a half day tour of the Vancouver area stretching from UBC to Deep Cove, and in a chartered bus that departed from the Sylvia Hotel at English Bay—long one of the city’s favourite watering holes for writers, over two days one weekend Twigg led participants in a fascinating tour tracing Vancouver’s until-then largely neglected literary history.

What a hoot! The tour attracted as many local book buffs as it did out of towners. Working from the front of the bus with a microphone in the style of a Beverley Hills “tour of the stars homes” conductor, Alan pointed out addresses where writers famous and not-so famous alike had lived, or were still living, or that figured in novels, poems, plays, films, you name it. We stopped for a special Vancouver & BC Books display at Octopus Books in East Van and brown-bag picnicked above Lowry’s old shack site in North Vancouver’s Cates Park. The two sold-out tours introduced book fans not only to stories from the city’s colourful past, but more importantly to a living tradition of working with literature that has continued in Vancouver from its first novelist, Morley Roberts, onward (well, from the Royal City of New Westminster ten miles along Kingsway, but who’s counting).

I think that more than anyone it was Alan Twigg who woke up Vancouver and the west coast up to its own legitimacy as a Canadian and North American literary hub. In the introduction to his book that cites more than 100 authors, 100 literary landmarks and 300 literary works, Alan observed how only 20 years previous, “local author” had been a pejorative connotation in the book trade. Residual colonial attitudes still ranked local writing no better than fourth-rate after Dead Brit Greats, those “praised in the New York Times”, and those from Eastern Canada.

Man, how times have changed!

Just a few of the names Twigg brings up: Pauline Johnson, A.M. Stephen, Earle Birney, Stan Persky, Anne Cameron, Emily Carr, Chief Dan George, James Clavell, William Deverell, George Woodcock, Marya Fiamengo, Joy Kogawa, Dorothy Livesay, George McWhirter, Eric Nicol, Al Neil, Eileen Kernaghan, Warren Tallman, Bill Schermbrucker, and Ethel Wilson.

I left for another gig at the end of that EXPO summer. Things must have gone okay because the Chairman Jan Drabek and the executive presented me with a suitcase which I’ve still got. It’s knocked around the world plenty since then, but it’s kept on coming back with me to the coast, usually somewhere around Vancouver’s workaday inner harbour. The Federation has had its bumps through the years, but simply by surviving as a community that writers all around this sprawling province can join and profit from, it’s already accomplished a lot. The readings, workshops, newsletter, and Wordworks journal you are now holding remain as valuable as we hoped they’d be when a dozen or so idealists, pragmatists and nutty organization-builder types figured the idea of a Federation was worth a shot. It’s been a long, strange trip these past 25 years and some of the old brigade who got the Fed rolling do their writing in another place now where the editors and publishers are all a soft-touch, but I don’t think any of us would have missed the ride.

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