My best first day on the job

by carl on October 18, 2012

Ottawa Writers Festival staff always work closely. From right, Sean Wilson, Kira Harris and Leslie Wilson.Festival staff always work closely. From right, Sean Wilson, Kira Harris and Leslie Wilson.

September 17 was the best first day on the job that I ever had.

I was the new communications co-ordinator for this fall’s Ottawa International Writers Festival, and I had two amazing one-on-one meetings: the first with development director Neil Wilson and the second with artistic director Sean Wilson.

They gave me tons of information, but that was not the most valuable thing they gave me. They immersed me in the inspiration they had in starting the festival 15 years ago and in the challenges they were tackling for the fall festival.

Neil took me aside into the garden at the Festival office and explained to me how they were doing something completely new this year. They had always been a city festival, firmly based in Canada’s capital. For this fall’s festival, they had put together panels of writers from everything from freedom and the ever-present past to the unfinished revolution for women’s rights. But this year, Neil told me, they were holding a local festival in a small town for the first time. The town was Arnprior, Ontario, and they had a weekend on “The Poetry of Place” from September 24-25, before the main festival began.

One week later, the Arnprior event had captured the imagination of the town. Three poets, Phil Hall, David O’Meara and Sandra Ridley had read their poems to a full house. David O’Meara – originally from nearby Pembroke – had founded the Plan 99 poetry reading series at the Manx Pub. Sandra, Ridley from Saskatchewan read from her book, Post-Apothecary, and Phil Hall of Perth, Ontario, the 2011 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in English, read from his latest book, Killdeer. They showed how strong one’s home town forms our identities and precious memories. The poets had a full house. The next day, local residents quickly filled writing workshop given by Phil Jenkins.

Sean Wilson, my supervisor, is full of energy with a sparkle in his eyes. Somehow, he conveys a sense of expectation that something good is about to happen. When he comes to speak with one of us, he’ll squat down to get on our eye level and listen to us first about what we’re doing. I’ve had good bosses before, but never one this good.

Kira Harris, artistic associate and program director, is another staff member with both energy and humility. At the production meeting for this fall’s Festival, there was an empty time slot for bartender at the hospitality room. “I’ll do that,” Kira said, “I have a space in my schedule then.”

As an employee of the Festival, I can borrow a copy of the books that authors are launching or introducing from October 24 to 30. So far I’ve devoured M. G. Vassanji’s The Magic of Saida and Tzeporah Berman’s This Crazy Time. Those books really touched my soul. The Magic of Saida shows us the divided soul of Kamal Punja, whose African and Indian ancestry leaves him suspended between two worlds. There is even a glimpse of a German cemetery in Tanzania, where the hero muses over whether the long-forgotten colonist who rests beneath the stone had any family left behind.

They care for people at the Festival office. I was just about to leave for a major high school reunion in Chicago, Illinois. I was carrying the prototype of the brand-new board game I had invented (more about that in my next blog post) but was in a dither over what wardrobe to bring. Leslie Wilson, schools and community relations director for the Festival, came up and handed me a classic black T-shirt with the Writers Festival logo in white script on the front. ”I thought you might want this for Chicago,” she said. I wore it to the opening reception and it was perfect.

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