Patricia Westerhof, author of The Dove in Bathurst Station.
If someone asked me why I like literature so much, I would tell them that I was lucky enough to have had high school instructors who taught the subject well. There’s nothing like a butchering of Catcher in the Rye to turn a student off books forever. For me, that wasn’t the case. My high school English teachers were intelligent and treated us like we were intelligent. We read Mrs. Dalloway and Frankenstein in order to learn how important women were in the history of literature and we had an actual writer teach the creative writing class. That same creative writing teacher, Patricia Westerhof, took me to the Brockton Writers Series and the launch of Lisa Moore’s Caught long after my high school graduation, while I was doing my MA. Now, all these years later, here I am translating all that literary grooming into journalistic coverage of literary events in Toronto. When I found out that Patricia Westerhof was launching her new novel The Dove in Bathurst Station on September 17th, I couldn’t wait to go show my support for someone that has played such a large role in shaping my passion for reading.
The launch took place at the Gladstone Hotel in the lovely Melody Bar and was very well-attended by friends, family, colleagues, and many ex-students. Patricia Westerhof has a very keen understanding of the ways in which our surroundings penetrate our psyches and also the profound effect they can have on our sense of self. It was therefore incredibly appropriate to watch the West Queen West crowds pass by the window, chatting and laughing, while we sat listening to Patricia read. Tucked in the cozy bar, I felt like I was in the epicentre of Toronto cultural life.
The Dove in Bathurst Station tells the story of Marta Elzinga, a high school guidance counselor that accidentally becomes an urban explorer. She runs into a former student and decides to join him on nightly sojourns through Toronto’s abandoned subway systems, during which time she traverses her emotionality and comes face to face with trying inner conflicts.
Patricia read two lovely excerpts from the novel that really captured her ability to trim the fat off her writing. She clearly practices what I remember her preaching to her students. Not overly verbose, yet far from empty, her writing seems effortless and natural. It was slightly strange to hear her read her own work since I remember that voice reading passages from The Great Gatsby and Beowulf, but it was reassuring at the same time. Her clever prose revealed an understated sense of humour. Patricia pays close attention to details and out of these nuances emerges an impressive psychological depth. On the back cover there is a quotation from Katrina Onstad who writes, “Westerhof has a poet’s eye for the meaning beneath the surface of things.” In one of the excerpts that Westerhof read, she pays close attention to the physical movements of her protagonist as she walks and climbs through the tunnels and the sounds of her guide’s words as they “pinged and ponged through the cavern.” Patricia doesn’t need to tell you, she shows you, bringing the caverns to life in luminous detail in only a few short passages. If you are a fan of writers who don’t try too hard to win you over, yet succeed nonetheless, then pick up The Dove in Bathurst Station and rediscover the possibility of finding yourself lost— and found— in a city you thought you knew inside and out.
Later in the week on September 19th, I changed gears and headed over to Ben McNally Books to attend the launch of Barry Dempster’s Invisible Dogs and Don Domanski’s Bite Down Little Whisper, both published by Brick Books. To be honest, I didn’t really expect a huge turnout at a poetry launch, and yet the audience in attendance outnumbered the guest list at Lisa Moore’s Caught launch. One young man told me that he prefers poetry launches to other literary events because poets aren’t usually considered superstars and therefore have more time to sign their fans’ books. There were lots of notable fans in attendance, including Sue Chenette and Albert Moritz, whose poetry class I was lucky enough to attend in my first year at the University of Toronto.
Barry Dempster, author of Invisible Dogs.
The prolific Barry Dempster—who has written fourteen collections of poetry, and has twice been nominated for the Governor General’s award—is nevertheless a very nervous and endearingly awkward reader. His latest collection, Invisible Dogs, revolves around the daily struggles we confront as we go through life, a “coherent hymn to the difficult business of staying alive” (so says the back cover). “No-Show,” the first poem Barry read, dealt with the ennui of suburban life and reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ “The Young Housewife” in the way it captured loneliness and isolation. The poem is also very humorous and familiar to its audience; the line about “a Christmas card from a spaceship called Brampton” got quite the boisterous response. My other favourite poem that he read was “Skunk Hour,” a piece equal parts humourous and damning. Barry uses the random arrival of a skunk to comment on the individual’s need to place him/herself in the center of life’s happenings, urging us to consider a world outside of ourselves.
Where Barry’s poetry deals with everyday life and the rituals of existence, Don Domanksi’s Bite Down Little Whisper takes a step away from our relationships and material objects and broadens the literary scope, dealing with metaphysics, biology, and the cosmos. Another striking difference between the two authors was Barry’s concern with the individual versus Don’s emphasis on the “we.” While Don’s poetry is very sophisticated and its theoretical implications were a little out of my reach, it was a pleasure to simply listen to him read his work; I couldn’t help but admire his delicate diction and the striking aptitude of his lines. One of my favourites was from his poem “Ars Magica,” in which he describes “clouds coming in from the Atlantic / immaculate longhand of what’s never to be written,” allowing the listener to parse apart the complex webs of meaning he offers. Similar to Patricia Westerhof’s focus on place, Don appears to have been affected by his surroundings and the abundance of natural beauty found in Cape Breton. His fascination with the environment echoes in his imagery and his desire to prod at our relationship with the physical world.
My week was filled with urban caverns, suburban minutiae, and forests showered in leaves and pine needles, all transcribed in a variety of forms and creative approaches. I was reminded of how the notion of place is multifarious and incredibly important to Canadian writers, especially considering the sheer magnitude of this country and the diversity of its population. As the months roll on, I look forward to navigating more literary terrain as I discover more Canadian writers who strive to explore the various meanings of space and place. While we meander through these new locales, and even the spots that we previously may have believed to “understand,” it will be worthwhile to consider how these authors engage in conversations about where “home” is, what it means, and how flexible those definitions can be in a country as varied and vast as our own.