By David Bradford
The Delegate Programme is an opportunity for local authors and journalists to enrich the level of discussion at select events throughout the International Festival of Authors. David Bradford—author of Call Out and contributor to The Unpublished City—wrote about his experience as an IFOA 2017 delegate and for him, it turned the reader-writer relationship into a tangible experience.
“Every time I failed at something,” Eileen Myles told the Brigantine Room audience over Skype, “I could write.” It’s an old, truthful thing Andre Alexis and Kia Corthron seemed to recognize, one which I know well from my better nights, as well as my worst ones.
In a room full of honest-to-God readers, though, I found myself wondering how well they may have recognized Myles’s sentiment for themselves. I wondered how they might connect it with their own failures, and their own reach for that personal thing that wouldn’t let them down—how often that something might have been in the words of others. It reminded me that we writers all started, and hopefully remain first and foremost, readers. That often what we write begins with something we read—out of an impulse to look in a book for something we’ve failed to find elsewhere.
At most roundtables, readings and conversations featured at 2017’s IFOA, I found it striking how often that same impulse was echoed among speakers and audience members. It featured prominently, for instance, in Austrian novelist Norbert Gstrein’s longstanding devotion to the work of, of all people, William Faulkner. It was also an intimate, delicate matter for a particular reader at the The Lives of Underdogs talk who, asking about the challenges involved in laying bear the underpinnings of trauma in fiction, admitted she couldn’t help but recognize traces of her own history in Heather O’Neill’s novels, and found herself working through them as she read. Writer and reader alike spoke of returning to the work that’s worked best for them—what books they’ve answered with work of their own.
Often, the thread became one of what many of us have turned to books and writing to find, and what we then actually found. What we brought to whatever we read, what we put into it, and what we got in return. Or as Roo Borson shared with the audience at the Ode to Poetry event: “It’s actually a conversation that doesn’t get completed, not yet,” until the reader brings their attention to the work. Until the reader reaches for it, takes up their end of the conversation, and hopefully what we’ve written doesn’t let them down.
As a host and delegate, the effect of that reader–author back-and-forth in real time was sometimes a surprise but always an appreciated one, and a good reminder of what we are trying to make tangible when we write. It can render us “understandable,” as Myles volunteered, and it can be a way the world accepts us. We write to prove our way of thinking leads, ultimately, to a valuable existence, and we share what we’ve written with the reader in an act of faith—both in them and in ourselves. The act is reciprocated every time our work is picked up and read. It’s cemented every time a reader finds what they’d been looking for in something we’ve written, and finds themselves, too, understood.
With my first IFOA behind me, I’m grateful to have been party to how well the Festival welcomes that relationship’s moment in the flesh. Not unlike on the page, it can often be a loving one, sometimes an intriguing one, and occasionally one that’s fraught. But always, it’s a chance to congregate with the other side, a chance Harbourfront Centre provides with plenty of space. For my part, it’s a lucky kind of meeting and feeling. One I hope to share in for as long as I can.
David Bradford is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph and the poetry editor for Knife|Fork|Book’s chapbook imprint. He leads and curates the Slo-Po group reading series and his work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Prairie Fire and, most recently, in Toronto Lit Up’s The Unpublished City. He is the author of Nell Zink is Damn Free (Blank Cheque Press, 2017) and Call Out (Knife|Fork|Book, 2017). He splits his time between Montreal and Toronto.