Local poet opens International Writers Festival

By Pauline Bejjani

Michael Dennis, a self-proclaimed little-known poet, says he was “tickled pink” by an invitation to read on opening night of the third annual Ottawa International Writers Festival.

Dennis was among over 50 writers from Canada and the United States who met in the intimate studio room of the National Arts Centre for a week in September to share their work with the audience and each other.

The festival included many small-time local writers, and it offered them the chance to interact with literary greats like Annie Proulx, Pierre Berton and Russell Banks. Among the locals who read were Dennis, regional councillor Clive Doucet, rob mclennan, Alain Marchand and Mark Frutkin.

Dennis, who was complimented on his performance by many of the writers, says what impressed him most was the wonderful treatment he received at the festival, from the audience and authors alike.

“I was just lucky,” says Dennis of his ability to have a sold-out crowd of 300 hum the theme to Hockey Night in Canada at his request, as he read his poem by the same name.

“They were able to relate to it instantaneously and in that way it worked out,” he explains.
As a writer who has never before spoken at a festival of this magnitude and attributes some of his success to luck, Dennis says he still went calmly through the reading.

“I felt comfortable in the surroundings,” says Dennis. “And when it started to work, I could tell. It was a glorious feeling.”

“For most of a writer’s life, you write in seclusion,” he explains, “and you don’t know what people think, especially when you’re not widely published.

“To get up in front of a large crowd and get a genuine, warm, positive response is so rewarding for all the other times,” says Dennis.

While he hopes the attention given to his performance will attract publishers or invitations to other readings, Dennis says he isn’t holding his breath.

A more meaningful measure of success, he says, was the praise he received from one of his literary favourites, Guy Vanderhaeghe.

“The best part was seeing [him] read and speaking to him over the course of a few days,” says Dennis. “It means a lot to have a writer you really admire say nice things about your work.”

Festival coordinator Sean Wilson says the interaction between big- and small-name writers is the best aspect of the festival.

“Pulitzer Prize and Governor General Award winners share the stage with up-and-comers,” says Wilson, “and it’s a wonderful opportunity for people thinking about writing to meet and hear the world’s best.”

“We raised the bar this year with a stellar group of performers,” he says. “Now I just want to maintain the momentum.”

But, Wilson adds, it wasn’t only the writers who made it happen.

“It was wonderful to get such a good audience, keen to take a journey with the writers no matter where they wanted to go,” he says.

And go in many directions they did, according to local writer and speaker Mark Frutkin.
“Of the 20 people I heard, every one had a different story to tell,” he says.

Among his favourites were locals Stephanie Bolster, John Newlove (who did his fourth reading in 15 years) and a poet new to him, Michelle Desbarats.

Frutkin himself chose to read a humourous piece which he says must have gone over well because “people laughed at all the right places, and there was applause at the end.”

Chuckling, he says the only low point of the festival was the worry he wouldn’t be able to get his wife in on a packed night.

Frutkin says there wasn’t a bit of the festival he didn’t enjoy.

“More than ever before it’s really starting to capture the imagination of the city.”