Just as the AfterWords Literary Festival was set to kick off its fourth year in Halifax on Sept. 24, Hurricane Fiona had other plans.
But unprecedented events are familiar territory for its co-founders, Stephanie Domet and Ryan Turner. This year is the first time AfterWords has brought its attendees off of Zoom into a space together to share air and ideas.
After establishing the festival in 2019, Domet and Turner’s dream of creating an intimate gathering space for writers and readers in Halifax was thwarted first by the COVID-19 pandemic and now by a hurricane.
Rising to the occasion
What do you do when a hurricane knocks out power on the opening weekend of your festival?
Instead of cancelling the entire weekend, the festival kicked off with a candlelit reading by Alex Pugsley and David Bergen at Café Lara.
Although I was set to start covering the festival that weekend, I didn’t attend the candlelit reading, assuming no power meant no event. Well, Domet and Turner imagined a new kind of event. All with the flick of a candle.
The co-founders opened by discussing the role of imagination in responding to a crisis. This year’s festival offered programming along the theme of leaning into change.
A highlight of this programming for me was the closing day of the festival, which featured conversations with Catherine Bush, Waubgeshig Rice and Kim Stanley Robinson about the climate emergency and imagination.
Later that evening, poets Sue Goyette and Madhur Anand discussed how their poetic practices engage with nature, wilderness and science. These conversations led me through the varied but unified ways writers think about our relationship with the planet. I felt a storm of feelings listening to these writers, but the best sense of all was I left sessions with the urge to write.
AfterWords and community
As a young writer, I’m always hungry for a chance to think and write with others. The festival also included nine workshops hosted by writers from across Canada. I had the pleasure of attending Luke Hathaway’s workshop on “The Poetry of Change.” Hathaway, a poet and professor at Saint Mary’s University, brought to the space deep wisdom that revealed how language can live and change on the page. Being in a room with other writers and working through exercises together was my favourite part of the festival experience.
Like the rest of us, the AfterWords Literary Festival is emerging this year from a period of profound change. After being online for two years, the festival’s return to in-person programming seems like a new chapter in its history and relationship with Haligonians.
But from this year’s edition, it’s clear AfterWords is a festival determined to create experiences of community for readers and writers — no matter the challenges, or hurricanes, that might get in the way.
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