“What is the role of the writer today?”
This is the question an audience member posed to Karen Solie and Esi Edugyan last Thursday evening at the Isabel Bader Theatre. The occasion was the Literature Matters lecture, an annual series that invites writers to give lectures about the importance of writing and literature. This year, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, Smaro Kamboureli, invited poet Karen Solie and novelist Esi Edugyan to the stage.
Solie is a Canadian poet. Her works have won her the 2010 Pat Lowther Award, Trillium Poetry Prize, and the Griffin Prize. After a brief introduction by Kamboureli, Solie took to the podium.
Solie’s lecture was entitled “On Folly: Poetry and Mistakes.” She began with the perennial question of poetry and its usefulness. She remarked that artists should always learn a trade, which prompted a knowing laughter from the audience. She continued to ponder the common belief that poetry serves no practical purpose—that it’s a folly. After all, she says, people are excited to see the arrival of the plumber. The poet, not so much. But she countered this with the idea that poetry is created with the inherent knowledge that it can be ornamental, a self-awareness that inevitably gives it purpose.
Solie ended her lecture with a discussion of this awareness. Literature and poetry matter because writing is an active process. It animates the mind. However, poets must accept that their work will always have some kind of negative reception, along with the positive—the same could be said for any form of art. “The poem will always fail,” she said. Some people will not resonate with it; others will not understand. Thus, the poet must be comfortable with failure, because there is “beauty in the impossibility.”
Edugyan’s lecture came next. Edugyan is an acclaimed author who received several awards for her second novel, Half Blood Blues. Her lecture was titled “The Wrong Door: Some Meditations.” Edugyan began with a story about poet Samuel Coleridge, who, after waking up from an opium-induced haze, found that a whole poem had formed in his head. After writing down a few lines, he was interrupted by a knock on the door. By the time the visitor left, Coleridge could not remember the poem; only the fragments remained.
In her talk, Edugyan explored this unwanted distraction, explaining that solitude is a necessary engine for creativity. She continued that sometimes, cocooning in a quiet space invites ideas. Boarding up the windows and putting up a sign that says “wrong door” can nurture the process.
She tied this idea to the notion of privacy. Critical acclaim can both support and stifle a writer. Success is one of the most rewarding things for a writer, but the spotlight can also wash out the creativity. She mentioned cult writer Elena Ferrante, who writes captivating fiction under this pseudonym. Just last year, her identity was exposed by a journalist. Ferrante’s readership thought the journalist crossed the line of her desired privacy, which is an essential part of her creative process.
Edugyan ended her talk with a proposed solution: acceptance. Writers should not fight the distractions, but accept them as part of the process. “Despite the noise, the words are still within us, waiting to be made whole.”
After a short dialogue between Kamboureli, Solie, and Edugyan, the panel opened for an audience discussion. Solie answered the question posed at the beginning of this article: a writer who simply pays attention to the world around them can fulfill their role. Edugyan responded that depicting characters, settings, and situations faithfully is also the responsibility of the writer. Truth today seems to be greying, so upholding that integrity is essential.
Throughout the course of the evening, the audience received writing advice and wisdom from two critically acclaimed writers. The event was both informative, and inspirational—a perfect celebration of the writing process.