Greg Gatenby, who recently "resigned" as artistic director of the International Festival of Authors, has gone to France, it is said, to write a book. To this I can honestly say bonne chance, mon frère, and may it be a very, very long book. This is not to disrespect the impresssario's notable achievements. In his 25 years at the helm, the festival has featured over 4,000 authors, among them a dozen Nobel laureates. The effect of the resulting intercourse between Canadian writers and their global counterparts cannot be overestimated as a motivating force in the current appreciation of CanLit worldwide.
Gatenby was also instrumental in the revival of PEN Canada and served on the board of the Writers' Development Trust, an institution that some years ago when I was down and out and 40 managed to give me a small subsistence grant to continue my writing. Gatenby also gave me one of my first paid readings, and because of him I met my first mentors, Peter Such and Irving Layton.
When you multiply all my cascading opportunities by the number of participants in his events over 25 years, you begin to see that he may have been a great blessing not just for writers and audiences but for literature itself. Perhaps a small enough price to pay for his legendary abrasiveness. But abrasiveness it was.
All around the world wherever I have been invited to do readings, sooner or later - usually sooner - the talk drifts toward Toronto and "that prickly fellow who runs the reading series there." With every passing year as the festival grew larger, so did the circle of hurt and anger that welled out from it in stunned waves. Far from being an outcast when one is cast out by Gatenby, one gains entry into an ever-growing pantheon of livid literati.
And while Gatenby's got his fans, there are a lot of careful local luminaries who won't yet dare be quoted on their rocky relations with him. There is some suspicion that Gatenby's departure is but a ploy. The great Gate may not have swung closed for the last time. He may rise again.
It must be said, Gatenby was a long-time enemy of mine. My story with him begins July 10, 1975, the date of my first-ever public reading. At that time the Harbourfront series was very local, very small and still called the Bohemian Embassy. It's not mentioned in any of Harbourfront's current online bumpf, but the original host of the series was John Robert Colombo. He was a benign, nurturing presence with genuine stature in the literary community and a real interest in young poets. As it turned out, my reading that night in the open set was well received. I rejoiced to think I had caught the ear of Colombo, who went on to publish some of my earliest work in the Tamarack Review.
But Colombo was not to last. There was another figure in the background at Harbourfront that evening. This was the young Gatenby, who gradually, to our horror, took over the place.
As the reading series slowly grew in stature, the open sets also continued to flourish. Toronto at that time did not have readings and slams all day, every day, everywhere as it does now. Harbourfront was virtually the only game in town, so despite the ubiquitous muttering about Gatenby's abrasive style, a coterie of poets had taken to assembling there, and it might be said that a certain local culture had sprung up. When the "punk" years came along, however, the increasingly obnoxious quality of the open sets were, I'm sure, embarrassing to him and an impediment to his growing ambitions.
It was at the end of his first "world-class" reading that Gatenby and I had our little brouhaha. That night he said something in public about me that I knew if I swallowed and walked away from would make me a broken man for the rest of my life. And I actually swallowed it and walked away. For a few moments. I got about 10 steps away before I cracked. It is said I threw chairs, which is not true. I kicked a few and then let loose with a torrent of verbal fury.
Sadly, this follower of Gandhi threatened to slap Gatenby's face. And the next week he cancelled the open readings, and a valuable forum for local poets was lost. I proceeded to get a petition together and forced Harbourfront to bring the series back. I revelled and gloried and sneered in all this, but I see now that Gatenby outmanoeuvred me. As a last-minute compromise, the open readings were shifted to a different night of the week. Hosted by the late Ted Plantos, this "rival" series went on for about two years before it was quietly killed off, leaving Gatenby riff-raff-free and in the clear to pursue his larger dream of an International Literary Festival.
Needless to say, all the above landed me on the verboten list at Harbourfront, and there I have remained ever since. As recently as last year, when my publishers held their 25th anniversary at Harbourfront, it was demanded that my name be stricken from the readers list. This version of events could easily be taken as a massive case of sour grapes were it not for the fact that I was the first of what would turn out to be an exceedingly long list of verboten authors. It was inevitable.
Having a fellow of that temperament running an authors festival is a little like getting a rhino to herd weather balloons. There will be some puncturing, some explosions.
Over the years, I've had time to realize some abrasiveness of my own. As a result my own distaste has long since dissipated and morphed into a kind of ambivalent admiration. Instead of always sneering when I see Gatenby, I sometimes want to blow him a kiss. This is as good a time as any. So... MWAA! Thank you, Greg, for the enormous gifts you have left us. I think the French will appreciate you much more than we do here. I hope they love you so much they never let you go.
Robert Priest reads today (Thursday, July 24) at the Leacock Festival in Aurora, and Saturday (July 26) at 1:30 pm at Gilda's Club (110 Lombard).