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World hungry for Canadian perspective, says impresario

Hal Wake remembers a time when major publishers rarely published Canadian novels. Now he can hardly keep up with all the Canadian writers spilling ink.

Hal Wake remembers a time when major publishers rarely published Canadian novels.

Now he can hardly keep up with all the Canadian writers spilling ink.

“Over the last 10 years we’ve seen an ever-increasing number of new writers on the scene,” said Wake.

“When is this embarrassment of riches going to crash to a halt? The market can only absorb so many good books!”

Wake is slightly exaggerating, of course.

But he does question how publishers can continue to publish a growing number of Canadian authors with fewer people buying and reading books.

It’s what he hopes to answer at a trade talk at the upcoming Whitehorse Poetry Festival, June 19 to 21.

“One of the reasons (for the increase) is that we’re selling (Canadian) literature around the world to a greater degree,” said Wake.

Canadian heavyweight authors like Anne Michaels, Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel have pushed other Canadian writers onto the international literary stage.

“When people read these authors they say, ‘Oh if that country has those people then what else do they have?’ It’s a snowball effect,” said Wake.

The formula seems to be working so well that it has even pushed lesser-known Canadian authors into the limelight.

“The author Steven Galloway isn’t a household name in Canada, but his book Cellist of Sarajevo has been translated into 17 languages. The world is paying attention.”

Wake is coy about the other reasons the Canadian publishing industry has managed to stay afloat; he’s waiting to reveal those at the trade talk this weekend.

Aside from being a book lover, Wake has been steeped in the publishing industry for more than 30 years. In the mid-‘80s he worked as the book producer for CBC’s Morningside Radio as well as hosting CBC Vancouver’s The Early Show. He has moderated hundreds of literary events and is currently the artistic director of the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival.

After working so long in the publishing industry one thing is clear to Wake: there is no definitive style of Canadian writing.

“One of the biggest cliches of Canadian writing is that it’s sombre, rural and ‘us against the world’,” said Wake.

“The biggest advantage is there isn’t a single definable style ... I think you can’t anymore define Canadian writing as a particular type.”

There are writers putting out urban, edgy novels, others writing speculative fiction and some that are humourists, said Wake.

Poetry is a genre that is still very much overlooked, however, and poets know that, said Wake.

He blames that on the literary scars people still carry with them from high school.

“Most of us didn’t have enjoyable experiences in school. Poetry was cut up into little pieces and every word had to be explained,” he said.

Students aren’t taught to read poetry the way it should be experienced; it needs to seep into your bones said Wake.

“Poetry is sensual. It should hit you in the gut before your brain understands what it means,” he said.

“It should give you a feeling and if it takes you time to understand it, then that’s OK too.”

The poets attending this year’s Whitehorse Poetry Festival, like Michael Ondaatje, CD Wright and Adam Sol, are some of the best in the business, said Wake.

“People in Whitehorse are lucky to have a festival of this calibre,” said Wake. “There are some of the finest poets in the country, not to mention the world, who will be at the festival.”

A slight twinge of envy can be detected in his voice when he mentions not nabbing some of the writers at the Whitehorse festival for his own festival in Vancouver.

“I wasn’t even able to get CD Wright for my festival!” Wake said. “It’s extraordinary to see (the Whitehorse) community get these writers. The city is in for a real treat. “

Hal Wake will be moderating several panels at the Whitehorse Poetry Festival and will be giving a trade talk Sunday, June 21 at the MacBride Museum, 9:30-10:30 a.m.

Contact Vivian Belik at