You remember visiting that cool kid’s house when you were young? You know, the one who always had a nice lunch, a clean pencil case and textas with all the lids on them? Their hair was in braids while yours was in a loose plait, their uniform was ironed while you would smooth yours down with sweaty Vegemite palms.
One day they’d invite you over to their house after school. Their place would be filled with light, there’d be artworks drying on the windowsill, books piled by the fireplace, a huge wooden table that fit lots of chairs.
Where your mum would normally give you a frown, a dry biscuit and a ‘do your chores’, their mum would smile and offer you a warm treat from the oven and a sweet drink with bubbles. You’d sit in the garden, near a pond, swinging your legs, enjoying the sunshine and wondering why your life wasn’t like that.
That’s what it’s like visiting Canada as a poet. Suddenly you’re in the nice house, where everyone is lovely and the snacks are way better.
In Australia, if you tell someone you’re a poet you’re generally greeted with this face:
People look confused, blank, dull, and some even narrow their eyes, cock their heads slightly and repeat the word to you, ‘A poet?’
BUT NOT IN CANADA! In Canada, it’s ‘What’s the name of your book?’ or ‘Where can I find you on YouTube?’ and ‘Come to my party!’ In Canada you’re at the big kids' table, eating with the adults. In fact Canada had poet Shane Koyczan open the Winter Olympics! A POET, YOU GUYS! WHERE THERE WAS SPORTS. Could you imagine Australia swapping Nikki Webster for Les Murray? Or inflatable kangaroos for Dorothy Porter? In Canada, there’s respect for writers, musicians, dance and theatre; for people who create stuff.
And if Canada is heaven for artists, the Banff Centre is smack bang in God’s own loungeroom.
The Banff Centre is the largest arts and creativity incubator on the planet. Their mission is inspiring creativity. Through their multidisciplinary programming, the Banff Centre provides artists from all backgrounds with the support they need to create, to make the impossible possible. And they do it while offering a dessert buffet.
There are music, dance and film studios, performance venues, 4 beautiful theatres, state of the art conference rooms, a swimming pool, an indoor climbing centre, cheap ski lessons and some of the most beautiful hikes in the world.
In April 2014 I was invited to be core faculty for the annual Banff Centre spoken word program. It was a two-week contract that was one of the most wonderful, life-changing periods of my career as a writer and teacher so far. And afterwards I undertook a ‘self-directed residency’. By day I was to work on a new poetry collection about nature (focusing on mountains), and by night I would work on my screenplay. To help I was also reading Old Indian Trails Of The Canadian Rockies by Mary T.S Shaffer who was the first non-aboriginal woman to explore the area. Her descriptions of the Rockies in the early 1900’s set my heart on fire and my copy became so underlined, post-it-noted and dog-eared it was like a teenagers journal.
Nestled Banff National Park, the centre is about two hours from Calgary. It’s surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains, has its own natural hot springs and some of the most iconic natural wonders of the world, including the perfectly turquoise glass-mirrored Lake Louise. And that was a problem. It was too damn beautiful in Banff to do any actual writing. For the first few days I just walked around with my mouth open at the wonder of the place. I’m surprised I didn’t form an icicle in the back of my throat.
I was there in April spring, so everything was slowly waking up. Buds were shyly making their way out from branches, ice was melting, bears were shaking the sleep out of their eyes, the huge sapphire river that bordered the town was sparkling and the sky was a mixed cocktail of late snow and sunshine. There was elk roaming the grounds of the campus, their little tails shaking in the morning frost as they pulled the newly exposed tufts of grass from the wet ground.
I once pushed the ‘walk’ button in town for a small family of deer moseying across the street by the pub.
It was like Northern Exposure narrated by David Attenborough with a Walt Disney soundtrack – nature at its most storybook pure.
Most of the time I felt like I was standing in a painting, and it was hard not to bubble over with O’s followed by exclamation points. O! CANADA! I wanted to bellow from the tops of the mountains I climbed (by climbed, I mean rode the gondola).
I felt a swelling in my heart that almost hurt, like I’d swallowed a helium balloon and it was pushing against my chest trying to escape. Sometimes I would be walking and find a scene so dazzling it paralysed my vocabulary. What I wanted to say simply came out as air. I pride myself on being able to find words for situations where other people say ‘I have no words’ – that’s the job of a poet, to fill in those gaps, to express ineffable things, to bring comfort in moments of stern silence. That’s why we’re always called upon for weddings and funerals – we know how to make the unsayable say-able. But standing where three great rivers meet, surrounded by mountains as ancient as the sun, while water direct from glaciers raced underfoot and moose nuzzled the forest floor close by, and snowflakes as soft as fingerprints landed on my eyelashes… well, all I could do was try not to cry. To just experience it with all my self; to be present and hope to hell that when I got back to Australia I’d be able to recall the feelings, the chilly wind making notes in my hair, the valleys sculpting memories in my mind like snapshot shorthand, prompts of the perfection I had no way of describing.
As Mary T.S Schaffer so beautifully described the overwhelming magnitude of the place “Perhaps the subject is too great, and the picture too vast for one small steel pen and one human brain to depict--at least it is a satisfaction to think the fault is not my own.”
Emilie Zoey Baker is an award-winning Australian poet and spoken-word performer who has toured North America, Europe and Asia as a guest of international festivals. She was also the winner of the 2010 Berlin International Literature Festival’s poetry slam Slam!Review. At home, she performs regularly at arts and literature festivals, and has appeared at the Sydney Opera House and TEDx Melbourne. In 2013 she toured Indonesia with the renowned Woman Of Letters storytelling series, performing in Jakarta and Jogjakarta, as well as a guest on their US tour performing in NYC. Emilie is a 2014 Fellow at the State Library of Victoria. She has been poet-in-residence for Museums Victoria and coordinator for the National Australian Poetry Slam. She teaches poetry and slam in schools and in April 2014, she was core faculty for the annual spoken word program at Canada's Banff Centre. Emilie is also the author of eighteen children’s books and has published several poetry collections.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.