By Rachneet Randhawa, December 29 2021—
Wordfest is a celebration of literature, all about ideas and connecting people. It made its coveted comeback virtually again this year showcasing the hit series, 26@26, a fall virtual series, pairing the world’s best writers and making sparks fly from Sept. 7 to Nov. 30, 2021.
Originally launched in 1996 as a weekly festival that happened in October, it’s now in its 26th year, it has grown over the years to become year-round with the programming of up to 180 live shows per year. Wordfest has two key sections — the Imaginarium, or the original word fest content, and Imagine On Air the online and virtual iteration. The Gauntlet sat down with the CEO and creative ringleader of Wordfest, Shelly Youngblut, to learn more.
Youngblut describes her role as a mullet title — being business in the front and party in the back.
“I’m responsible for the vision of the organization,” says Youngblut. “All the finances, basically making sure that we have enough funding and support and a business plan and a strategy to be able to do something interesting and relevant. And then in my creative ringleader role I decide with the help of the team, which authors we focus on, how we focus on them, how they’re presented.”
Youngblut describes the written word as empathic and telepathic as this perfect object that enables you to get into the blood, bones, heart and muscle of another human being which is the magic of it all. The original live and in-person event used to take place on the second floor of the Memorial Park library, which is the oldest library in Alberta. Here, they transformed it into a 140 seat performance space with an open bar and included a fun and interactive trivia night. They have lively Q&As and a special storytelling event called “The Way We” that is defined as a personal story you tell to a live audience without notes.
After COVID-19 hit, they had to pivot and decided to go online and create their literary streaming channel called Imagine On Air. Within the past two years, they have produced almost 200 shows featuring the world’s greatest authors and have grown their audience not just nationally, but internationally as well.
“Calgary’s Wordfest now beams out from the Rocky Mountains to the world,” said Youngblut. “Right now 26@26 is our fall series. There were 13 shows, featuring 26 of the world’s most interesting writers. One of the things that we’ve learned is that there is an actual power that online programming has that live programming doesn’t. It’s almost like you’re seeing these authors in their personal spaces getting their camera.”
For example, one pairing was Torrey Peters and Casey Plett who are both transgender authors.
“At a time when there’s so much transphobia in the world, if you listen to Torrey and Casey, I can’t imagine how you would have any of those prejudices left just listening to these two incredible women talking about their art, and talking about what they’re trying to give back to the community,” said Youngblut.
Another performer, Indigenous creator Drew Hayden Taylor, talks about humour, art, post-trauma and conversations about what happens after reconciliation.
The biggest challenge they dealt with during the pandemic is the relentlessness and the necessary responsibility as they’ve all been to each other.
“We are only as safe as the least safe people among us,” said Youngblut. “I think just the burden of that responsibility and the relentlessness of the responsibility. And my team is a small team, we’ve worked really hard, but we have not been in the same room with each other. In two years, everything is being done virtually. So it’s harder to communicate, it’s harder to collaborate, it’s harder to innovate. You feel kind of emptied, as opposed to emptied and then replenished. And I think that’s been the hardest thing.”
As for how Wordfest has shaped the culture of the city, Youngblut says that Wordfest helps make space for stories and authors of different perspectives.
“I think for local Calgarians, the idea that there isn’t an author or a conversation that they’re not part of now, that we’ve definitely placed Calgary right in the center of what’s going on,” says Youngblut. “So you don’t feel isolated from the big cities or the big ideas or the big bucks with the big authors. They’re right here for you. And they’re being presented to you by Calgarians.”
Although they are nervous Wordfest is hoping to be back in person for events, as these book-oriented events are one of the few artistic experiences where you are guaranteed to meet the artist. Some examples include a show called “The Way We Come Back” coming in January 2022 with seven Alberta-based authors including creative writing professor, Larissa Lai from the University of Calgary, and Teresa Wong, the U of C’s current writer in residence.
One thing people should do at events like these, especially newbies, is truly engage by asking lots of questions.
“Listen, just come with an open mind. Listen deeply, listen generously. Ask questions when the Q&A portion comes,” says Youngblut. “Volunteering is another great avenue for which there are lots of opportunities. If you’re a new and budding writer don’t be afraid to show up and be present by going to as many readings, bookstore events and Wordfest events as possible.”
If affordability is an issue, especially as a student, Youbgblut mentioned to email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are unable to afford a ticket, as they don’t want to make economic barriers for anyone.
Some parting advice Youngblut gives to youth and new and inexperienced writers is to be open to failure.
“Every writer will tell you this, that you have to read and then, of course, you have to write. And nobody writes a perfect first draft. No one. So don’t be so hard on yourself — be willing to be bad.”
For those of you who are interested in learning more about Wordfest and the Imaginarium be sure to check out the year round programming on their website. For those interested in learning more about the art of writing and connecting with like-minded writers on campus check out the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program.