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Transgress festival offers best queer writers

Writers offer edgy, sexy and queer evening

NATURAL-BORN STORYTELLER AND PERFORMER. Ivan E Coyote made Shift Magazine's list of 75 cultural movers and shakers. Credit: (Wayne Hoecherl)

Transgress. According to the dictionary it is to “contravene or go beyond the bounds or limits set by a commandment, law, etc.” It’s time for Ottawa to hear some very queer, very hot misbehavin’ writers.

This year’s 10th annual Ottawa International Writer’s Festival has opened the floor to a diverse group of four Canadian writers: Sky Gilbert, Ivan E Coyote, Marnie Woodrow and Matthew Firth. Acclaimed writers first, they are each also transgressive in one way or another, and promise an evening that gets beyond a general-audience rating.

There are other writing festivals in the city, and even another one hosted by the queer community. But Transgress is the brainchild of Capital Xtra publisher and managing editor Gareth Kirkby, who saw the need for something challenging mainstream ideas of sexuality and gender. With frequent Capital Xtra writer James Moran on board – for his experience as the former coordinator of the Tree Reading Series – the idea soon became concrete and even got the nod of Canada Council. It attached itself to the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival.

“We need our own festivals, like Wilde About Sappho,” says Kirkby. “But we also need to queer the predominantly straight mainstream festivals, like the Ottawa International. And while we’re at it, we’re going to bring in the best queer and sex-positive straight writers out there. And they’re going to bring a sense of playfulness as they celebrate their sexuality and challenge the way the world looks at sex and gender.”

Moran says they wanted a series that would raise more than eyebrows and selected the crème de la crème of sexy writers.

Transgress will entice the audience to question conventional morality and sexuality, Moran says. “It’s a literary slap in the face to snap them out of their apathy, Ottawa being very much a government town.”

“We want to expose audiences to something they could never have anywhere else, an edgy, sexy, queer literary event,” says Moran, who ran the Tree Reading Series for six years. “It’s something to shake Ottawa readers up and turn them on. It’s gonna be some night.”

That seems pretty clear, given the writer line-up.

Take Sky Gilbert. He was the artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto’s gay village from 1979 to 1997. He went on to write many critically acclaimed works, including “Guilty” (1998), “St Stephen’s” (1999), “I Am Kasper Klotz” (2001), “Digressions Of A Naked Party Girl” (1998) and “Temptations For A Juvenile Delinquent” (2003). He has also written and directed countless plays and musicals.

No stranger to the stage, he has always done out, gay work so Transgress is a perfectly provocative event for him, even though he won’t be performing in drag. “It’s really important to be out asa writer,” says Gilbert. He’s somewhat of a Renaissance queer as he writes, directs, acts and calls himself a drag queen extraordinaire. “I always think it’s a good idea to spread yourself around,” says Gilbert, who also participated in Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series.

He’ll be reading two very queer, pornographic poems that’ll turn the audience’s crank.

Matthew Firth is the token hetero, token guy from Ottawa (okay, he’s not token but it felt so good to write that). He lives on a quiet, residential street in the west end with his wife and two boys, but don’t be fooled. Firth is one of the kinkiest, raunchiest writers out there. He has written two short story collections entitled Fresh Meat (1997) and Can You Take Me There, Now? (2001). He also has a book coming out this fall called Suburban Pornography And Other Stories, from which he’ll be reading. Firth is turned on by the idea of Transgress.

“This one sounds like it’ll light a fire under people’s asses and that’s always a good thing,” says Firth. “My stuff tends to be very eye-opening.”

Firth has read everywhere from church basements to pubs, to coffee shops, and once in a clothing store. His work tends to make people uncomfortable if they’re not prepared. One reading almost broke out in a fist fight.

“Not to sound like a tough guy,” says Firth, “but I wouldn’t write what I do if I didn’t have the balls to stand up and read it.”

Criticism doesn’t faze Firth, and he never assumes that his audience is of a certain sort.

“I don’t know if this event is going to be 99 percent gay except for my wife,” says Firth with a chuckle. Firth also read at Tree and is excited to be in good company at Transgress.

Ivan E Coyote — our cover for this issue of Capital Xtra — has been called a natural-born performer. “I’m a kitchen table storyteller. My work is very conversational,” says Coyote.

She has always approached writing from a performance perspective and knows that a great storyteller picks the right piece for the audience. For Transgress, she’ll be reading a piece about packing, called “Battle of the Bulge,” as well as a piece about trying to urinate in a public washroom, “which is difficult for those of us who don’t fit into a gender box.”

Coyote is the author of three short story collections, One Man’s Trash, Close To Spider Man, and Loose End. Her first novel, Bow Grip, will be released later this fall. She says it’s a departure from her usual work.

She’s expecting to be the tamest writer of the bunch at Transgress.

The award-winning Coyote was born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and was voted one of Shift Magazine’s top 75 cultural movers and shakers of the world. She’s a regular columnist with Xtra West and you can read her columns at xtra.ca.

Marnie Woodrow thinks that breaking the rules is wonderful. “In art, especially right now in this crazy world, one must transgress whenever possible. It’s the only sensible antidote to war,” says Woodrow.

Woodrow is the author of Spelling Mississippi, In The Spice House, and Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss. Her first book was published at age 22, so at 37 she’s a veteran storyteller. She’s giving a workshop for youth at the festival on Oct 6, and a workshop entitled, “How To Give A Kickass Reading” on Oct 7.

She says that even if people have odd ideas about Ottawa being boring, “obviously they’ve missed out on the real Ottawa.”