Literary Acclaim Meets Small-City Charm

By: M.E. Powell March, 2015

The Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw strikes the right balance each year between nationally acclaimed authors and literary figures, as well as small-city perks such as green space and historic charm.

Part of the festival’s mandate from the beginning has been to add ‘zing’ to the traditional literary festival, and its diverse programming includes literacy, lifelong reading, creative writing and film. The festival attracts some 4,000 people to the city throughout four days in mid-July, with about 60 per cent making the journey from outside Moose Jaw (pop. 34,000). Audience surveys show participants coming from across the prairie provinces, Victoria, the Maritimes, Montreal, Washington State, Montana, and even as far away as Australia.

According to Donna Lee Howes, executive director, Saskatchewan Festival of Words, the festival began in 1996 as a dream of Moose Jaw poet and high school English teacher Gary Hyland after he attended other literary festivals. “He knew Moose Jaw’s reputation as the ‘friendly city’ made it the perfect spot to host a literary festival,” she says.

The city’s historical buildings and tunnels, the 26-acre Crescent Park with library and art museum, as well as the close proximity of venues make Moose Jaw a prime location for this type of festival. The author readings, book launches, panel discussions, and other programs each have 50 to 400 people in attendance, with up to four events occurring simultaneously throughout the four days.

“The audience has come to expect us to deliver a balanced program of authors they’ve heard of before, and want to meet,” Howes says, “and others they take at face value.”

The program team receives about 150 pitches from authors each year. of the 24-36 authors chosen each year, 20-25 per cent come from Saskatchewan, and for example, last year’s presenters included award-winning Saskatchewan authors Gail Bowen and Anthony Bidukla, as well as nationally acclaimed authors Stephen Galloway, Wayne Grady and miriam Toews. As well, storytellers, illustrators, book designers, graphic novelists, journalists, editors, singer-songwriters, filmmakers, dramatists and actors round out the festival mix.

"We're better known nationally by readers than we are even recognized by Moose-Javians," says Donna Lee Howes. 

It takes about 150 volunteers to run the various events, such as the Performer’s Café, at the festival. Activities like the Poetry slam attract younger audiences, with the 417-seat Mae Wilson Theatre auditorium at half capacity for this one event.

Some festival highlights repeat each year, such as the opening Readception, which includes short samples of work from several authors, or the trivia night and book launches. The organizers also try to make changes that will help the program. In 2014, a Saskatchewan-themed breakfast replaced the Sunday farewell brunch.

The Saskatchewan Festival of Words has received funding in part from the SaskFestivals program, administered by the Saskatchewan Arts Board, with funds provided by SaskCulture Inc., and the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation.

SASKSCAPES - Kevin Power's features the Festival of Words in one of his latest podcasts, which can be found on SoundCloud and I Heart Culture