The lineup for the first edition of the festival, along with other events at Harbourfront. Source: Toronto Star, October 16, 1980.
Twelve thousand dollars. That’s the budget the organizers of the first edition of the International Festival of Authors (or Harbourfront International Authors’ Festival, as it was called then) had to work with in 1980 to showcase twenty-two writers of varying infamy. Capacity crowds throughout the six-day event proved to organizers and potential sponsors that Toronto could support a literary festival.
Such an event had been on Greg Gatenby’s mind ever since he was hired by Harbourfront in 1975 to run its literary program. Descended from poetry nights run by the Bohemian Embassy coffeehouse, Harbourfront’s program had focused on local talent, partly due to a lack of stable funding to bring in writers from elsewhere. Under Gatenby’s guidance, the weekly reading series evolved to include a mix of established poets and anyone who stepped up to the microphone. “Sometimes,” noted the Globe and Mail in a 1978 profile of Gatenby, “the readings are ludicrous, sometimes the poetry is the best you could hear, and sometimes they’re boring.” Successful appearances by British poet George MacBeth in spring 1978 and American writers John Cheever and John Irving over the next year convinced Gatenby to attempt a full-blown festival. His goals were outlined years later by Sandra Martin in a Toronto Life profile:
Let Canadians experience the wonder and virtuosity of writers from abroad in comparison with the best of our own authors and thereby learn to appreciate excellence whatever its source; and invite the best foreign writers here for a week so they can hear their Canadian counterparts read, commune with them in relaxed conversations over lunches and dinners, explore the city, and then go back home and spread the word.
Gatenby wanted the festival to be a venue for authors to engage with their readers and with broader societal issues. As he told the Globe and Mail on the eve of the first festival, he was “against the self-serving retirement of Canadian writers. Writers have always articulated intellectual revolt in Latin America and Europe. Of course, a retiring person like Alice Munro can’t be expected to become a barricades fighter but it’s odd that so many Canadian writers are not political.”
Media access to several authors proved tricky. The festival got lucky when Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for literature two weeks before his appearance. Wishing to maintain a low profile, Milosz refused to talk to reporters. British poet/critic Stephen Spender caused a ruckus when he demanded three hundred dollars from anyone wishing to interview him. As festival publicist Debbie Westphal told the Star’s Sid Adilman, “He’s an old man and he’s been on the scene for a long time and feels he’s virtually talked out. Charging for interviews is his way of making a living.” Only CBC Radio shelled out.
Spender was far more willing to engage with the audience, as he signed over three hundred copies of his works. Among those books were fifteen titles brought to the venue in a plastic bag by Toronto “poet cop” Hans Jewinski. While Spender had no qualms about signing Jewinski’s stack, fellow poet Daryl Hine did. Adilman reported that “Hine sternly told Jewinski he ‘couldn’t possibly sign any books from someone who carried them in a plastic shopping bag.’” Perhaps it was fitting that Spender received a standing ovation, while Hine did not.
With capacity crowds of up to four hundred and fifty attendees per night, the success of the inaugural festival made it easier for Gatenby to organize the second edition. The budget for 1981 was over six times greater than that of 1980, thanks to increased government funding and corporate sponsorships. Planning extended into the future—upon learning that Pope John Paul II was scheduled to visit Canada in 1982, Gatenby contacted the Vatican to see if the pontiff would be interested in reading his published poetry. While the Pope was flattered, officials wrote back to say that the planned itinerary wouldn’t allow time for such a stop, but that John Paul II “prayed for the munificence of God’s blessing on Gatenby’s soul.”
Additional material from the March 1, 1978, October 18, 1980, and October 17, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; the February 1998 issue of Toronto Life; and the October 21, 1980 and October 24, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.