About the Hare

The March Hare: An Introduction

by Adrian Fowler

[As published in The March Hare Anthology, ed. Adrian Fowler (St. John’s, NL: Breakwater Books, 2007. Copyright resides with the author. All rights reserved.]

The March Hare, Atlantic Canada’s largest poetry festival, originated probably in 1988 as an innovative but inauspicious winter entertainment at the Blomidon Golf and Country Club in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.1 That an important literary event should owe its birth to three golfers attempting to generate business for their local club during the bleak days of March might seem unlikely, but given that the begetters were poet Al Pittman, organizer Rex Brown and club manager George Daniels, it perhaps should have been expected. The March Hare was one of a series of events they concocted to enable the club to stay open during the long winter months – the Swish, Swallow and Swill Gournament, the Blomidon International Night, and the Great Tack’s Beach Growl Tournament – its original purpose not substantially more noble than theirs. Unlike the other events, however, the March Hare survived – survived the deaths of George Daniels and Al Pittman and a change of venue downtown to the Columbus Club – to become a unique trans-island celebration of words and music, involving seven events in three towns over five days, attracting writers from all over Canada and indeed the world, and featuring the best traditional musicians in Newfoundland and Labrador. In its twentieth year, the 2007 March Hare was scheduled to take place not only in Corner Brook, Gander and St. John’s, but also in Toronto and at seven venues in Ireland, including Waterford and Dublin.

Although much is known about the origins of the March Hare, after twenty years memory doesn’t always serve and research only recovers so much. The original plans did not anticipate the long-term development and success of the event and the preservation of documentary evidence was not a priority. To some extent, therefore, the early origins are lost in the mists of time. Was 1988 actually the date of the first March Hare? Was the first March Hare called the March Hare? Who performed at the First March Hare?

These questions can only be answered in probabilities, not facts.

The March Hare of 1994 was the first to be designated with a number, the programme indicating that it was the seventh. Even though systematic record-keeping may not have been a priority in those days, Al Pittman had a good memory and an eye for history and Rex Brown was formally trained as a historian. It is a good bet, therefore, that in counting back from 1994 and locating the first March Hare in 1988, they were on the money. Furthermore, the 1988 March Hare was almost certainly called the March Hare, although there may have been earlier poetry readings using the Blomidon Club as a venue. The English Department at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, led by Al Pittman and John Steffler, had established an energetic programme of readings by visiting writers from the opening of the campus in 1975, and, in fact, the tenth anniversary of that tradition was celebrated by the performance of eleven writers over a two-day period at the Holiday Inn in 1985. University-sponsored reading events were therefore well-established in the community by the late 1980s and they took place off-campus as well as on. Although it undoubtedly drew on this tradition, however, the March Hare was different in that the Blomidon Club was not just the venue but the sponsor of the event.

No documentary evidence has been found of the 1988 programme. It is even possible that there was no printed programme, although this seems unlikely given Al Pittman’s love for ritual and his tendency to introduce it even into social events among intimate acquaintances. As for who performed, it was probably pretty much the same line-up as the following year. According to a 1989 March Hare flyer, that year David (Smoky) Elliott, Rosalie Elliott, Nick Avis, Adrian Fowler, Randall Maggs, Al Pittman and John Steffler read from their own writing; David Freeman, Maria Bourgeois and Patrick Monaghan performed an excerpt from Twelfth Night; and David Freeman was Master of Ceremonies. Music was probably a feature from the start, but it was not listed on the programme until the third March Hare of 1990, when Lorna Hart, Susan Kent and Emily Pittman performed as Two Rode Together, Art Griffin, Wayne Muggeridge and Vicki Pike performed as Polypudjum, and legendary club and provincial golf champion John Ledrew played the piano and, memorably, whistled. Visual art was not formally introduced until 1995 when George Maslov, master printer in Grenfell’s Fine Arts Programme, nominated a student, Frances Thoms, to create the poster for the March Hare dedicated to Smoky Elliott. Nevertheless, early March Hare programmes, dating from 1990 and created by Nick Avis, featured a striking fusion of image and word, juxtaposing delicate line drawings and haiku.

The March Hare moved to the Columbus Club in 1994. The following year, in honouring Smoky Elliott, the tradition of dedicating the annual event to celebrate the work of special artists, or supporters of the arts, was initiated. The tradition wasn’t resumed until 1998, when the enormous impact of Al Pittman was properly saluted, but since then the March Hare has paid tribute to the contributions of Des Walsh, Clyde Rose, Pamela Morgan, David Freeman, Daniel Payne, Bernice Morgan, Irish poet John Ennis, and in 2007 John Steffler. In 2002, in a departure from the singling out of one individual, the mystical influence of Inner Placentia Bay was acknowledged. The formalizing of the annual tribute led to the commissioning of portraits to commemorate the occasion. Since 1999, Gerald Squires, Grant Boland, Dave Sheppard, Corey Gorman, Melissa Martin, Darren Whalen, and Rodney Mercer have all produced art works for the March Hare.

1998 was also the year the March Hare expanded to four events. The traditional Saturday evening performance was supplemented by a Friday evening reading at Casual Jack’s Roadhouse, a Saturday afternoon matinee for children, and a Sunday afternoon musical event in King Henry’s pub at the Glynmill Inn. The package was advertised in the Corner Brook Western Star as “a weekend of words and music,” putting into print for the first time a formulation that had been used conversationally for years and that succinctly summed up what had by then become one of the defining qualities of the March Hare.

Al Pittman died in August 2001. But in the spring of that year, the first St. John’s March Hare had been organized by Nick Avis and by late summer plans for the 2002 Hare were essentially complete. They included two new venues: an event in Gander, organized by Eric Norman and Sheldon McBreairty, and a reading at the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College Art Gallery in Corner Brook. The concept was that a core of four or five writers from outside Newfoundland would perform at events in St. John’s, Gander and Corner Brook, supplemented by local artists in all three centres. Although Al Pittman did not live to see the 2002 Hare, in the last months of his life he oversaw its culmination in the seven-event trans-island festival that it is today.

There are many poetry festivals around the world and quite a number in Canada. Many of them are bigger than the March Hare. The large urban centres of Canada – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa – all host international literary festivals that attract hundreds of writers and thousands of aficionados. But the March Hare is unique. It bears no resemblance to a convention, a conference or a circus. There are no panel discussions or workshops or competitions. It does not privilege the professional interests of the writers; nor is it aimed at an audience of the elect. There are no prima donnas mumbling into the microphone or droning from the podium while earnest spectators assume a stoic posture struggling to convince themselves that although it tastes awful it does you good. At the Columbus Club on Saturday evening in Corner Brook, poets, musicians and patrons sit around tables, bar-style, and break during the intermission to replenish their glasses or line up to partake of the Hare soup. After the readings, the stories and songs go on, as they would in a kitchen party, until the wee hours of the morning. The occasion is, in Al Pittman’s words, “a gathering.”

The origins of the March Hare provide a clue to the meaning of that term. The event was created to fulfil a social purpose. It was conceived as an enticement to bring people together. It reached out to people who did not think of themselves as poetry lovers and it promised them stimulation and entertainment. At the core of Al Pittman’s aesthetic was the uncompromising conviction that good literature could be appreciated by ordinary people, and that, in fact, it should serve the broad community. Not even Milton Acorn was more naturally or more truly a people’s poet than Al Pittman. This article of faith on his part was complemented by the fact that poetry and song are deeply embedded in the tradition of popular entertainment in Newfoundland and Labrador.2 The variety show, the soup supper and the community concert were all social events that invited broad participation and performance. Recitations, rhymes and ballads provided opportunities for both social bonding and social commentary. These events, identified as signature features of popular theatre in Newfoundland and Labrador, are the archetypes of the March Hare’s unique blend of music and words. They also explain its improbable success: the audience recognises the genre and understands its social purpose.

The roots of the March Hare go deep and they extend beyond the locale in which the idea originally germinated, drawing sustenance from a larger sense of shared community in this part of the world. Early in its evolution, friends and acquaintances from St. John’s and elsewhere started turning up to take in the event. Des Walsh, Clyde Rose, and Larry Small were among them. Being writers or performers themselves, they were sooner or later invited to participate onstage. Established artists like Pamela Morgan, Michael Crummey and Stan Dragland have made their way to the Hare just to be part of the scene, without any expectation that they would perform.3 And although it may flourish in this place, the sense of community is open-handed and freely shared. The young Newfoundland poet Ben Hynes described the March Hare as “a reaching of arms.”4 This is why Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Susan Musgrave, Stephen Reid, Glen Sorestad, Louise Skywalker Halfe, Michael Ondaatje, Alistair MacLeod, John Ennis, Paul Durcan, Emiko Miyashita, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other writers from other parts of Canada and the world have gravitated to the March Hare – not just to flog their wares (although certainly books are launched and sold) but to participate in a ceremony that feels like a party.

Like the traditional variety show, the March Hare originally drew on the talents of people living in the local community. The event has gone way beyond that now, but the elements of the original formula have been faithfully, even lovingly, maintained. Performers are handled as though they were all guests in Rex Brown’s home from when the Hare begins on Wednesday evening in St. John’s until when it ends on Sunday afternoon in Corner Brook. At the same time, writers are chosen for their interest in getting the words off the page and they are reminded that the patrons of the event are an equally important ingredient in its success. It is expected that audiences will be challenged as well as entertained, but the March Hare insists on the importance of the exchange between performer and audience. Rex Brown has often said that every year he is as excited to introduce the patrons to the presenters as he is to introduce the presenters to the patrons. The ethic of the March Hare is that presenters owe audiences their very best attempt to communicate and audiences owe presenters their open-minded attention. It is a powerful combination of mutually undertaken obligations. As Stephanie McKenzie has observed, at the March Hare literature is treated as a live art form.5 This is why it combines so naturally with music in the programme.

From the start, the March Hare has demonstrated a strong commitment to the quality of the experience. The programme was always planned many months (in recent years, over a year) in advance. Great care was taken to ensure that the balance between the various ‘acts’ was right. Presentations and performances were timed to the minute and going over time was seriously frowned on. Professionals were hired to handle lighting and sound. Such high standards continue to characterize all aspects of the March Hare and it is reciprocated by the attention of the patrons. Although the Saturday evening event takes place in a bar packed with hundreds of people, there is no talking or moving about during the presentations. In the words of Glen Sorestad, there is “a reverence for the word, whether it’s sung or whether it’s spoken. The audience is just so attentive. They’re holding onto everything and very respectful of the music and the words.”6

The March Hare attempts to create the conditions under which it is the quality of the whole experience that is being sought, and it is being sought not just by the organizers and the performers but also by the patrons, who are made to feel that they are an integral part of the enterprise. A populist, democratic philosophy prevails. Traditional stories alternate with contemporary poems, emerging writers appear alongside established writers, local performers share the stage with performers from all over the world, and all of them are accorded the same courtesy. While long-term achievement may be given the nod of respect in the form of an extra two or three minutes at the podium, the time allotments are tight and more or less equal. There are no stars at the March Hare.

It is paradoxical that an event that is so rooted in tradition should be so open to change and so open to the world. This has been the great achievement of the March Hare. Cultural identity, like individual identity, cannot be protected by staying the same. When a culture is alive and well, it is dynamic, re-discovering and re-asserting its essential integrity while embracing the world. It cannot protect itself by preserving the past; it must draw on the past to re-invent itself in the present to take on the future. This has also been the great legacy of Al Pittman. In his life, even more than in his work, he exemplified how this act of creation can take place.

Today the March Hare continues to be a labour of love for the organizers. In 2001, Randall Maggs and Nick Avis succeeded Al Pittman as artistic and programme directors respectively. Randy is primarily responsible for the line-up of out-of-province writers and he oversees the Corner Brook programme. Nick collaborates with Randy and Rex on the overall design of each year’s Hare and organizes the St. John’s event. Sheldon McBreairty still puts together the Gander programme, and in 2007 John Ennis and colleagues provided direction for the Ireland leg of the March Hare. As always, Rex Brown is responsible for the overall organization of the festival. He is also, more than anyone, the guardian of its spirit, the keeper of the flame.

As such, one of his concerns has been to prepare for the passing on of the torch to a new generation. In 1998, at the March Hare dedicated to Al Pittman, Al’s daughter Kyran, read from her work, and the following year a new tradition was established of making room on the programme for one or two emerging writers. Through this process, the March Hare has become a venue, or set of venues, in which new writing is featured side-by-side with established work. This represents an infusion of new blood into the event and provides a valuable forum in which emerging writers are introduced to experienced practitioners and to a broad audience. This inter-generational cross-fertilization is critical to the future of the March Hare, as it is to the future of the arts in general.

In creating the March Hare Anthology, I have tried to remain faithful to the spirit of the event. As many former participants as possible were identified, tracked down and asked to submit work. Editorial judgement was exercised in the selection and arrangement of material, but I have attempted to utilize the same elusive principles of balance and eclecticism that have always shaped the development of the March Hare programme, sometimes gathering together works of similar styles or themes, inviting comparison, at other times juxtaposing difference to emphasize contrast. Although there is some variation in the amount of space allocated each writer, in this too I have attempted to imitate the variation in time allotted to writers in an actual March Hare event. Absolute equality is not insisted upon, but a spirit of egalitarianism prevails. Furthermore, the full spectrum of approaches to writing, from the traditional to the avant garde, is here presented without apology.

Although the March Hare may not be the best known literary festival in Canada, it is surely one of the most interesting and innovative. The Hare reframes traditional forms of entertainment embedded in the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador so as to showcase writing from all over the world in a way that appeals to a popular audience. In managing this, the organizers have made a very important statement about cultural transition, about the ability of ordinary people to appreciate good writing, about the human striving for expression and communication that are at the core of all the arts, and about the need to build and re-build communities that welcome and encourage such aspirations in order to draw nourishment from them. The organizers, participants and patrons that constitute the true essence of the March Hare have shown how such communities can come together. It is a lesson and a legacy of no small significance.