Michael Fay has been guest-posting here about his early days as a writer, attending the Bread Loaf Conference in 1978 and as a participant at the Banff Centre in 1976. Michael is back now to tell us about writing in Calgary during the 70s and his part in the beginnings of the Alexandra Centre as a place that has encouraged and educated writers for decades since.
Remembering Alexandra Centre
by Michael Fay
I first entered Inglewood in the fall of 1978 as a tenant in the Dandelion Co-op, known in history as the Deane House. The Co-op offered office space to writers, painters, potters, artists, fabric artists, as well as a superb exhibition space in the glass-enclosed veranda.
I had just moved to Calgary with my family. My partner had taken a social work position with the Alberta government and I had recently returned from a summer course at the Bread Loaf Conference in Vermont. I was a writer of short fiction and had received grants from the Alberta government to study creative writing, first at the Banff Centre in 1976, then at Antioch College in 1977, and finally at Bread Loaf. I was a newly named instructor in the Correspondence Course offered by the Literary Arts Branch of Alberta Culture and hoped to continue my budding career as a freelance journalist and writer. We had spent the previous three years in Camrose, Alberta, my partner’s home town. Since most of my life had been spent in cities, that time in Camrose felt a bit alien to me. I was happy to be in a big city again and eager to enter the literary life.
The Dandelion was a funky place, to say the least. I was there five days of the week, hammering away on my portable electric typewriter, beginning to do book reviews for the Calgary Herald and articles for Alberta, Calgary, and Edmonton Magazines, as well as honing my short stories for the literary market. The other Co-op members would come in through the day and retreat to their studios to paint or pot or run material through their sewing machines.
I was on the second floor with a tall and wide window looking down on the pleasant run of the Elbow River, with great, bending trees on both shores. And, beyond the river, the open fields surrounding the Fort Calgary exhibition centre, a bunker built into the hill leading down to the Bow River, often inspired me to imagine the first peoples who raised their teepees and speared the abundant fish rushing in the current.
My artistic peers at the Co-op and this magical connection to the ancient landscape made it a great place to write.
I was alone for the most part that first fall and winter in the Dandelion, and began to explore the streetscape along 8th and 9th Avenues, looking for places to eat, pick up necessities, and, of course for a curious writer, to find people who would stir my interest and imagination. I passed the beautiful sandstone of the Alexandra Centre many times that fall and winter, admiring the restoration, with the sleek new windows complementing the historic stone structure, but never curious enough to go inside to find out what was going on. That is, until I heard through the walls of the small gym the sound of a basketball bouncing. I was in my early thirties at the time, relatively fit, and just dying to get a basketball in my hands.
One day I decided to take action. I met Molly Cropper, the manager, down in the basement of the Centre, sitting at a desk and, like so many people, myself included in those days, having an afternoon smoke.
“There’s a gym?”
I was introduced to Molly’s reluctance to waste words in that very first encounter.
“And somebody is shooting a basketball?”
I considered myself a fast thinking and talking kind of guy, but Molly left me speechless for a long moment.
“Is it possible to play?”
Molly looked up from the papers on her desk and not wasting a word, took a significant puff on her cigarette. I wanted to pull a cigarette from my own pocket, but decided to wait.
“I mean, for me to shoot some baskets at lunch? I…ah…I work down at the Dandelion.”
“Oh,” said Molly. “I see.”
What did she see?
“I’m looking for some…exercise.”
“Yes,” said Molly.
“Why, sure. We’ve a young man on a community service and he found the ball and took to shooting at lunch. I’m sure he’d like the company.”
I was overcome with sheer joy. This was the beginning of a four-year relationship with the Alexandra Centre, which went from basketball to helping others create stories, poems, and books, and, by gosh, it’s still happening!
I carried on at the Dandelion Co-op for another few months, helping to launch the Dandelion Magazine with fellow Co-op members Joan Clark, Edna Alford, and Dale Fehr. I was in charge of marketing the magazine and placing it in bookstores across the city. (Note from Susan: Michael’s and my lives have intersected over the decades in many synchronistic ways and places, but I only just realized while preparing this guest post that I was an employee of one of those Calgary bookstores Michael would have approached when selling copies of Dandelion Magazine in 1978-79!) “A Little Green Book” was published in the fifth number, a story based on my time in rural Alberta. I gave my first public reading at the Co-op and was in the audience when my partner’s high school English teacher, subsequent Governor General Award Winner Gloria Sawai, read her famous story about Jesus and the laundry in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. There were exhibits and small shows and I was fortunate enough to be able to write about my fellow Co-op members in an article for Calgary Magazine. I was particularly fond of Cathy Work’s paintings, some of which still hang in our home.
And then suddenly, the City of Calgary decided to withdraw its arrangement with the Co-op members in order to develop the space into a fine restaurant. This whacked me, but got me to thinking quickly about the possibility of relocating to the Alexandra Centre. And in a remarkably short period of time, Molly got authority from the management group to rent an office to me, with access to the small board room just down the hall. This proved to be amazing on three fronts: a wonderfully quiet and contained space to carry on as a writer of both journalism and fiction; a superb place to have creative writing classes of ten or so people, and a remarkable neighborhood from which to begin recruiting students. I mimeographed a small poster, tacked up copies all over Inglewood, and, ta-da, students began to enroll. This was a cozy and creative place to nurture writers and, believe me, they never ceased to astonish me in our evening classes.
But what really tickles me now is forty years later the Alexandra Centre continues to produce writers in that magical place where the Elbow meets the Bow and creativity has flourished from pre-history to the present day.
Michael Fay has published four long-form short stories with IslandShorts, the most recent being Passion. For information on all publications from IslandShorts click here.