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Poetrain Spring Pulse Poetry Festival Cobalt Ontario

In northern Ontario, poetry really is in motion


Festival founder David Brydges was inspired to create the Spring Pulse Poetry Festival in the spirit of William Henry Drummond, who came to Cobalt in 1905 and was a popular poet and the town’s first doctor. (Carol Perehudoff/Vacay.ca)

Story by Carol Perehudoff
Vacay.ca Senior Writer

Poetrain Spring Pulse Poetry Festival Cobalt Ontario

The PoeTrain takes riders from Toronto eight hours north to Cobalt, Ontario. (Carol Perehudoff/Vacay.ca)

COBALT, ONTARIO — I’m being rocked side to side on the Northlander train, the view shuttling by is of trees, granite and dark blue water, and the words I’m overhearing are not what I usually catch when I eavesdrop:

“white pines lean hard
against the wind
like two hitchhikers
en route to a Group of Seven convention”

That’s because this is the PoeTrain and the speaker is Toronto-based poet Ian Hanna, one of 33 poets, musicians and all-around lit lovers who have joined the eight-hour train ride north from Toronto to the former mining town of Cobalt.
It may be Canada’s only poetry festival on a train, but don’t be fooled — it’s not just the journey, it’s the destination, too. As soon as the balloon-festooned PoeTrain, a dedicated car on the Northlander arrives, the festival continues. It’s all part of the annual Spring Pulse Poetry Festival that wraps up Saturday in the eccentric little town of Cobalt.

Population 1,200, Cobalt may seem like an unlikely place for a poetry festival. It has crooked hilly streets, no hotel, and the only restaurant closed down in April. What it does have is an artistic heart and a very shiny past.

When silver was discovered here in 1903, Cobalt instantly became a boomtown. Millions of ounces of silver were mined out of the area over the next few decades, creating a whole whack of millionaires including Sir Henry Pellatt, who built Toronto’s Casa Loma.

“Silver was flooding out of here,” says Cobalt-born David Brydges, a poet, self-described “cultural entrepreneur” and the founder and artistic director of the festival. Tall, lanky and enthusiastic, he’s the driving force behind the festival. But he couldn’t do it without the community.

It seems everyone here is involved, and there are so many diverse events that half the time I have no idea what I’m walking into. It could be Ann Margetson, the local poet laureate, reciting poems in the train station; Irish performer Treasa O’Driscoll discussing Yeats; or a tour of an abandoned silver mine. Also on the schedule is a concert at the local Miners Tavern and a Poetry Parade complete with marching band. And Cobalt takes it all in stride.

Deemed the “most historic town in Ontario” by TVO in 2002, Cobalt, in its heyday, had a Grand Opera House, theatres, hotels and swanky shops. Mary Pickford was here around 1911, Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1912 and the Prince of Wales in 1919. Today, its economic lustre might be slightly tarnished, but street names like Prospect Avenue and Silver Street evoke its roaring past, and the crazy mix of history, art, sightseeing and silver makes it a fun and funky destination — especially when there are 30-plus visiting poets wandering around.

The festival overflows into the neighbouring town of Haileybury, and historically the two towns have been intertwined. While Cobalt was the mining hub, the wealthy mine owners preferred to build their mansions on Haileybury’s Millionaires Row, a posh stretch of real estate scenically set on Lake Temiskaming.

Today, one of these grand homes, now called the Presidents’ Suites, has been turned into a small inn, and owner Nicole Guertin and her partner Jocelyn Blais are festival volunteers. They wanted to get involved, Guertin says, because they’re all for economic development in northern Ontario and because they consider Brydges a visionary. Plus there’s a fringe benefit, she adds, “Now I’m getting a new view on poetry.”

Prizes: Annual cash prizes are awarded for winning poems. This year, $1,200 will be given out.
Accommodations: A nightly group rate of $75 per person is available at a local hotel. Email mybrydges@yahoo.ca for details for the 2013 festival.


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Carol Perehudoff is an award-winning freelance travel writer and spa junkie based in Toronto. Visit her travel blog WanderingCarol.com and her spa blog at SpastoLove.com.

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