What happens in Dorset…

By Alison Brownlee

When poets, musicians and artists gather for the annual Evening of Wine, Words, Music and Art at the Dorset Recreation Centre, there’s no telling what might happen.

At the eighth annual event, while another performer was on stage, one nervous-looking poet was standing quietly in the hall with his friend, shuffling papers and waiting to share his work with the community.

One of the pieces he was holding was simply named The Dorset Fire Tower Poem.

Those who know Martin Avery know his work could never be described as simple – quirky, humorous, clever, or risqué would probably be better.

Following up some of Avery’s other work, such as How to Make Love in a Muskoka Chair, the poem about the Dorset fire tower is just as provocative.

It talks about rambunctious young people; their nighttime climbs up the 100-foot-tall tower, and what they do once they are alone at the top.

In the poem, Avery says two dozen people suggested he write about the tower’s risqué reputation.

“That’s largely due to Facebook, you know? You can put something up that says, ‘I’m doing a poetry reading in Dorset,’ and you get a bunch of quick responses telling you what you should write about,” he says. “Everybody loves Dorset.”

He says he wrote the poem during the previous year’s event after being inspired by the area.

“When I was on stage reading whatever I was reading, I told people that I had an inspiring day and that I had been writing about Dorset. Somebody dared me to read it,” he says, noting he had finished the poem a mere 10 minutes before the challenge was issued.

The audience loved it.

“I don’t often take dares when I’m on stage,” he says with a chuckle. “But that one worked out.”

And it seems like a lot of other things in Avery’s life worked out, too.

The author was born in Bracebridge, though he spent most of his youth in Gravenhurst.

“I grew up playing hockey in Gravenhurst then decided to go to high school in Bracebridge. That was a tough act,” says the former Gravenhurst team captain. “You had to be ready to fight all the time.”

But the star athlete managed to balance his love of sport with his love of literature.

By the time he reached Grade 11, he landed a column with the local newspaper.

“I walked into the Bracebridge Herald-Gazette and kind of demanded a tour,” he says.

It was the 1960s and at the time, he and some of his so-called radical friends had gotten it into their heads that they wanted to start their own publication, though they never did.

“I walked into the newspaper office and said, ‘I want a tour of your production facility because I want to start my own.’ They kind of raised their eyebrows and showed me around,” he says.

While he was there, he got a message from the publisher who convinced him to drop the underground publication in favour of becoming one of the newspaper’s paid columnists.

“I sold out at age 16,” he says with a laugh.

For a year and a half, Avery wrote about plays and books, community events and random observations.

“It was uneven and inconsistent,” he says. “It was about whatever the heck was going on.”

On the strength of those columns and a bit of other work he completed in university, Avery earned a full scholarship to the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts.

There, he studied with iconic Canadian author W.O. Mitchell.

“That whole event just completely changed my life. It was amazing,” he says.

Another instructor there was Canadian poet Eli Mandel, who won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in English in 1967.

“His book of poetry sold 60,000 copies. Usually, you don’t sell 6,000 copies of a book of poetry in Canada. If you sell 600 you should be proud and happy,” says Avery. “So he was quite famous.”

Later, Mandel was at York University in Toronto and convinced Avery to drop his studies at the University of Victoria and enroll in York’s new creative writing program.

Mandel quickly became Avery’s academic advisory and mentor.

After university, Avery got a job as a public relations writer and went to grad school at the same time. He says he wrote five books before he turned 30.

“I felt guilty about making so much money in public relations,” he says with a grin. “And this sounds completely crazy, but I did the math and figured that I could make half as much money as a high school teacher and have twice as much fun.”

So he ditched the world of public relations and became a high school teacher.

He travelled around the province and eventually ended up at Grey Highlands Secondary School in Flesherton, where he ended up teaching several students, including CBC radio host Matt Galloway.

He also taught at Gravenhurst High School, where he says he spent nearly seven years trying to turn it into a designated school for the arts as the head of the arts department.

When asked if it worked, he says, “No.”

But strides were made, including the addition of a dance program and the production of a play that the writers’ craft and drama programs wrote. The play went on a 36-stop tour of the school district.

He has also helped to boost literacy in the general public. He has founded novel marathons in Owen Sound and Pickering, as well as the renowned mid-summer Muskoka Novel Marathon in Huntsville. Each marathon supports charitable organizations in their respective communities.

But he says the Huntsville event seems to have a different flavour from the others.

“From the first year it’s been just a happening event. It’s quite unlike the one in Owen Sound, which is essentially a three-day party,” he says. “In Muskoka from year one, although everyone walks away saying they had a blast, it tends to be very serious. People are there to write.”

The Owen Sound marathon is held in a bookstore, during business hours.

“Whoever wanders in to buy books, discovers at every corner of the bookstore there’s a writer cranking out another book,” he says. “And we usually put the rookies in the front window and tell them it’s a great honour…”

He attributes the tone of the Muskoka event in part to the inspiring scenery of the region.

The area also plays a large role in his writing.

“I’ve spent close to half of my life there. It’s home,” he says. “When I’m writing, half the time I’m writing about that place, which makes me think about that place more and I want to go back.”

One of Avery’s novels, Jimmy Dammit and Who-Has-Passed-the-Wind, is set in Muskoka during the 1960s. It is also nominated for a Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal of Humour.

But even with a literary nod and impressive career thus far, Avery is not sitting on his laurels. He plans to write several more books, has been working as a summer course instructor at Centauri Summer Arts Camp in the Niagara region and was offered a two-year stint as a faculty member at Shanxi University in China.

He starts his new international adventure in September, but says he intends to come back to Ontario in the summers to teach at the camp and visit Muskoka.


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