Last week we installed the 11th Bookmark in our series: Al Pittman’s poem “The Sea Breeze Lounge” in Woody Point, Newfoundland. As the first Bookmark outside our initial cluster in Ontario, the occasion was bound to be a significant one, but the event, the location and the people who participated have stamped the day into my memory.
The unveiling was part of the Writers at Woody Point festival, which each year reveals the literary soul of this town of 400 on the west coast of Newfoundland. This year’s festival included visiting writers like Richard Ford, Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding, but — as always — it also served as a showcase for more local talent. Performers included Newfoundland and Labrador writers Lisa Moore, Donna Morrissey, Michael Crummey and Jamie Fitzpatrick and musical performances by Amelia Curran, Alan Doyle, All the Wiles, and Andrew James O’Brien — among others.
Which made it an appropriate time to unveil a Bookmark for Al Pittman, who is a fixture in the canon of Newfoundland and Labrador poetry, plays and lyrics. Pittman is remembered not only for his writing, but as a co-founder of Newfoundland and Labrador publisher Breakwater Books and of The March Hare literary festival. Many of today’s Newfoundland and Labrador musicians and writers credit Pittman with opening a trail that they could follow, and for creating recognition for literature in this province that has cultivated readers around the country and the world.
The area itself is a place of firsts and origins. The town lies right beside The Tablelands, a World Heritage site and an area where the earth’s mantle was forced up to the surface, millions of years ago. It is also the place they used to prove the theory of plate techtonics.
Al Pittman spent a great deal of time in Woody Point. His Bookmarked poem, “The Sea Breeze Lounge” was not only written about the tavern on the edge of Bonne Bay, but in it. On August 23rd, a large crowd (there must have been close to 100 people there) gathered in front of the building that used to hold the lounge, to see the Bookmark unveiled.
The former Sea Breeze Lounge is now owned by Ken and Darlene Thomas. Ken is a descendent of the former tavern owners and is now the mayor of Woody Point. The building is currently the Seaside Suites, a beautiful tourist accommodation, but the local people still refer to it as “the Sea Breeze.” At the unveiling, Ken spoke about the history of the building, and showed pictures of its other incarnations. Darlene Thomas said they both hoped that the building, and the Bookmark, would continue to inspire creativity in the community.
Emily Pittman, Al’s daughter, spoke on behalf of the Pittman family about her father’s connection to the area and his legacy, and what the Bookmark meant to them. And then Clyde Rose, founder of Breakwater Books and Al’s friend and publisher, read “The Sea Breeze Lounge.”
For the many in the audience who knew Al Pittman personally, and even for those who know him only by reputation, it was an emotional moment.
I am discovering that it is a sensitive business to Bookmark someone who has died, but whose presence still remains large in the minds of a community. A certain amount of trust must be established, and the families and friends of the writer have to make a leap of faith that the initiative honours that writer appropriately. I was very touched that the Pittman family embraced the idea so wholeheartedly from the beginning, and struck by the number of people who stopped me on the street all week to say that they loved the Bookmark and to tell me their own stories about Al.
Though the Bookmark lives in a town with a small population, it is part of Gros Morne National Park, an area that draws thousands of visitors from around the world every year. We hope that many of them will pass by the Bookmark, seek out more of Al Pittman’s work, and perhaps follow the growing trail of Bookmarks in other locations. Thanks to our partnership with Parks Canada, and Gros Morne National Park in particular, even more people will have a taste of this particular poem and Bookmark, through a short film on the poem and a brief audio doc produced by videographer Philip Lichti. You’ll be able to find these pieces through the Bookmark website later in the fall.
In the meantime, you can put the Bookmark, Gros Morne and Woody Point on your travel itinerary. While you are exploring the area, you can visit another Pittman tribute, unveiled this year, in Corner Brook. For more virtual travellers, read about the unveiling in The Western Star and the festival as a whole in The Independent.