Across the Prairies by train, with 17 poets

On Tuesday around 7:45am, I found myself in a grassland somewhere west of Wilkie, Saskatchewan. Where didn’t really matter.

I was aboard VIA Rail’s flagship train, The Canadian. It was supposed to have arrived in Edmonton over an hour earlier, but it looked like we weren’t going to get there until around 11:15.

That didn’t really matter, either.

The view from my window on that morning in Saskatchewan. I could have gazed out the window all day. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

The view from my window on that morning in Saskatchewan. I could have gazed out the window all day. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Long-haul train travel in Canada isn’t for Type A personalities. Due to the intricacies of rail ownership and management, freight trains get priority over passenger trains on many long-haul routes. (That’s much less of an issue on intercity routes, such as those in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.) That’s why long-haul passenger trains pull over to let freight traffic rumble by, and that’s what sometimes makes them late.

That being said, if you want to suspend yourself in a peaceful, very pleasant place where time doesn’t matter, take the train.

And if you want to suspend your mind in an alternate reality, do so on a train with 17 poets celebrating National Poetry Month.

The Great Canadian PoeTrain group at Winnipeg's Union Station. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

The Great Canadian PoeTrain group at Winnipeg’s Union Station. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

We boarded The Canadian just before noon Monday in Winnipeg. After an excellent lunch in the dining car, the poets dove head-first into a series of workshops, open-mic readings, musical performances and a book launch that didn’t wrap up until 9:30pm. Many of the events were open to all the train’s passengers.

Meals in the dining car were lovely. I can highly recommend the shrimp-wrapped scallops. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Meals in the dining car were lovely. I can highly recommend the shrimp-wrapped scallops. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Most of the poets are probably at least a decade older than me (I’m 49), but they were still going strong long after I faded into the blackness of the prairie around us.

Travelling as a sort of embedded journalist on the Great Canadian PoeTrain—the first event of its kind, bringing poets from across the country to the Edmonton Poetry Festival and then onward to Vancouver—has been a hypnotic, inspiring and slightly surreal experience. (We’re all stopped in Edmonton right now, but we’ll hop back on the rails tomorrow.)

My experience with poetry didn’t entirely stop in university, when I memorized passages of Wordsworth and congratulated myself for understanding at least some of T.S. Eliot. In my 20s, I fell in love with the novels of Marge Piercy and discovered her poetry as a result. Later, I occasionally picked up volumes of poetry written by friends or clients. But, deep in my heart, I always suspected that poetry was for people better than I: smarter, deeper, more articulate.

As The Canadian rumbled across Manitoba, though, I started to think that, maybe, poetry was for everyone.

Poet Fran Figge gives a reading aboard The Canadian. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Poet Fran Figge gives a reading aboard The Canadian. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was immersed in what amounted to a rolling master class in poetry of all descriptions. I heard haiku and spoken-word poetry, poems with rigid rhyming structures and poems that were more like short stories. There were poems set to music and, in a fascinating presentation by PoeTrain laureate D.C. Reid, poems turned into multimedia presentations, complete with photos and video.

Poet-musician Paul Sanderson entertains poets and other passengers aboad The Canadian. VIA Rail's Artists on Board program features musicians on many trips. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Poet-musician Paul Sanderson entertains poets and other passengers aboad The Canadian. VIA Rail’s Artists on Board program features musicians on many trips. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

There were poems about sundered families, about countries left behind, about country auctions, about lost loves, about birds. To my surprise, I was flooded with memories I don’t often have the free brain space to recall: dawn at a lake, a childhood party, the smell of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies.

I even had the nerve to participate in the haiku-writing session on the topic of train travel, and to read my creation to the group. Here’s the result. (I know: Don’t give up my day job.)

Frost-bleached prairie straw / Spikes through black and nubby mud / Spring with a brush cut

As the backdrop to it all, there was the gentle rocking of the train as it thrummed past barren spring fields, endless sloughs dotted with geese and tiny towns. Occasionally, we passed a flashing red crossing signal, alerting non-existent drivers on ruler-straight dirt roads that a train full of poets and students and retirees and dreamers was coming through.

It had been clear before we went to bed that we wouldn’t reach Edmonton at 6:22am. But I set my alarm early, just in case.

It turns out I didn’t really need it. For about four hours, I slept like an exhausted golden retriever (hey, you didn’t think I’d use a cliche like “slept like a rock” after absorbing all those fabulous poems, did you?). Then I woke up at 2:45am in need of a bathroom.

My compact one-person cabin did have a sink and toilet, but at night the toilet became the base for the compact single Murphy bed that the cabin steward unfolded from the wall and in which I was now lying. I debated whether I should attempt to fold up the bed or head down the corridor in search of the communal washroom.

Here are the sink and toilet in my cabin. At night, the Murphy bed (in the mirror, you can see the folded-up bed's handle on the opposite wall) rests on the toilet. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Here are the sink and toilet in my cabin. At night, the Murphy bed (in the mirror, you can see the folded-up bed’s handle on the opposite wall) rests on the toilet. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

As usual, the least difficult option won the day. I shoved my feet into loafers, praying that no one outside would be awake to spot me in my leopard-print pyjamas, and slipped down the corridor.

After that, I drifted in and out of sleep. When the alarm went off at 6:15am, light was seeping under the corners of my sturdy blind. I raised it to see deserted farm fields, with drifts of mist in the hollows. A lone truck with its headlights on lumbered parallel to the tracks.


Captivated, I watched the scenery unfurl. I saw a billboard with a phone number with a 306 area code, and spotted a Saskatchewan flag at a remote crossroads. Those were my first clues that we were far from Edmonton.

I went through my usual morning rituals: I meditated, opening my eyes more than I should have to admire the view. I brushed my teeth in the tiny corner sink. Eventually, I reluctantly closed the blind to get dressed, inadvertently taking a do-it-yourself yoga class as I levered my legs over the sink to wrestle them into my jeans. (At least I didn’t have to open the cabin door and kneel in the corridor to extract my suitcase from below the bed, as I did last night. Note to self: Put the suitcase in the overhead compartment on the next leg of the journey.)

I thought, I really should get up, find my travelling companions, get a cup of tea and see whether any poetry readings are happening—our leader, David Brydges, had mentioned he might get something going this morning if the train were delayed.

I glanced out the window to see three deer silhouetted against a stand of slender birch trees. Much as I enjoyed the poets’ company, I decided to curl up on the bed a bit longer.

We did indeed make it to Edmonton by 11:15, but I could have happily stayed on the train all day.

I’ll also be writing a post about the second leg of the trip, between Edmonton and Vancouver. Watch this space!

If you go

VIA Rail offers a wide range of ways to travel on The Canadian, including economy-class seats, berths, cabins and suites. Prices vary widely, depending when you book and whether you can take advantage of one of the company’s special offers.

Just to give you an idea of the price, the discounted rate on my one-person cabin for the May 11, 2015, departure from Winnipeg is currently $1,016.40, including taxes, meals and two nights’ accommodation on the train. If you wanted to travel right from Ottawa, you’d need to leave on May 9 and board The Canadian in Toronto, and the fare (travelling economy from Ottawa and in a discounted cabin from Toronto) would be $1,680.31.

If you want a berth, cabin or suite, book as far in advance as you can, as they get snapped up fast. Book online or call 1-888-VIA-RAIL (1-888-842-7245) or 1-800-268-9503 (TTY for the hearing impaired).

And if you want to travel with a group of poets? Check the Great Canadian PoeTrain site to see whether future trips are planned.

Disclosure: I joined this trip as a guest of VIA Rail and the Great Canadian PoeTrain, neither of which reviewed or approved this post.


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