The Sylvia Hotel and George Fetherling both seem to belong to a different age. Within the ivy-covered stone walls of the hotel in Vancouver's West End is a mish-mash of rooms, no two exactly the same; renovated, yes, since it was built almost a century ago, but maintaining much of its character and refusing to give in to the influences of the gleaming city of glass in which it now resides. Fetherling is a writer who wears turtlenecks and blazers and likes to cap off a day of work in the same homey bar, chatting with the bartender, often scribbling down notes on cocktail napkins that will later become poems.
That favourite bar is in the Sylvia Hotel, and as of this week, each room in the Sylvia will have a copy of Fetherling's new book, The Sylvia Hotel Poems, along with a Gideon Bible.
"Any time the yoga instructor says go to your happy place, I go to the Sylvia Hotel," Fetherling says over a late afternoon gin and tonic in the bar, which the hotel boasts was the first cocktail lounge in the city. Seated by a huge window overlooking English Bay, he remarks: "It's cozy and comfortable."
Though the bar has long been a favourite of literary types - ranging from Malcolm Lowry to Douglas Coupland - he's the first author to have his work in every room. Not that others haven't tried to strike a similar deal.
"I've only been here a year and I've been asked at least eight to 10 times by different authors," says general manager Ross Dyck. "This was a little more up our alley."
Fetherling's book of poems is compact and there are repeated references to Vancouver, making it a perfect hotel-room read. While the subject matter explored in many of the poems is unrequited love, the hotel itself is a recurring character.
"Several portions of the action, so to speak, took place at the Sylvia," Fetherling says of the real-life love story that inspired the poetry. He declines to give details, but clearly things did not go well.
"With the realization that … I was not making any progress and would never make progress in that particular way, it seemed time to turn to the pen," he says. "I'm essentially the kind of writer who writes in order to heal."
If that's the case, Fetherling must be in excellent health. He is a prolific writer, having, at 61, authored or edited more than 50 books - including memoirs, poetry collections and novels (in addition to The Sylvia Hotel Poems, he has a novel coming out next month, Walt Whitman's Secret). He also writes book reviews.
"I've been called everything else, but no one has successfully accused me of being lazy."
Fetherling's full name is Douglas George Fetherling. He went by Douglas until 1999, when he began to call himself George, in honour of his late father.
Originally from the U.S., he moved to Toronto in 1966. Since then he has gone back and forth between Toronto and Vancouver and spent a great deal of time in Asia. About 10 years ago, he bought a place a few doors down from the Sylvia. Before and even since then - when his apartment was being painted, or fumigated - he has spent many nights at the fabled hotel. "I've stayed, I daresay, at one time or another on all eight floors."
Some of the poems in his new book make specific reference to the building in their titles, content or in notations at the end, describing even the view from specific rooms where the poems were dreamed up.
At times, the references are a little more subtle. When Fetherling writes: "Sometimes I feel like a New Yorker cartoon. / A poet goes into a bar and says to the bartender / 'My muse doesn't understand me,'" he is picturing the Sylvia.
Based on the passionate way he writes - and talks - about this hotel, it becomes clear very quickly: Fetherling may have had his teeth kicked in by love, but this hotel, a muse of another sort, has not let him down. It's the kind of place that takes him back. For a writer intrigued by the likes of George Woodcock and Walt Whitman, that's a big part of its charm.
"It's not hard to imagine - if you squint your imagination - to see streetcars travelling along outside, and a sort of slower pace of the previous age; an age of wood instead of plastic," he says, rattling the ice in this drink. "It's that kind of hotel."
A book launch for The Sylvia Hotel Poems will be held on Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at, of course, The Sylvia Hotel, sylviahotel.com.