Toronto Reading Series: Exploring a Rich Ecosystem of Literary Performance

Toronto Reading Series:

The First in a Series on the Toronto Literary Reading Scene

Toronto Reading Series:A writer need never be idle in Toronto—almost every night features great readings and events. This means a curator or host needs to set his or her particular event apart from the others. This results in an affable competition, with Toronto readings co-existing in a diverse cooperative ecosystem.

To ensure that each reading series is unique, hosts attempt to attract spectators by claiming a particular hosting style, a venue and an organizational approach to their literary vision.  They do this because they know there can be more to readings than simply providing a platform for book promotion or a place for writers to network – because the reading is a genre in itself.  

Despite that, not all writers pay attention to the performative element of their reading. We’ve all attended readings where writers have been underprepared, not having rehearsed or chosen materials beforehand. This is largely out of a host’s hands, and everyone can have a less than stellar performance due to nerves or an off night, but writers should understand that they are performing—and the audience is attending (or should be) to see a great show. Thankfully, writers want to be read, so have a natural reason to perform well, but hosts can also research to make sure they have quality performers. And a series itself—through reputation and past performances—can encourage quality performances.

When I founded The Emerging Writers Reading Series, I was working against the more traditional sit-down-and-frown reading series models, trying to bring in readers who were technically sound, but who also brought energy to their performances. But our Toronto ecosystem needs many different types of readings to thrive. There are big fish and small fish, and some readings that straddle different reading boundaries.

Choices of readers, format, venue, introductions, frequency and length of readings, etc., all contribute to the unique atmosphere of an event. Some series, like Write Club, are reminiscent of a competitive rap battle, whereas Pivot is a smaller, intimate reading frequented by both established and up-and-coming writers and poets. The open mic sets the standard in reading accessibility—the audience is performer and performer audience. Art Bar uses this to straddle different spheres by having it follow established featured writers. This is one strategy to bridge tones and audiences, to merge established and emerging talent, and to remain both accessible and excellent. But doing everything in one series isn’t possible, so hosts have to make choices, and audiences benefit from the resulting diversity.

Over the next few posts, I’ll profile reading series in Toronto, talking to their hosts and curators about their considerations when putting on a reading, as well as their opinions of the reading scene in general. I’ll start by talking to Edward Nixon of Livewords, Jacob McArthur Mooney of Pivot, Alicia Merchant of Write Club, Liz Howard of Avant Garden, and Chris Graham of Amazing New Stuff.

These select Toronto reading series are different, but they work together. They promote each other, expose new talent to each other, and help cultivate a healthy literary scene from the ground up. It’s an exciting time to be part of this literary community. So check it out.

Kisses of Acadian and Gobs of Québécois

Denise Duhamel

Denise Duhamel Denise Duhamel When Megan Draper sang “Zou Bisou Bisou” on Mad Men, American television took some bite out of the Parti québés’s political rhetoric. Denise Duhamel’s poem opens with Jessica Paré’s iconic moment. “Zou Bisou Bisou” appears in Issue 24 of The Puritan and name drops a number of Anglo Canadian actors in Hollywood whose Canadian nationality may come as a surprise. Her focus is that trenchant subset of Canadians, the French. Denise Duhamel herself belongs to the Québec diaspora in New England. Despite growing up with many Canadians on screen, Céline Dion was, for Duhamel, the sole Québécoise on the airwaves in the era before Jessica Paré and Régine Chassagne.

In 1968, René Lévesque described Québec as the only survivor of a French America:

“We are also heirs to that fantastic adventure—that early America that was almost entirely French. We are, even more intimately heirs to the group obstinacy that has kept alive that portion of French America we call Québec.”

Lévesque and Duhamel leave out the fact that French America is and always was multiracial, and that it incorporates vastly different migration histories. Even if we set aside the problems of a strictly Caucasian francophone identity, there are more to be found in Duhamel’s poem.

Denise Duhamel embraces a part of the francophone spectrum north of the border. The last line of her poem lists a variety of Canadian dialects, “Today I want to sing it all—Brayon French, Québécois, Chiac, Joual, Michif. Little kisses of Acadian.” That phrase, “I want to sing it all” boldly announces a Whitman-esque inclusiveness. However, Duhamel includes Québécois in a list of small and marginal French dialects and creoles, some as small as Michif with only a few hundred speakers. With seven million speakers inside and outside Québec, Québécois French may look small from the outside. However, the French language is the sole official language in the province, spoken by a majority and institutionalized in both politics and business.

Duhamel’s narrative of an isolated and invisible French culture in New England is the same narrative the Parti québécois used to justify stricter language laws and their Charter of Values. That ex-premier Pauline Marois promoted institutionalized discrimination out of a fear that outside cultures and languages threaten to make Québec’s language and culture disappear is worth noting. The PQ’s narrative of cultural extinction relies on the invisibility of Québécois language and culture. For the first time possibly ever, an intelligent and cosmopolitan Québécoise character exists on an American TV show. Mad Men emphasizes rather than hides her francophone family and explores the uncomfortable relationship she has to her father’s Quiet Revolution values.

Duhamel may only be naive to equalize Québécois with “little kisses of Acadian,” where French culture is all but eradicated in New England and Louisiana. Canadians, on the other hand, need a more complex perspective on the role of French in North America. French in Québec is neither a menace to anglo- and allophones nor an endangered language in the dreaded “sea of English.” Institutionalized racism and restricted access to education, on the other hand, are a menace to everyone in that province, not only non-francophones.

Jessica Paré’s character on Mad Men is not far off from many young francophones today who want to learn English and travel to, and do business with, the world beyond the Rideau Canal. René Lévesque’s speech recognized, in 1968, that Quebec’s isolation in the world is over. While that isolation helped Québec survive as francophone in ways that Louisiana and New England did not, it is not an isolation that anyone but Pauline Marois’s PQ wanted to recreate. One sometimes sees the slogan, “Québec, un nouveau pays pour le monde” hanging from balconies in Québec. It may send shivers down anglo spines, but the sentiment may be nobler than that. The phrase promotes a Québec that is confident enough in its language and culture that it can engage freely with the rest of the world. A strong francophone majority that has taken control of its own government, economy, and political destiny does not need to fear Arabic, Creole, or even English, or that any of the languages and values of the rest of the world will render them as lonely as rootless as Denise Duhamel.

We can compare Megan Draper to Denise Duhamel’s lost culture narrative. Megan Draper leaves a comfortable upper-middle class life in Montréal for New York and makes the decision to assimilate into Anglo-American culture. In one episode she mentions that she despises Montréal’s old and haunted housing stock and prefers her modern Upper East Side apartment. To her, Québec is oppressive, old, and provincial. On Monday, Québec rejected Marois’ race baiting, fear mongering, and her vision of an isolated Québec as old and provincial. Despite the last year and a half, Monday’s poll suggests that Québec is a place prepared to accept Arabic, Creole, and maybe even English.

Embracing the Blatantly Poetic

water damage Peter Norman

water damage Peter NormanStuart Cole, of The Urge, has claimed Peter Norman possesses a “peculiar mastery” and that, formally, he “seems capable of writing anything he wants.” I have nothing to add to Cole’s typically astute, honest and accurate account of Norman’s poetry. (You should read his reviews).

But there’s one thing about Norman’s latest, Water Damage, that I’d like to dwell on.  It nearly knocked me off the laundry mat chair where I was reading it: the sheer rhythmic force that at times emerges in this book was as if it was beating back against the roaring washing machines amongst which I was terribly cocooned. You see, Norman’s rubbing off on me as I write this—or a part of Norman’s work is. His mastery is “peculiar,” as Cole puts it, because it’s from a “master whose suspicion of mastery leads him to self-sabotage,” leading to a “weird variousness” that stretches the tonal spectrum from “biblical” to the downright “silly,” with a formal range to match.

While like Cole I dig it all, I find the biblical-high-eloquence end of the spectrum especially refreshing. It’s like reading it heals my brain’s ear. Given his range, especially the humour, Norman is no old-fashioned poet, but he’s clearly comfortable hitting notes that might’ve perked up King James. Take part IV from “Dr. F Attends a Show,” and bear in mind that despite the eloquence, this poem is rife with playfulness.

This is no time to think of the lab, of you.
Diversion’s what you need. But like
your patient, you have shackles at your ankles,
the dun scar of branding at your navel.
Joints of you were finished by the weaver
of think black stitch. Ten donors gave your fingers.
Doctor, none’s more composite than you!
Nor more composed. You’re steely as the ropes
and webs of net that hold your organs in
and keep their insurrections down.
Rise now! It’s an ovation! It’s thunder fills the shell-
shaped hall. The patchwork plating of your skull
is hidden by your pilfered flesh, and you
regard the blazing stage with borrowed eyes.

I could write 500 words, easy, breaking down the prosody of this verse. Many poets wait half a book to get to something as strong as “dun scar”—and that’s sandwiched between “shackles at our ankles” and “branding at your navel.” Then there’s “thick black stitch,” “shell-shaped hall,” and “patchwork plating,” as well as the perfectly cadenced and alliterative “blazing stage with borrowed eyes.” I could go on and on. It’s gorgeous. Like, W.S. Merwin gorgeous.

This is what I mean by the “blatantly poetic:” a refusal to be embarrassed by the fact that you’re writing poems, like people always have, and that you don’t have to run away from what’s always worked. Lisa Pasold put her trust in narrative, and Norman’s done the same here with rhythm and sound. There’s nothing “new” in either poet’s work, but both make vigorous books. Perhaps one rule you can follow, then, is “make it fresh.”

That in no way dismisses the search for the “new” or the pushing against tradition—lord knows we need that. But Norman’s proved that you can write poems unmistakably of this time—hilariously so—while writing others that are beautiful in the most old-fashioned, romantic sense of the word. And sometimes you can do both at once.