“Don’t Wait—Start Your Own Thing”

Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith on Skanky Possum // Jess Taylor

possums
For this possum, which may or may not be “skanky,” all readings are necessarily intimate experiences.

The Twelfth in a Series on Toronto Readings

“In ‘Do It Yourself,’ you don’t wait for the funding,” poet and academic Dale Smith told me in his Toronto east-end home. Smith and poet Hoa Nguyen run a house reading series called Skanky Possum. The couple’s time in San Francisco, as part of New College of California, along with their community-centred DIY mentality, have been strong influences on the series. “You just make things and staple them together, identify an audience and start writing letters to people. That’s what we did early on … we were connected to San Francisco people who had done that in the ’60s with mimeograph.”

Smith and Nguyen took this sense of community to Austin, Texas, and since moving to Canada in 2011, they have been doing the same here in Toronto. The pair met in 1994 when they began their MFAs at New College of California. “[New College] had a poetics program. We started a magazine when we moved to Austin, which was coming off a magazine that we had developed in San Francisco called Mike and Dale’s Younger Poets. Then it became Skanky Possum. We did ten issues of the journal,” Nguyen said. “We also published books from Frank O’Hara, Kenwarth Elmslie, Anne Waldman, Tom Clark, Kristin Prevallet, and smaller, lesser known poets.” 

The magazine put Smith and Nguyen in touch with writers all over the States. This helped them build their network of friends and writers, many of whom ended up reading for them, too. Nguyen described the connection between their work in publishing and their readings as “not directly linked in an A to B kind of way,” but as something that feels “like an organic connection … there is a certain way that producing the journal and books put us in contact with people and then it kept extending. So maybe it was one beginning point, and then it takes on this whole other fractal where you’re connecting with other people. I’m always learning new ways of reading and engaging with the art.”

The result of all these connections is that now, in Toronto, the Skanky Possum readings feature many writers who are coming through Canada on book tours or just to visit. “Part of it too is that it’s not so much of a project … People come through town, so then we’re like, ‘Let’s have an occasion for people to get together.’ [For example] my friend, Rachel Zucker is coming to town in March, and I definitely want to pair her with a local poet because I always think that sort of contrast is interesting. And I want to hear her read from her book. So it’s also just extending relationships—not so much a project of the mind,” Nguyen explained.

Hosting the readings in their home was a natural choice. Nguyen describes the dinner parties she used to hold in San Francisco as eventually becoming “a little salon series of just coming together and talking about poetry, not to have a performance, but just a way to air new works and ideas around poetry. And we’d argue, and we’d have dinner, and drink beer, and [it] was what I found to be a very useful context.”

Smith added that the home setting establishes “a very intimate context. Much more than a bar.” That’s the intellectual and creative environment Smith and Nguyen are interested in fostering. Others, such as Leslie Davis, created “a place for her friends to have readings.” Nguyen and Smith first held readings on their back deck, and continued to host readings once they moved to Texas.

Hosting house readings also removes any traces of commercialism from the event. Smith mentioned that one of the things he loves about poetry is that “it’s not monetized completely, that there are places that aren’t solely defined by money.” Removing the monetary aspect of running an event and not being tied to funding restrictions also has practical ramifications for a readings series. According to Smith, “the monetization of art produces different things in communities. I like that we don’t seek funding for it… Unlike a regular series, we don’t have to meet a goal. If we go two months without it happening, we go two months without it happening. There might be three weeks in a row where there’s stuff happening. It’s a bit more flexible on that side of things.”

Nguyen also sees hosting readings within the home as a way to tap into “the most intimate social activity that goes on in our culture”: sharing dinner. Nguyen provides food for her guests, and this gesture of generosity adds to the warmth of the reading. Food also has a sentimental importance for Nguyen. “[The readings] really started around dinner. Back then, I was poor, so it was spaghetti, and now it’s still beans, but we try to have that sense of sharing a meal,” she told me.

More than anything, Nguyen and Smith encourage writers to participate in community and to embrace the same DIY ethos that has led them to contribute so much to literary culture. “Don’t wait for it to happen,” Smith especially urges young writers. “Start your own thing. Identify the people you love and write them a letter and say, ‘Hey, I really like your work.’ When I was young, I used to write to everybody. I was living in Portland, I typed up my first little chapbook, and I sent it to Robert Creeley with this long letter to him saying how much I like him. Two weeks later, this big oversized postcard came back typed, single-spaced all along the back, telling me what he thought of the poems. Over the years, I started to know him. And Joanne Kyger, I wrote her a letter, and she invited us up for dinner. I think that depending on who you write, you might not hear from them, but [a lot depends] on how you identify your community. That’s the hardest thing when you’re young. Figure out your affinities. Like, do you want to win The Griffin Prize? Well, ok, professionalize and do it. Whatever that is. Or do you love your writing? What writing around you do you connect with? What do your friends say about it?”

It is crucial for writers in Toronto to get involved, not to sit on the sidelines, to contribute. Smith assures writers that once they get started, things pick up their own momentum: “It starts out really small, but one thing that I’ve noticed about poetry is that if you do one little issue of a magazine and identify communities and start putting it out, it snowballs. Same with a reading series.”

For more information on Skanky Possum, contact Hoa Nguyen either through Facebook or through the contact section of her official website. Write for invite.

Hoa Nguyen leads a private writing workshop on poetry and poetics three times a year. While her current workshop is not accepting in-person attendees, she has unlimited seats for virtual poets. Click link for more information.

Catch Hoa Nguyen reading on Sunday, January 19th at Plasticine Poetry at Pauper’s Pub. Other readers include Cherie Dimaline, Lois Lorimer, and Terri Favro.