The quality and eclectic pulse of the Canadian small presses, the chapbook wielding, CD and book making mini-titans are always on the prowl for new forms of motivating readers and listeners of quality goods from the underground. Now class, pay attention as we pick the brains of some of Ontario and Quebec's leading culprits in the great cut-and-paste and burn swindle.
Do spoken word events achieve a level of intimacy that other audience related arts events don't?
Ian Ferrier: I don't think so. I think a good songwriter can do the same thing. I would say that the thing about spoken word is power; a good poet has the ability to change how you see the world.
Andy Brown: I wouldn't really know from a performer's point of view because I so seldom get up on stage, although I am doing it more out of necessity. As an audience member I would say that yes spoken word does create a sense of intimacy. Mostly because it is very hard to talk over a spoken word performer, which is done all the time with musicians (much to their chagrin) and with a straight poetry reading my mind tends to wander because I am not as engaged in what is being said. If the delivery is dry I think about my grocery list or something. Spoken word adds intimacy by engaging the audience.
Rob McLennan: I suppose they do -- writing gives a bit more detail than most of the other arts, and in painting, for example, you don't need the artist there to enjoy the show.
Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg: I don't think they achieve any more of a level of intimacy, it's just different. And it's different if you are reading to a large audience than a small one. It's more relaxing with a large audience, as they are easier to ignore, and you can often be more daring with your work. A smaller audience is right there, you cannot avoid them.
Jon Paul Fiorentino: No. Events in which the readers/performers are engaging, entertaining, and generous to the audience achieve a level of intimacy. I don't think the level of intimacy of an event is dependant on the genre. I think there are some poets and literary prose writers who have a better sense of performance than some spoken word performers. And then, of course, there are writers who do their work a great disservice by performing at events.
Jennifer Love-Grove: I think the intimacy has a different, more intense kind of focus than music or theatre events, a more stripped down intimacy, in that it is just the words. Either you're listening and drawn in, or you're not. Obviously this depends on the words spoken, but the intimacy can definitely be different, more bare.
What are some of the benefits of putting on a venue such as a reading?
Ian: I would say the main benefit in our community is that an event becomes a focal point, where writers bring new work, where people who have never seen literature in performance come to find out what the excitement's about. This is an emerging art form, and events such as readings and performances are where it emerges.
Andy: The benefits for me are usually to sell Conundrum Press books. It is very difficult to sell books through the normal bookstore channels, and I only receive a small percentage of the money when I do. I have gained a bit of a reputation for throwing good launch parties; I keep people entertained and happy so they will buy the book. And if they don't buy the book at least they will know about Conundrum Press and may come to the next launch just for the party and actually have some money in their pocket.
Montreal is such a wild city because there are very few regular venues. I have never had an event at the same venue twice, although now with the Casa del Popolo there does seem to be a regular venue, and one which brings in the hip crowd. I enjoy seeking out theatre spaces, people's lofts, holes in the wall, organizing beer sales illegally, it makes the whole process of publishing an underground affair and the launches become very exotic Montreal events. Although, this is hard to keep up for any length of time. I would never have a launch at a bookstore or library. People need to drink to have a good time, that's the sad reality. I don't see much point in putting on a straight reading. It's boring for the crowd and doesn't do much for the author either except boost his/her ego. There are so many straight readings now because everyone and their dog has a book out and they all feel it necessary to get up on stage even if they are the lamest reader in the world. What I did for Valerie Joy Kalynchuk's launch was have my other author's read snippets from her book in Karaoke style because Valerie was too nervous to go on stage. I respected her more for knowing herself. Although when she finally did get on stage at Canzine, she was great, really hilarious, even though she was nervous. At first I didn't read because I was nervous, now it's because I don't want to bore the audience to death.
Rob: The benefit for me, is being able to hear what people are doing, whether new writers, or new work by familiar folk. There's something you get out of a reading that the book can't give, something extra. It's a think akin to spiritual experience to go to a Bill Bissett reading, something that only partially comes through in the books, to the same degree. I get to, as a host, bring in writers that don't come through Ottawa otherwise, or who might not read here. I get, in some way, to run a reading series sometimes for my own selfish ends. And as an editor/publisher, I consider it my job to go to the open sets, or features by folk who's work I'm not familiar with, to see sometimes if what they do might fit in with what I do. How else does one participate in a community without attending?
Shelagh: It gets your work or your author's work out there. It introduces people to new poetry and new ideas and it gives you exposure. Not all poets can read their work well though; for me it's mostly a tool of information and advertising so people will buy the chapbook and encourage an audience for the writer. It's all about exposure.
Jon Paul: A reading is a way to make the artist accessible. There aren't many artists, whether poets, fiction writers, or spoken word performers, that don't want to connect with their audience.
Jennifer: Readings, particularly with groups of writers, will expose people to someone whose work (or zine or chapbook or book or magazine) they were previously unfamiliar with, and that is definitely beneficial. It can also be socially beneficial, i.e. bringing together a motley group of creative types to carouse, chat, collaborate, etc. From my own experience, I can say that is especially beneficial for young writers/publishers who don't have friends in the small press or literary community -- you can make friends, enemies, schmooze, heckle, whatever suits you. Before I started my literary zine dig, my friends were all non-writers, and now I know a wider mix, and that is important to me.
What drives you to participate, run, organize or perpetuate your local reading?
Ian: We are lucky in that the place where we do the Words & Music show in Montreal is also one of the top venues in the country for new music as well. We stay there because we like and respect the owners, whose main purpose seems to be to fuel the cultural revolution. We do the event because there are currently so many good performance literature people in Montreal that there is no trouble putting together an excellent show. This makes it fun for everyone.
Shelagh: I like hearing new writers, and meeting new people in the writing scene, as well as maintaining relationships with people I generally only see at such events.
Do you feel your poetry (or the poetry you publish) has to reflect as certain relevance to encompass a larger audience? What do you strive for in your work these days?
Ian: The relevance is to this mystery in which we find ourselves: Born on a ball whirling through space, living such a short time, trying to nail down what the hell's going on. As to a larger audience, this is a function of any good art practice: It is inherent in the art that it create its own success. As to what I strive for, it's a dance of words compelling enough that it becomes a world.
Andy: I feel the work that I publish fills a gap. I started out publishing very quirky, anti-narratives, comics, art books, strange little books which were never to be classified as "poetry" although I felt they were poetic. In this way I didn't seek to publish something to reach a larger audience. That's the beauty of chapbooks. You can publish exactly what you want because the audience is so small and there is nowhere to sell them. However, moving into the larger books with thousands of dollars in printing costs makes me consider my audience a bit more. I am inclined to continue with my editorial vision and let those people who are bored with the mainstream, like me and my friends, find me. I think that's my audience and I think they are finding me. Canada is a comparatively small country so it is pretty easy to get out and promote your books, especially when your wading through a sea of mediocrity (or perhaps it's just that so many people are doing the same variations on a theme). I'm not going for the middle-brow reading crowd.
Having said that I have just written a novel which follows some of the tropes of Can-lit canon in an attempt to sell it in the States and Germany where Canadian writing is considered "hot." I am doing this to enter a more established realm with my writing, so that I can pay to publish the stuff that would never see the light of day otherwise. Of course I can't not write in my inevitable oblique style so I am trying to make my underground style more accessible. I tend to mix visuals, poetry, prose, and sound with what I write and what I publish. That's how I interpret the world. I am constantly amazed by the pigeon holing some people get into. "I am a POET." Or "I am a NOVELIST". Or "I am a PHOTOGRAPHER". I'm all these things and more. I tend to publish a single project by people who also feel this way and are working on ten things at once.
Rob: In my work these days, I strive for difference; taking reference from various other areas, and adding my own spin. I like taking sometimes opposing references or ideas and putting them into pieces. Lately, I've been working geography the way L. Cohen worked
emotion -- so specific that it became universal. I've been having a good time with it. Also, I've always been a sucker for the serial poem (a la Jack Spicer) and seeing how far I can take that -- fragmenting the piece in new ways while still keeping a coherent larger work.
Shelagh: I don't think it has to have certain relevance, it just has to be good. I know that's a very broad term, and everyone has their own definitions of what's good. But that is it for me: is it interesting, do I sit up and take notice, does it stay with me? Relevance is irrelevant to me.
Jon Paul: I hope that my poems have a kind of universal appeal but I can't really make any bold claims as to its success. I write poems that operate within certain poetic convention while (hopefully) challenging convention at the same time. I strive for the moment when I have done my job as a poet, and presented a landscape of images, ideas, possibilities; and then I feel I have earned the right to be indulgent and let enough of myself into the poem. I think a good poem conceals as much as it reveals. This is the nature of trope.
Jennifer: A larger audience than what? Cock fights? Quilting bees? I'm not naive enough anymore to expect that poetry will ever have a Rolling Stones'-size audience. Whether or not a given poem WOULD appeal to a larger audience has little to do with whether said audience will read it. There is a stigma, a fright, of poetry these days. I gave a reading last week and two people walked in during the reading, looked at one another in distaste and said "Oh! It's the poetry ..." and walked out. It's unfortunate, but slow to change. In the work I publish, I strive for writing that challenges the reader in some way, whether aesthetically or otherwise; I don't like shy or conservative writing. Innovation, freshness, something different, and of high quality. In my own writing, I strive for it to be as true to its intent as possible. I strive for maximum intensity. Otherwise, I don't strive for anything in particular because I never know what the writing will be until I get going into it.
What local events are you involved in, do you recommend?
Ian: Stefan Christoff and I put on the Words and Music Show, which takes place every third Sunday of the month in Montreal. We recommend this event, as well as Streeteaters, a moving literature showcase that happens on a much less predictable schedule in Montreal. We also recommend Broken Pencil Magazine out of Toronto, and MC (Misplaced Cognitive), a new web-zine that, among other things, will document some of the spoken word scene here. It will premiere in September out of Montreal.
Andy: As I say the events I'm involved in tend to be launches for Conundrum Press books. There are some people doing regular stuff in town though. Ian Ferrier's Words and Music at the Casa is drawing crowds, and not just the same ol' same ol'. He brings people in from out of town which is great to see. There are lots of cabaret-style events happening all the time but I find I'm just too old and busy to keep up. I know Alexis O'Hara does a lot of stuff. And she is a great presence herself. We're trying to put on the first annual Small Press Fair at the Sala Rossa October 19 so I hope that goes well. I am always making small books for Louis Rastelli's Distroboto project, a converted cigarette machine.
I will be touring the Conundrum authors in the fall on what I call the Conundrum Cabaret. This is because the authors are all spoken word performers. Conundrum will put out Catherine Kidd's new book/CD Sea Peach and she will be one of the headliners at the Canzine party. Ian Ferrier's label Wired on Words is putting out the CD. Also a book of anti-travel stories by Corey Frost called My Own Devices, he is also a fantastic and entertaining performer. He and I are invited to "read" at Canzine proper. Also I am continuing to tour with Victoria Stanton and Vince Tinguely for their massive compendium Impure: Reinventing the Word (The Theory, Practice, and Oral History of Spoken Word in Montreal). The tour is going to New York and will come back to Toronto for the Small Press Fair November 9th, at which point I hope to launch some of these titles officially.
A book of my short stories called Looking for Parking will come out soon, from which small press I am uncertain. Perhaps Conundrum. It is so offbeat that most places won't take it. It mostly collects my chapbooks and a novel which I cut up into linked stories. I'm hoping Anvil Press in Vancouver will pick it up. I like what they are doing.
Rob: I run readings, such as Poetry 101, and the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair under the banner of Span-O (The Small Press Action Network Ottawa). The readings are random and the fair twice a year, since 1994. I'd highly recommend the TREE Reading Series in Ottawa (currently run by James Moran, etc.), running second and fourth Tuesday each month since about 1980. Also, Andy Weaver, Andy Dickenson, and Paul Pierson run a neat monthly in Edmonton called Olive, that also produces a chapbook of the feature as promotion, a few weeks before each event.
Shelagh: IV Lounge Reading Series in Toronto, every second Friday, 326 Dundas St. W. That's the only one I go to on a regular basis.
Jon Paul: The reading series in Toronto I have participated in are The Idler Pub Reading Series and The IV lounge. In Winnipeg, Ace Art and Mondragon Cafe and Bookstore are very reader friendly.
Jennifer: Taddle Creek Magazine launches are always a good party. Insomniac and ECW presses have good book launches. I host launches for my literary zine, dig, once a year. I usually have three writers reading, and digs for sale -- always a festive fun bash.