(This is the travel blog from my North American Poetry Tour (really just the northeast bit). I’m doing features and trying out slams and meeting organisers, finding ideas for Scottish spoken word and for touring. I hope you’ll follow along and share, and ask questions! If you’ve got ideas of things you want me to find out, tell me and I’ll chase it down.)
I headed back to Toronto for the next leg of the tour, to check out smaller reading series, interview organisers and follow the Southern Ontario Spoken Word Circuit, getting a snapshot of different forms of spoken word in a major active global spoken word hub. Like New York and London England, Toronto and the greater Southern Ontario region is hugely active in performance poetry, spoken word and live literature — there’s an event almost every night, and plenty of mailing lists and websites to help you find your way around.
Readings at the Common is a monthly candlelit reading series at The Common, a little café with a great reputation for coffee. Hosted by Jessica Moore and Daniel Renton, its focus is on the literary and publishing end of poetry. My co-readers that night were Irene Marques, writing in Portuguese and English, and Laurie D Graham, an editor for Brick whose work has been shortlisted for multiple major Canadian awards. The night was quiet and relaxed, with a friendly and hugely attentive audience, fuelled by great tea and coffee. I spoke to Jessica about the origins of the event — it’s been running for three years now, and began at the instigation of the café’s owner as a way to make artistic use of the space in the evenings. Toronto’s a city of neighbourhoods, and the Common is right next door to Little Korea, Little Italy and Little Portugal, as well as to the hugely popular community space Dufferin Grove Park: Jessica sees the Readings as a neighbourhood event, with most of the audience local to the café.
Boneshaker is a library-based reading series, running for the last 4 years at the St Clair Public Library. Organised by librarian Lillian Necakov, it began as a way to bring more adults into the library’s programme and has now built both a loyal and visiting audience. Toronto boasts the world’s busiest urban public library system, something Lillian was very proud of, with local libraries hugely important centres of services and events as well as books. It excited me to see local reading series brought into that as part of what libraries can offer. Reading with poet and novelist Robert Earl Stewart, I again had a wonderfully warm and receptive audience — and I sold out of the pamphlets I’d brought with me, only halfway through the tour!
Both nights, I tried out a set of mixed English and Scots material, warming people up to the Scots by starting with intertwining the poems with English translations before doing longer and faster work. I felt like I was finding my feet more in how to perform Scots for an overseas audience; rather than clobbering them over the head with the strangeness of it, I was able to make points of connection and bring audiences into the music more. With Scots migrants being a big part of Canada’s settler-colonial history, I had plenty of conversations about Scots ancestors, and many people spoke to me about how they remembered words and phrases grandparents would use. Laurie Graham at the Common said that it felt like a language she “knew but didn’t know”; although her direct family don’t speak it, it’s in her line, and we wondered if there are things that accents and tongues remember.
The events couldn’t have been more different from the week in New York — and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the change. I love smaller and quieter events like these as much as the noisy celebrations, and I think they are just as important. It’s as great to be able to connect directly with each individual in the room as it is to a huge and unified crowd, and as wonderful to have meandering and exploratory conversations as it is to dance and cheer to poetry.
With Toronto being a city of small neighbourhoods, I wondered about the role of events like these, bringing professional writers from in and out of the city to local audiences and local venues — here, poetry can be a relaxing evening in for a neighbourhood, rather than a riotous celebration for a political community. That’s something that can be supported by major cities, but is also important for Scotland, with its relatively dispersed population and many local identities. There’s a risk of always thinking that bigger is better, and for poets trying to make a living a risk that we feel we always need to gravitate to the centre; poetry needs multiple models and multiple communities to thrive.