Let’s say you’ve been working really hard on your writing. You’ve been in a creative writing program since your second year of university, and you’ve wanted to do this since you were eight years old, and when you go home to your parents’ house, your mom pulls out a poem you wrote in Grade Three about a butterfly flying along the shore. And all through grade school, all through high school, your teachers and parents promised that eventually, once you got to university, you’d meet people who’d understand you and what you describe as a hard place in yourself. But in the undergraduate creative writing program, they still aren’t there. You talk to all your peers, and they ask you what’s due the next day.
One of your professors is reading at a bar in Toronto, and you have her book. The bar is packed, everyone older than you, and you huddle in a booth. They hold drinks and go from one person to another, shaking hands, laughing, making jokes. This must be community, you think. You say hello to your professor, but you can’t find your way in.
Three years later in Toronto, you start going to readings and launch parties. At the first few, you are eager. You meet people who know about the hard place; you meet people who ask what you’re working on and seem interested in who you are. But there are a few people who, as soon as they realize you don’t have a book published or look at your face and label you as “young,” disengage and go talk to someone more established, even though you thought they might be new friends. But still, you have people who understand, and this is what’s important.
Soon, you start to notice the secret gestures people make. Someone reads in a voice that’s too quiet and someone in the audience stares at the ceiling. Another audience member mimes a gun shooting their temple. A reader goes up to the mic, and the audience chugs beer in unison as the reader admits that they haven’t selected what they are going to read that night. It becomes a routine. It’s Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday and you go out to a bar that is either the same bar, or much like the same bar, and you spend too much money and talk to the same people. When you meet someone new, you stop asking, “Are you a writer?” and start asking, “Poetry or prose?” You understand why people make the gestures when you hear another reader ramble for ten minutes before each poem. You think that now you must be a member of the community because you are bored, too. You are no longer new. Yes, you have people who understand, but where is the place to connect? You thought this was supposed to be about connection.
As measured by its multitude of events, the Toronto literary scene is thriving, yet community participants remain dissatisfied. Publicly, those involved in curating events are positive about their community, but event attendees often experience ennui and apathy toward the literary scene. In my Town Crier series on the topic, I have been hesitant to offer my own opinions, ostensibly out of a fear of dwarfing the opinions of those interviewed. But perhaps it was really the pushback I feared: that if I highlighted a weakness in our current community, people would feel attacked and fire back.
This in itself is a weakness of community: public opinion can be policed even when everyone is readily critical in private. Another potential shortcoming of literary community is an emphasis on pragmatics and legitimacy over crowd enjoyment (basic fun!), as well as the insular nature of our community. I have always supported Toronto’s community; there are many things I love about it—how very supportive and cooperative it is, how many events there are, and that when they succeed in being fun, they are really fun. Unfortunately, the events that succeed in being enjoyable for an audience member are rarely those funded by the grant system.
Luckily, most curators I have spoken to this past year have a DIY ethos, breaking away from the requirements of the granting system to create events that are different and new. Rather than complaining about community, they expect participants to shape it. To them, writers have a responsibility to be leaders and participants, whether through publishing, hosting, or curating a series, reviewing, or merely through supporting events and ventures. This article will serve as a call to arms and an encouragement to embrace activism instead of passivism in literary community. After all, a community needs active participants in order to grow, evolve, and flourish.
I’ve interviewed Toronto writers and community-builders (Edward Nixon, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Alicia Louise Merchant, Chris Graham, Farzana Doctor, Stuart Ross, Mat Laporte, Brenda Whiteway, Bardia Sinaee, Lauren Mitchell, Liz Howard, Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith, Hazel and Jay MillAr, and Jason Guriel) and writers participating in literary community elsewhere (Alli Warren, Stephanie Young, Alexandra Oliver) in an attempt to construct a collaborative history of contemporary literary culture, while addressing current challenges within the community, both for curators and for event attendees.
Creating a Space for Sharing Literature
Hosts and curators claim a space for writing and performing. They decide between outdoor or indoor venues, whether to use a commercial space or their home, the advantages of a large, established locale or a lesser-known, intimate venue. This decision is often shaped by practical concerns rather than audience enjoyment, which risks alienating audience members.
Toronto readings tend to be hosted at commercial venues, most often bars. These, being business ventures, can present challenges to the promoter. For instance, they sometimes go out of business, forcing the reading series to move and to transform the atmosphere of the series without prior planning. When Edward Nixon showed up to run Diamond Cherry in 2007, he found his venue, It’s Not a Deli, mysteriously boarded up. Although he managed to salvage the event by moving it to Tequila Bookworm, Nixon thought it best to start fresh with a new venue and reading series and started Livewords in 2008. Other series respond to this setback differently.
AvantGarden, The Pivot Series, Rower’s Pub, I.V. Lounge, The Art Bar, Brockton Writers, and many other series have all changed venues over the years in order to stay alive. They have not rebranded when doing so—even when moving, in one case, from the west end to The Black Swan on the Danforth. In all these cases, changing location has not disrupted the community the hosts have created, since the series’s brand has already established a community following. The series do not need additional promotion to generate a crowd when the venue changes. Other series, such as my own (Emerging Writers), or Brockton Writers, are tied to a certain location as part of their brand, drawing inspiration from the surrounding neighbourhood. While Brockton Writers has moved venues over the years, they always end up in the heart of Brockton Village.
When venues shut down, promoters are more likely to book venues that have proven over time to be reliable. Since I moved to Toronto in late 2011, the most popular venues for reading series and launches have been The Garrison (Dundas and Ossington), The Ossington (Ossington and Queen), No One Writes to the Colonel (Bathurst and College), The Supermarket (Augusta and College), and The Black Swan (Broadview and Danforth). The Garrison has been particularly busy with launches, even hosting two on successive days. The Garrison is attractive to small presses because it provides a large space with decent sound. In The Town Crier, I’ve argued that hosting different launches at the same venue makes the events interchangeable, as opposed to establishing new literary spaces.
I asked attendees of the Anansi Spring Bash about this, and found promoters were focused on practical matters: affordability, location, and size were prioritized over uniqueness or atmosphere. Lauren Mitchell, previously a publicist for Dragnet Magazine; Bardia Sinaee, founder of Odourless Press; and Mat Laporte, braingang co-founder and co-founder of Ferno House, all agreed that having a reasonably priced and accessible venue were some of the most important concerns, especially since money is scarce and hosts are often volunteers. These priorities all reflect the concerns of the curator rather than an audience. Prioritizing these values can come at the cost of audience enjoyment, and perhaps this is part of the reason why literary community is composed mainly of writers and culture-creators rather than people who are not directly involved in producing literature.
One way of avoiding issues of affordability and location is the house reading—although with that comes the sacrifice of accessibility and inclusiveness. Couples Brenda Whiteway and Mat Laporte, Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen, and Hazel and Jay MillAr all open their homes to the literary crowd in order to build community. With both braingang (Whiteway and Laporte) and Skanky Possum (Smith and Nguyen), the emphasis is on the social benefits, not brand-building or creating a self-sustaining series in order to qualify for funding.
A house reading offers the host/curator more control. It is inherently less commercial, cheaper for both host and audience, and can have an intimacy and warmth that is hard to mimic in a commercial venue. House readings come with their own limitations, however. Nguyen and Smith have built home stages in the past in Texas, but this is often more difficult to do in Toronto; hosts must make do with the space they have, sometimes having readings on decks, outdoors, or in nearby parks to accommodate larger crowds. The size of the venue is a typical concern for most promoters, but it is even more of a restriction for the house reading promoters, who take a risk in letting an outside audience into their personal space. If a crowd becomes too big or unruly, the host’s home is put in danger—something you don’t have to deal with if the event is at a bar. One way hosts address this concern is by keeping the invitations list small. According to Smith, Skanky Possum does not “advertise … really except through Facebook … It would be nice to have the publicity, but there isn’t the space for it.” Mat Laporte also highlighted this as a “short-coming” of his reading series, braingang. Unable to have a completely open event, Laporte says his house readings became “limited to circles of friends. It wasn’t made totally public because of limits of space.” Once again, practical concerns impinge on what may be more important to an audience member (inclusivity and openness), but realistically, a house can only serve a fixed capacity.
Love, Funding, and Monetization: What Makes a Curator ‘Professional’?
Early in the life of a reading series, curators decide if they will seek out funding for their series, and this often causes them to make certain choices about the way the series is run. Dale Smith believes that “the monetization of art produces different things in communities.” In talking to Heather Wood, artistic director of Rower’s Pub Reading Series, the tensions created by funding were apparent. Rower’s Pub incorporated quite quickly, knowing that a series needs to be either a collective or an incorporated non-profit in order to obtain funding. A series also has to be self-sufficient for two years before they are able to apply for funding, so Rower’s Pub initially relied on private donations to pay readers.
Both Brockton Writers and Rower’s Pub book readers with their granting bodies’ preferences in mind, so that they will be able to pay readers what they consider to be an appropriate amount. Brockton Writers pays its readers around $125, while Rower’s Pub pays up to $200, depending on the funding for a particular year. Rower’s Pub is run by a governing board in order to fit the granting bodies’ definition of an incorporated non-profit to qualify for Canada Arts Council funding. In order to secure funding from the Canada Arts Council and meet their requirements, Rower’s Pub has to book all their writers for the year in advance, and must also secure certain “big names” to improve their series’s profile. The Canada Arts Council grants less travel funding to bring in artists who are not Canadian, meaning that the readers who are asked to read at more established reading series are almost always Canadian. As a result, self-sustainability, booking established writers, and being Canada-centric tends to characterize the “professionalism” of reading series, and by extension the community at large—at least as far as granting bodies are concerned.
Pivot Readings, Livewords, and several other reading series prefer to be “community-hosted” events that pay readers small amounts based on a Pay-What-You-Can system. Some readings choose to further demonetize by hosting free readings or moving into non-commercial spaces. Chris Graham, founder of reading series Amazing New Stuff, said that at first he did not charge for his events because he thought, “[W]ho am I to charge people money to come out to my thing?” Soon he liked that no one, not even the readers, were getting paid for the events; everyone was just working and performing for the love of literature.
Coming from The States, where government funding for the arts is much more rare, Smith and Nguyen spoke with astonishment about the funding opportunities in Canada. “I’m amazed that there’s fucking money for poetry,” Smith remarked. Nguyen added, “It’s amazing!” While funding may define the legitimacy of an event or community endeavour, funding still plays a crucial role in paying back some of the time community-builders donate.
Work Support and The Hive Mind: The Function of Community
Both writers and community-builders seek out community for different reasons. For some, community serves an entirely social purpose. Others consider the attending of events or contributing to literary culture (outside of their own poetry, fiction, or non-fiction) as part of the work of being a writer. For example, Stuart Ross’s engagement in literary community has “always been part of [his] practice as a writer.” I also see community involvement as being part of my work as a writer, but it fills a social need for me, too. As I’ve told communications researcher Alexandra Lussier-Craig, I see my Toronto literary community as a support network rather than a strictly professional network. To me, the work of a writer is “incredibly lonely” and good writing involves working towards something that is uncomfortable or terrifying. Lussier-Craig wondered if:
[p]erhaps there is something about living with that uncertainty and that emotional exposure that compels people to seek out others who live and work with the same conditions. In this light what seems to be, from the outside at least, such a singular and solipsistic activity is only possible in the context of a supportive community.
Alli Warren, a poet in Oakland, California, also formulates her social circle around her literary community. “For me, it’s where I go, for better or worse, for friendship, love, and sociality,” she writes. While this is why Warren seeks out her community, she also emphasizes that she would “never want to make claims about what the professional work of a writer should be,” as all writers have different amounts of available time as they struggle to balance ways to make money with a writing career. Warren attests, “I’m so thoroughly inspired, engaged, and challenged by my communities that I hardly have any idea what my work would look like outside these contexts.” For Warren, the social role of literary community becomes conflated with the professional, allowing her to have a fluid and enjoyable interaction with literary community (and resulting in some excellent poetry).
At This Is Not a Reading Series on January 8th, 2014, poet and critic Michael Lista spoke of his belief that “community is … a spooky word.” While Lista did not elaborate on what he meant by this, I choose to interpret this comment as referring to the connotations community has as being something insular, or something which casts a group of people as a collective consciousness. The danger is that a “hive-mind” consciousness can evolve, robbing participants of their individuality.
At the same This Is Not a Reading Series event, Jason Guriel, in response to Lista’s question about his own involvement in community, stated that reading and literary community need to extend beyond writers and that he was not overly concerned with befriending other writers, especially since he would be critiquing them through reviews. Guriel described participation in a literary community as being almost detrimental to the development of his non-fiction writing, as he feels these friendships could get in the way of objective criticism, or make his job more strenuous. I asked him to clarify in an email interview, and he wondered if literary community in Toronto “is even an inherently positive goal” given the insular nature of its machinations, and that it is “often an excuse for groupthink.” This is an unpopular opinion, especially for writers who contribute so much time and energy to making literary community welcoming for writers, and also perpetuates a myth of the isolated writer or critic who is unbiased by his professional peers. During our conversation, Guriel added that writers should not be concerned about burning bridges or becoming socially accepted by the literary community, but instead should “be worried about being unduly influenced,” especially if they are contributing to review culture. This is akin to Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence, a feeling many writers experience, and one that keeps them from participating in community events. While the above is generally considered to be an unpopular opinion, it is representative of a certain belief many writers share: I’ve met writers who have felt too competitive with their peers to go out to events; who don’t want to be biased by the work others have created; who feel marginalized due to race, subject matter, or some other way they position their identity. These writers find community in other places, seeing a distinct split between their written work and their social lives.
Guriel also raised the elephant in the room: while a few participants are not writers themselves, this is exceedingly rare in Toronto. What is even more rare is the presence of audience members and readers at literary events who are not involved in some aspect of literary culture; those who are not writers are promoters of literary events—editors, publishers, publicists, etc. Guriel described the ideal reader of his criticism as being someone who is interested in literature and likes to read, but does not write themselves. He also admitted that this ideal reader, “one who has no investment in poetry,” might be a piece of fiction that he has dreamt up, a non-existent audience, but assured Town Crier readers that “if such a reader is a fantasy, it’s still one worth believing in.”
According to Jacob McArthur Mooney, poet and curator of The Pivot Reading Series, embracing the specificity and narrowness of the audience is what makes for a more effective reading series and literary community. “Trying to make it attract people who don’t have any natural inclination to go out to a reading series” does not make for a successful series, he argues. Most readings that try to hybridize to appeal to a broader audience end up “fail[ing] out of the gate.” Mooney does not believe that a literary event has “to be democratic in that way,” and thinks that “what makes a really exciting reading series is a crowd-defined communal expression of [a] group’s eccentricities.” Among these eccentricities is the very purpose for gathering together: to listen to someone read or perform their work, which tends not to appeal to people outside the literary world. The failure to reach out to people interested in things other than literature might reinforce the idea that Guriel’s ideal reader, the untapped audience not attending literary events, is only myth.
This self-interested investment by community members that Guriel discusses is reflected in Stewart Cole’s distinction between a poetry “scene” and “community.” Cole writes that a scene is a space in which people are primarily concerned about the way they are perceived by others in the same space, who work for accolades and try to make the right contacts to advance their own work. Many Toronto writers treat our literary events as a scene, and this may be one of the reasons why people who have no self-interest in literature would not want to get involved. If more of Toronto’s writers form what Cole calls a community, where people “acknowledge one another as complex fellow human beings, capable of motives that transcend sheer mercantile self-interest,” then perhaps Toronto literary events could start to appeal to the non-invested audience member or reader. This would change the primary purpose of reading performances. Readings would no longer be a means of self-promotion, launching books, or a measure of status, but would be a performance of a certain skill, meant for the enjoyment of an audience. The reader now would be addressing an audience consisting of people attending not to network but to be entertained, to feel a sense of inclusion, and to support the performers. To create this change would require a shift in perspective by writers and professionals in literary circles, as they would have to approach events with a more open attitude instead of being solely career-oriented in their motivations.
DIY ventures already tend to be more successful in this regard; instead of being associated with self-interest and status, participants are driven by the impulse to create and to foster new types of art sharing. Participants and attendees are given agency as they are expected to help shape the artistic outputs around them in whichever way they are able to contribute. The contribution of community members is done without thinking about self-gain, but for the excitement of creating and in the hope of building the type of community that Cole discusses.
I Used To Be A Punker: DIY and Literary Community
Many writing communities have ties to other artistic fields, allowing the ethos of music, visual arts, and other art forms to inspire members of the literary community and shape their value system. A common connection is to a punk or rock background, and this brings with it a DIY ethic. Warren Kinsella, author of Fury’s Hour, a detailed history of the political, philosophical, and ethical concerns behind the punk movement, discussed DIY with Mark Perry, founder and creator of punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue and founder of Alternative TV. According to Perry, the underlying idea of all punk fanzines and punk DIY was “that it is essential that young people should read, and listen, and learn for themselves—but also that they should try and change things, even if they repeatedly fail.” Perry said this in 1976, but the DIY ethic is still prominent within zine and small press culture.
To Dale Smith, DIY means that a writer does not wait for someone to notice them and recognize them for their work, or wait for funding or for other people to start publications that are interesting to them. Smith explains:
[y]ou just make things and staple them together, identify an audience and start writing letters to people. That’s what [Nguyen and I] did early on … we were connected to San Francisco people who had done that in the ’60s with mimeograph … For some people it was Xeroxing and stapling, or [some people] go online now. But in the States, there’s a real sense of [needing to] figure out the material and how to do it and identify the communities you engage in. It’s a lot of word of mouth and through conversation and writing letters to each other or emails.
Especially because they were in the States with fewer funding opportunities available, Smith and Nguyen had to use DIY methods in order to create literary projects.
Nguyen grew up in the Washington D.C. area where Discord Records, Fugazi, and other bands were making history with small-run music distribution. Exposure to people with a similar ethos in San Francisco influenced Dale Smith’s and Hoa Nguyen’s involvement in literary community. Mat Laporte, like Nguyen, comes from a punk background. Laporte’s DIY attitude was fostered during his years as a hardcore punk musician. Some of the first performances he ran in Edmonton were house shows, and he eventually transitioned to host readings. This gave Laporte experience running events, which he transferred over to helping plan launches for Ferno House and to help plan house readings with his partner, Brenda Whiteway. Laporte, along with Puritan co-founder Spencer Gordon and graphic designer Arnaud Brassard, founded Ferno House, a micropress that insists small-run publications can also be beautiful and respected art objects. Other micropress producers in Toronto have since emerged, such as Odourless Press (headed by Bardia Sinaee) and Grow&Grow (headed by Jessica Bebenek). These presses follow the same concept: if writers are not getting their own work out there or if what they want to read is not being published or promoted, they decide to take matters into their own hands and just do it themselves.
The same attitude informs those who start up reading series. Often a curator or host will identify what they see as being a gap in the scene, and rather than criticizing the scene for not being inclusive, the culture-creator corrects this through their own involvement. When Chris Graham of Amazing New Stuff first moved to Toronto in 2012, he was not yet a part of the literary community. In order to share his own writing and other writing he enjoyed, he decided to become one of the community makers. He asked himself, “Why don’t I just do it?” Liz Howard of AvantGarden decided to start hosting not to share her own writing, but as a way to showcase feminist, sound-based, and experimental writing that she felt was not “being very well represented in the series and perhaps the community.” Howard was careful to clarify in her interview that she did not want to “do a disservice to the community” by criticizing its underrepresentation of this type of writing, but she did want to provide another platform for it.
According to Dale Smith, artistic energy thrives on participation. I asked him if the generation of writers of which I am a part is contributing enough, or if there is still room for more people to get involved. Both Nguyen and Smith said that, in their experience, community is defined by its participants, and people who have nothing to contribute will eventually stop being a part of literary community. Smith told me,
the people you’re in conversation with right now, you won’t be in ten or fifteen years. Not everybody sticks around. People’s energy gets dispersed. Poetry is something that’s difficult to monetize and survive on and so people who don’t do anything or whose energy commitments change will drop out and new people come in.
In this case, DIY becomes about more than contributing out of the goodness of a community-member’s heart. It becomes about keeping the life-blood of the community flowing and protecting the community’s future. Laziness is abhorred in DIY culture; participants must create. This may seem overly prescriptive, but DIY culture also allows flexibility in the type of participation required.
Laporte, Ross, Nguyen, and Smith all agreed that the involvement of a community member depends on their capacities and what they have to offer. For instance, Laporte had access to a good space to host readings once he met Brenda Whiteway, so he collaborated with Whiteway in starting their house reading series. While Smith was doing his PhD in Texas, he stopped contributing as much to his literary community, but put his efforts into criticism, contributing to review culture. When Smith and Nguyen had children, hosting readings in their home not only fit their political and philosophical ideals but also was a more practical way to engage in community. Do-It-Yourself allows the community member to set up their own boundaries for community engagement and to contribute in the way they feel comfortable and able.
Within this article, I have attempted to raise questions about community as well as detail the perspectives of several culture-creators in Toronto. I am aware that I have opened more doors than I could possibly close in a single essay. Other members of my own community may disagree with some of these claims or may have a totally different perspective. How do we open literary community to people who are not writers? Does it even matter that our community is insular? How do we make our performances more appealing? Do we ruin literary community when we try to put professional stresses on what are essentially social interactions? In the spirit of DIY and in order to encourage even further community participation, I will you, the reader, to get involved and write your own response on literary community. We must keep building in order for our community to be sustained, and for it to grow and thrive.
You make things. It’s the only thing you’ve ever known how to do. The series you want isn’t there, so you make it. You put up posters around the city, on telephone polls, in the soaking summer heat. You leave them behind in cafes and bars. You find people’s work you like and you fill a magazine with it. You stitch the binding. People read it, and people come to your series, and they watch and are entertained and build new friendships. They all have a hard place of their own, and they use it to make zines and presses and parties everyone wants to go to. Someone you know has a lot of friends in film, and those friends start going to events, and they collaborate with the writers there and start their own series featuring their hybrid projects. And it just keeps growing, people keep making things, connecting. The energy feeds off itself.
The following is a list of articles and sources used to compose this essay. They are listed in the order in which they are mentioned.
Jess Taylor is the host and founder of The Emerging Writers Reading Series. Her work has been published in Little Brother, Little Fiction, Great Lakes Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and more. Jess recently had a pamphlet chapbook, And Then Everyone, released by Picture Window Press and has another chapbook, Never Stop, forthcoming from Anstruther Press. Recently, she received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul,” and was named “one of the best alt-lit reads coming out of Canada” by Dazed Magazine.