Poetry Plus is the first reading series I ever went to. It was my first year in Montreal, almost a decade ago. I don’t remember if I read any of my poems that night but I do remember getting lost, looking for the Arts Café on some street called Fairmount. Poetry Plus no longer runs, although, so far as I know, it had a good run. And it certainly had a bunch of interesting characters like the stalwart John Fretz, the esteemed Lesley Pasquin, and the unforgettable Susan Dubrofsky, whose weird stories I still remember snippets of–shaving cream, a tongue, a canoe. But it was Cheryl O’Neill who was my attachment and my in to Poetry Plus and the roster of poets and musicians who performed through it. She was a mentor figure to me and when she died, I drifted from that crowd and from reading and from going to readings. But then I plunged into the great clinical depression of 2011-12. Sprawled out on my back on the living room floor, staring out the window and holding the tree and the bird in contempt, from there, somehow, I started to think about sharing my work with others again. And so Alan Reed took me to the Argo Open Mic. Through this one evening, there were other readings, both publicly and privately organized. And then I started to think about community and reading and writing but not in any sustained way until the opportunity to write this presented itself through Marko Sijan, whom I met through the Argo and its reading series and monthly Open Mic.
Now, I am here, thinking in a more sustained way about reading series(es) and community. This is a personal and intellectual reflection which is, importantly, not descriptive of any one reading series in Montreal. It is, however, informed by my discussions with Klara Du Plessis (of the Résonance Reading series) and Jean-Pierre Karwacki (of the Argo). But most of all, it draws from my own experiences from such events as both an audience member and a writer who likes to perform. The reflection works, imperfectly so, on the register of the ideal–what is community, ideally, and how might a reading series best foster community? The reflection is imperfect because I am imperfect. I mention this only because I am greedy and want to incorporate this aspect; there is space for further reflection here, yours and my own. Then, there are things I could address but don’t, like the language of “reading series” and issues of performance and the spoken word and mea culpa. Nevertheless, I hope that my reflection will appeal to listeners, reader/writers, and leaders of reading events for interest’s sake and in a practical way, too. In furtherance of those practical ends, I have included a reference of reading events in Montreal at the end, seeing that, to my knowledge, no such reference exists.
My reflection starts with a definition. No, my reflection is a definition, an unfolding one whose first fold is location. Community must have a location. All of the reading series(es) listed in the reference take place in physical locations like a bar (The Pilot Reading Series at the Sparrow) or a community space (The Yellow Door Poetry and Prose Reading). The Atwater Poetry Project takes special pride in and is especially tied to its physical location. As they note on their website, the events are “held in the stately auditorium of the historic Atwater Library and Computer Centre” and that they “cultivate with Canadian and international writers a respected professional venue.” But community does not need a physical location and even if the location is physical, “stately” even, that location will be, ideally, loose. For community needs location only to transcend location and so enter the imagination. As Benedict Anderson writes of the national community in his exploration of nationalism, community “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (Imagined Communities 2006, 6).
Further to this looseness, community is open–common. Leaving behind Anderson’s nationalism and moving towards cosmopolitanism, community is a thing which all, without discrimination, may enter and pass through. Hopefully some will linger a while before they leave, always with the option to return. Community is at its best when they do return or remain. Yet, perhaps community is simply in passing through, together, for a moment.
Finally, community is in the event, as it happens and after it ends and before it begins again. It is in coming together and in going away, in knowing that it is still and will still be there. There. Again, community needs location.
This first attempt at a definition can be further unfolded along the following, more practically applicable lines: consistency, accessibility, transparency, and diversity. I tackle them in turn.
Consistency: It is essential that the reading series is regular and reliable for establishing the there-ness of community. That is all.
Accessibility (of the space itself): I understand there are events which need an entry fee for some reason or another, like to pay the bill for renting the space. If this is so, why use that space? At the very least, if it is possible, consider a pay what you can/if you can policy. This is a detail that I have come to appreciate especially through queer events in the city. And then, is the space accessible to those with reduced mobility? It is important to think about how to be accommodating in this regard before it is necessary to be so and I strongly recommend a nod towards accessibility in any promotional material. The space should have sufficient space for all, so that all may pass through.
Transparency: How are readers chosen, and why? Who is choosing them? This is something that most of the reading series(es), if they say anything about it at all, are pretty vague about, in pretty much the same way. They all say they bring together new and old writers, from Montreal and beyond. Why does transparency matter? Because there might be issues of representation, or rather, mis-representation and/or under-representation. Transparency can help make these issues evident and then from there those issues can be dealt with. Of course different reading series(es) will be developing their own different flavours and drawing on readers that reflect or contribute to that. But even so, those readers should be diverse.
Diversity: I am interested in the overlap between community and culture, in a bacterial (or agricultural) sense. A bacteria culture is created and tended under certain, set, artificial parameters. But if nothing changes, the culture isn’t working. The same goes for a reading series.
Having considered what community is and how a reading series might best foster community, I want to include also an ideal function of the reading series and the community it cultivates. Readers and writers are very private by the nature of their activities. But as human beings, we are, in Aristotle’s words, “political animals” (Politics 1253a). Our reading and writing can, ideally, fulfill political roles as indeed Aristotle traces our political pedigree to the fact that we are endowed with speech (Politics 1253a). I understand this role in terms of the intellectual role which Edward Said defines as one of “heightening consciousness, becoming aware of tensions, complexities, and taking on oneself responsibility for one’s community” (States of Mind 1995, 39). The reading series can be a powerful platform for realizing and supporting this political role.
I love what people can be in community when it’s at its best–vibrant and sparkling. But community is difficult to foster and it can be risky to enter into. It’s a messy place. Beer will get spilt, cheese will end up on the floor, things will break. It’s a place where we’re vulnerable to bedbugs, lice, the flu, fist fights, and hurt feelings. But still, imperfectly, community is ideally restorative. It can help pull us up from the floor.
Argo Reading Series and Open Mic (monthly, at the Argo)
Atwater Poetry Project (monthly, with a break during the summer months, at Atwater Library)
Poetry Night at Kafein (bi-weekly, at Kafein)
Residual Reading Series (“occasional”, at various places?)
Résonance Reading Series (monthly, at Résonance)
The Pilot Reading Series (last Sunday of every month, during the school year)
The Yellow Door Poetry and Prose Reading (monthly?)
Throw Poetry Collective
And further to the above, Canadian Festival of Spoken Word
Wired on Words (monthly, at Casa)