Saturday, September 27, 2014

Redacted: notes on an open mic reading


As far as I know, Hamilton does not have an exclusively literary open mic night. There are sign-up slam competitions, amateur comedy sets and even an anything-goes Thursday night podium at Homegrown Hamilton, but no public means for writers (young or old, masters or novices) to try out new material for a committed audience. This absence, in a city otherwise blessed with talented writers and selfless volunteers, seems temporary, a glitch just waiting to be fixed. I’ve even heard some established authors mull over the promise and challenges of putting together a sustainable open mic night. My position was one of why not until a reading this summer in Toronto, where I saw those challenges personified in the open mic portion of a reading at XXXX. Now, I understand my colleagues' trepidation. Now it's more a question of how.

Firstly, I should note that said venue was packed: several rows of occupied chairs all the way back to sofas that lined the gallery walls, with many people crowded next to the refreshments area. The space was small, which made the collective energy all the better. Comedian/writer Shane Murphy and I missed the first forty or so minutes, intentionally I’ll admit, and walked in at the beginning of XXXX’s set under the assumption that open mic period was over. But the order of readers for the evening, always something of a mystery, proved quite telling: the two featured readers, XXXX and XXXX, were sandwiched in the middle of two open mic stretches.

I balked at this, anticipating that half of the audience would bail as soon as XXXX wrapped his set. And sure enough, a number of seats were vacated once the two headliners had finished. But I don’t blame the organizers or those who left. I can't even blame the open mic readers, many of whom also took off once their five minutes were up. Shane and I stuck around (as did XXXX, in a show of respect) for an experience that helped me better understand just how perilous open mic can be.

Now far be it from me to tell anyone what poetry should be – all participants were in their rights to read anything they wanted – but, as an audience member, I can critique that when the material suffered, it wasn't due to creative dullness but a lack of personal awareness. For every poet who shared narratives of humour, hard-fought clarity or compassion, I reckon there were three trying to get monkeys off of their backs. Yes, the arts can bring personal or political strife into an inventive and meaningful conversation, but that conversation acknowledges a second party – in this case the audience. Many participants seemed unaware of this engagement, using the opportunity to air grievances about the Middle East, men and other suspicious generalities. When a reading lacked subtlety, there was an enormous imprint where it could have been, trampled over by venomous f-bombs and acoustic guitar abuse. Even if the unwieldy emotions on display were measured as a quality of performance, the work itself neglected listeners’ imaginations in order to satisfy personal itches. Polarizing can be progressive, I kept reminding myself, but there was little to interpret with any rose-tinted reaching. 

I know how judgmental my criticisms sound but reflect on them openly anyway, hoping to pinpoint what felt so abusive about being on the receiving end of some readers' emotions. I'm not assessing this one, isolated open mic event to determine should such an event exist in Hamilton but on the more practical grounds of who would attend it. I mean, more than once. I’m grateful to XXXX, host XXXX, the XXXX team and yes, the participants for putting together such a memorable night. But “memorable” doesn’t mean I remember a lot of it fondly. 

I wonder if Hamilton can do better. However tantalizing the idea is of assembling an unpredictable line-up of diverse voices and taking the ride, I now see how a screening process helps to establish an artistic benchmark. (The term “screening process” sounds monstrous, like the first blind step toward segregation, but bear in mind: as an unknown writer with no book publications to his name and only a handful of reading engagements to speak of, I would be buzzing about the screen as well.) And maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe being solicited, having to adhere to a predetermined theme for each event or auditioning your text in advance instills that micro-sized awareness of decorum. There’s room for subversion, depravity and strong opinions but it has to serve literature before ego. Otherwise the line separating open mic from group therapy tends to blur. 

Stepping into the light rain, Shane and I struggled to hurdle separate poles of awe; our minds buzzed from the magnetic featured readers but our jaws slack, almost shell-shocked, from the open mic wilderness. While exchanging highlights and moments of exasperation, we all but forgot the real unknown talents, those several poets that represented themselves and their crafts well but had no stature in such a chaotic arena. That's the group of writers an open mic in Hamilton should give voice to! 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Upcoming: YOW! A Zine About Ottawa

The poster that got people talking... (Photo credit: Lily Pepper)

When word started spreading about Lily Pepper’s upcoming YOW! A Zine About Ottawa, I felt like handpicking a chapbook-sized manuscript of poems for her. Then I restrained myself and sent two, one of which – “Monday night at Georgetown Pub” – will be included in the inaugural issue. I'm happy to be involved and grateful the zine gave me a push, as "Monday night at Georgetown Pub" had been in an unfinished state since 2011!

Until YOW! launches, bide your time with the rather impressive range of attention (both grassroots and media-wise) that Lily has been garnering: her call for submissions in Metro News, another in the always trusty Apt 613 and, finally, her interview on CBC Radio.

Update 09/27/14: YOW! will launch Sunday, October 19 at Pressed (750 Gladstone Ave). Check the Facebook invite for full details. There will be readings from contributors, although I'm unlikely to attend. The problem with inviting me to Ottawa, especially in October, is that I wouldn't ever leave.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Curious links for September 2014...

1) Lit Live, Hamilton's foremost reading series, is preparing to kick-off its 2014/2015 season on Sunday, September 7th at Homegrown Hamilton. Details are here. Those of you living in Toronto, Niagara or other southern Ontario locales might like to plan a day-trip some Sunday soon, as the full line-up promises to bring writers from all over Canada. I followed the second half of last year’s series and wrote about it here, here and here.

2) 49th Shelf has compiled a “Most Anticipated” list of poetry books that will hit shelves in September and October. It features new titles by the likes of Ken Babstock, Clare Caldwell, Nelson Ball, Laura Farina, and so many more. (For some Lit Live crossover anticipation, it also includes forthcoming books by John Terpstra and Ellen Jaffe!)

3) Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley is writer-in-residence at Open Book Toronto for the month of September, and already it's mesmerizing. In her first two posts, entitled "Hello, My Name is Diane", Ridley details her relationship with anxiety and how it has shaped her performances and social life. As someone who occasionally shames his own intense anxiety (hence the impetus for my outsider status), I find it downright exciting to read Ridley’s brave accounts of actions and thought-patterns that casual onlookers might see as flighty or distracted. Bringing awareness to mental health is as important in the writing community as anywhere else, so the more sharp and observant voices, the better.

4) I have several Puritan related hi-jinx to share in the space of a paragraph. Besides releasing their crazy-big Summer Issue and counting down the days until the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize deadline (September 23rd), most Puritan writers are hard at work on their own essays, interviews and projects. Caryn Cathcart interviewed The Darcys’ bassist Dave Hurlow for his first collection of short stories, Hate Letters From Buddhists. Jess Taylor wrote a stunning essay on the state of Toronto’s literary union. And Phoebe Wang will bring her micropress workshop back to Artscape Youngplace for a second run beginning September 24th.

5) Chaudiere Books’ Indiegogo campaign might end in two weeks but not before rob mclennan and Christine McNair dish up an assortment of new, tantalizing perks! Late-breaking collectibles include signed, out-of-print Stephanie Bolster books and rare, complete runs of STANZAS magazine (1993-2006). As further incentive to support this revived press, we're getting fresh hints about future releases such as The Complete Poems of William Hawkins, edited by Cameron Anstee, and Chris Turnbull’s Continua. As of post-time, Chaudiere's within $1000 of their goal; let’s help get them through the homestretch