Day 1, Toronto: Howl Radio and the Art Bar

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(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.)

This tour first started coming together back in February, when by great good luck a work trip happened to coincide with the Art Bar‘s Discovery Night, an annual event where Canada’s longest-running weekly poetry series hunts out new talent, and by even greater luck I ended up winning (the first time an international poet has scooped the prize), which landed me an invitation to come back in the Autumn. I’ve built this tour off the back of that, which I’m so grateful for. Mostly poetry success is built on graft, but sometimes a delicious fluke can snowball into something wonderful. Anyway, it’s great to start in Toronto, which is going to be my home base for the next fortnight-and-a-bit.

I met with Nancy Bullis, who has run Discovery Night since 1999, for an interview with the regular poetry show Howl on CIUT, Ontario’s biggest community radio station. (That interview will air at 10pm Eastern Time on 23rd September, and it’ll be available online on their website and then here afterwards.) We also chatted with Ken Stowar, who runs CIUT.

Howl, said Nancy, is trying to represent as many kinds of poetry as possible — poetry from the publishing scene in Canda, experimental poetry, spoken word and slam, everything. We’d talked about the problem of policed divides in poetry communities, especially between publishing and the slam circuit — something I’m increasingly proud of Scotland’s scene for working to productively bridge — and about how something like Howl can bring different folk together. Nancy told me about when technical troubles had taken Howl off the air for a week, and how poets from all sorts of different events had asked after the show.

Ken’s really passionate about the power of radio, too: “It’s the most unlimited medium,” he said, “But it’s not truly used to its full potential, including for poetry.” I’ve been part of a lot of conversations bemoaning BBC Radio’s weak engagement with poetry (both written and spoken); wouldn’t it be great if we could follow CIUT’s lead and make poetry radio of our own in Scotland? The SPL has laid a trail for this, as did the Scottish season on Indiefeed Performance Poetry: let’s do more!

Toronto was by far the easiest city for me to programme in my tour: there was more information online, events were quicker to respond to emails, and there was a willingness to bring in touring poets. I asked both Ken and Nancy why that was. Ken thought that it might be to do with Toronto increasingly marketing itself as a destination, but Nancy added that Canada’s culture of touring poets might be a big part of it: events are used to people traveling from out of town, and looking for that kind of cross-pollination. We’re getting a lot better at (and getting better funding to) bring touring poets to Scottish events, but I really want to see more happening in the other direction: more Scottish poets, especially spoken word acts, touring the UK and beyond. You learn so much when you tour: it makes your own work better, and you pick up new ideas and see new styles, so it’s crucial to a diverse scene.

That night I headed along to the Art Bar for my feature and the first gig of the tour. The Art Bar is a really well-established Toronto night, with good funding support for poets. It’s focussed at the more literary/publishing end of the scene, but features slam-style acts too, and has regular open mics, so it’s a great community event. Sharing the bill with me were David B. Goldstein,  based in Toronto, and Tammy Armstrong, who’d driven hundreds of miles from a tiny lobster town in Nova Scotia — both great poets.

I chatted with Stephen Humphrey, one of the event organisers, and Valentino Assenza, former Toronto Poetry Slam Team member, who hosted the night. We talked about how important open mics are to this kind of project — “A lot of nights are totally against them,” Stephen said, “But they’re a big part of what we do and they build a community of people coming to support events.” I love events like Art Bar that mix up a diverse open mic with professional feature acts, where everyone’s supporting each other. I was really glad to see a funded night keeping that at its heart, too.

Part of what I’m doing with this tour is trying out work in Scots to international audiences — sometimes I get frustrated with how little Scots gets beyond our borders, and I want to find ways of making it accessible to and enjoyable for non-speakers. So I mixed up English and Scots material in the set. I had some great conversations with people afterwards — a lot of people had found it hard to follow all the language, but spoke about enjoying the music and sounds of it too; there was a real interest in linguistic diversity and what that means for poetry; and of course everyone wanted to talk about the referendum. I tried performing a piece in Scots and then in English, which seemed to work well, but I also tried pieces without translation, which worked best with the funnier or more high energy stuff. I’d love to find ways that didn’t just involved giving people the English afterwards. Poetry with surtitles? Explaining words in the middle? (That works sometimes as a funny aside.) How can we make Scots have more reach? What interest can international audiences find in it? How do we perform ourselves overseas? I’m looking forward to finding out what happens at different nights.

Next up, New York!

Wednesday 10th: Nuyorican Wednesday Slam, New York
Friday 12th: Nuyorican Friday Slam / Open House, New York
Monday 15th: Readings at the Common, Toronto
Tuesday 16th: Boneshaker, Toronto
Wednesday 17th, Articulated Noise, Toronto
Thursday 18th: Burlington Poetry Slam
Friday 19th: London Poetry Slam
Saturday 20th: Guelph Poetry Slam
Sunday 21st: Words and Music, Montreal
Monday 22nd: The Poet in New York, The Bowery

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