Live poets’ society: writers take their rhymes on the road

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“What’s it take to get a little notice when you’re a Canadian poet?” asks Vancouver’s Michael V. Smith on his website. Faced with low sales, threats to government funding and a lack of interest even among the fiercest supporters of CanLit, Smith and other poets across Canada are extending their creativity beyond their work to get people to pay attention.

For Smith, whose writing often touches on sexuality, getting creative has meant holding a reading in a Vancouver sex shop and using improv comedy and videos to keep his events entertaining. “I think it’s important to celebrate the moment but not to get lost in the preciousness of the work. I think you have to enjoy yourself,” he explains. He has also toured his work across BC and Ontario, cramming himself and two other poets into a car for a series of readings in different cities–something most poets don’t bother with.

A counterpart to Smith’s 5pt Tours is the highly successful Perpetual Motion Roadshow, founded by Toronto novelist Jim Munroe. Since 2003, PMR has been successfully stuffing poets, novelists, musicians and visual artists into vans and driving to events in seven North American cities over eight days, offering the guarantee of “No boring readings or your money back!”

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And it appears that engineering entertaining events that extend beyond the poetry-only lineup is catching on.

Since 2004, poet and editor Damian Rogers has been putting on Pontiac Quarterly at the Drake Hotel in Toronto. “I’d wanted to start a literary magazine for a while and I enjoy the ephemeral and charged atmosphere of performance, so it suddenly occurred to me to try to combine them,” says Rogers, who regularly invites poets to read their work alongside journalists, dancers, musicians and visual artists. The close proximity of all these genres and different sorts of performance gives PQ a unique chaotic energy and draws a larger crowd than a standard poetry reading would.

If the goal of Perpetual Motion Roadshow and Pontiac Quarterly is to bring poetry into the fold with other genres of performance, then Toronto’s 14-year-old Scream Literary Festival has worked hard to spread poetry out into everyday life. It’s had success in recent years hosting dinners inspired by and featuring readings of full-length works by poets like Dionne Brand and Christian Bok–this year’s fest pairs Paris-based poet Lisa Robertson with a meal of French food.

The organizers of Scream have also infused poetry into a literary walking tour of the Annex and substituted the previews before screenings at a local cinema with poetry readings–both initiatives are part of the fest’s informal mandate to place poetry in unexpected places.

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“We try to demonstrate that poetry exists and thrives all day every day, throughout the country, not just in proscribed, scheduled chunks,” explains Scream’s Mark Higgins.

Similarly, the organizers of Random Acts of Poetry (a made-in-Canada event that’s now spread to the UK and Ireland) have found it’s more effective to take poetry to the people than wait for people to pick up their books or come to readings. Once a year, participating poets read poems to people in public places and then give the person a copy of the book that includes the poem.

“We can, and should, break out a poem any time, anywhere,” says participating poet Lorri Glenn Neilsen. “Poetry itself is a random act–of celebration, insight, wonder, compassion, mourning. I’ll take a poem with my coffee any day.”