By Lorrette C. Thiessen
Oozing underneath the economy,
Poetry is alive in Toronto.
It is hidden in coffee houses.
It is hidden in second-hand book stores.
It is underground,
Vibrant and brilliant.
For those comrades who are searching, come with me.
What the Dickens is a bookstore on Gerard Street just west of Church. You can grab a coffee or muffin while you browse the terrific selection of odes, rhymes and sonnets.
The turnout at the bookstore’s first poetry reading is modest and warm. Robert Stacey reads a dozen of his poems. One is a brilliant piece about his doctor wife giving him a tetanus shot at home while he is trying to watch The Simpsons — something that could happen only to one person — him. Such specific details are the threads that hold his tapestry of images together.
Stacey is working on his PhD in literature and is a teaching assistant in contemporary literature at York University. He won a few writing awards at McGill University but lost his passions after being rejected by a few Canadian poetry journals and distracted by a busy teaching schedule. “It was frustrating because I wanted very much to be writing,” says Stacey. “But you can’t create ideas where there are none.”
Aha! Sound familiar, poets? The disease we all suffer from time to time, deadly yet real. I can’t risk naming this malaise, as the term is cliché, and clichés have no place in writing. But we can wink at each other for moral support in times of W_______ B____.
Luckily, the creative drought always ends, just as we poets think we’re getting on with our economic lives.
Stacey’s prolific selection is faintly reminiscent of the candor of Canadian poet Leonard Cohen. Stacey says Cohen inspires him. “Not because he’s the best writer of all time — in some ways he is quite mediocre — but because he is just bad enough to make you want to write yourself.”
Dimitri Kousis is reading nearby at the Art Bar series at the Imperial Public Library on Dundas Street just west of Bond. In his silver shirt and striped Adidas pants, Kousis is the only poet dressed for a rave.
“I’ve heard of Leonard Cohen,” he says, shaking his head at other possible influences I name. Kousis write the infamous House Nation club column for RHIG, a Toronto music magazine. He secretly writes poetry, too, and occasionally reads at open-mic nights. He admits some shame for being poorly read in his art. “Sorry, but I’m a Scorpio,” he explains. “Most of my energy in the past was spent coming out of the closet — that means clubs, parties, the underground — but I was always writing.”
Kousis stands in front of the mic. “I’m a nervous wreck,” he tells the audience before launching into a surprisingly multilayered piece about weakness and settling for second best in relationships. Afterwards, he sighs, “I read this poem to someone at work today and they told me it was mediocre.”
I tell him truthfully that his was moving but it doesn’t matter. If Leonard Cohen can be mediocre…
“I feel poetry is very much cutting against the grain,” says Pierre L’Abbe who runs the Art Bar series and is also the author of a poetry collection entitled Lyon. “Poetry has always been a subculture. It can be socially dynamic and question all sorts of conventions.”
Economic conventions are not the least among these. Writer Ailsa Craig stresses the importance of poetry readings like Art Bar. “In the absence of arts findings, readings are a fundamental necessity,” says Craig. “You have to get some support for your work, financially or at least emotionally. This is where you will meet those peers.”
Even though Craig’s work has been anthologized and printed in many journals, she admits that it’s hard to get published.
But poetry has always been about love, not money. The last time I spoke with my favourite poet, Raymond Souster, he gave me the following advice: “You have to temper your idea of fame with the chance you might not make it,” he warned. “Just take pleasure in writing for yourself and in what you write. The rest is gravy.”
Souster, whose poetry appears in almost every anthology of Canadian literature, is responsible for setting up a large part of Canada’s poetry scene. He helped create the League of Canadian Poets as well as mimeographed journals like Contact, one of Canada’s first “zines.” He also established one of the first poetry houses in Toronto during the late ‘50s.
Souster had friends who committed suicide because they wanted something from poetry that does not belong to the art — fame and fortune. “They didn’t have it in perspective,” he says. “Take [poetry] for what it gives you and be content.”
Writers like me who haunt bars and coffee shops with notebooks are not looking for an illusory future. My poetry has been published in everything from Phlegm, an American punk zine, to Fiddlehead, the most respected literary journal in Canada. Still no one knows my name. It’s the old adage, I do it because I have to.
Christian (just Christian, no last name) has been hosting the Orgasmic Alphabet Orgy on Tuesday nights at Queen Street’s Gladstone Hotel. It is a place where creativity blossoms despite the fact that the grease, booze and thick cigarette smoke make me feel like I’m in a truck stop somewhere in the States. When asked why he puts so much energy into poetry, he brushes the sandy hair from his eyes and says, “For me, I do this for the same reason that dogs piss on fire hydrants.”
So there it is.