Saturday, February 10, 2007

Spoken Word in Toronto

Two nights ago I attended the previously mentioned Blog-a-licious event in downtown Toronto. Good fun was had by all and the readings were very entertaining, although I have to admit that I was a little disappointed by the hors d'oeuvre; I mean, given that it was a food-related event, I was expecting something a bit more gourmet than the cocktail weenies and bits of cheese they served. Of course, beggers can't be choosers, and it was free after all so I really can't complain! It's just hard to listen to people describing exquisite food in sparkling prose after having eaten three cocktail weenies and a chunk of orange cheese!

Anyway, the event was held at This 'Aint the Rosedale Library, the best bookstore in Toronto and in the running for Best Worldwide. This isn't just my opinion either- the Guardian recently named them one of the best bookstores in the world, a plug that seems to have helped business for them more than mine probably will! Anyway, the place is a treasure because it's one of those rare bookstores that is heavily involved in the city's literary scene. They have readings, and book launches, and art shows, and events like this all of the time, and I've never seen one that wasn't free. Also the store runs various courses about writing and writers, including the Beats for Beginners class, and even makes sure to hire people who are involved in the local literary scene. It's quite normal to buy a book there and be rung up by a local poet or artist. In fact, I bought a fashion magazine and a copy of Erik Davis's Techgnosis from one of the owners whose artworks are all over the building!

It was nice to return to Toronto from the cultural dead zone of Hamilton. I've missed having things to do aside from walking to the video store every night. Hamilton is more relaxing than Toronto. I don't miss the yuppies, film crews, skyrocketing rents and crowds of Toronto at all. But the cultural delights of Hamilton- both Ronnie's Sports Bar and the store Blades & Things (R.I.P.)- can't really compare to the multicultural stew of Toronto.

One thing I had forgotten was the singular experience of driving in Toronto, which is a bit like navigating a sailboat through an asteroid belt. It's perhaps not possible to explain in the English lanuage how bad the drivers of Toronto are, but I'll try. It's a bit like fencing: Toronto drivers don't switch lanes so much as joust and parry with their cars. While a Manhattan driver will get out their aggression by honking and yelling obscenities at everyone within earshot, the Toronto driver, being Canadian, will very politely attempt to murder you. After having narrowly avoided a QEW driver, who I think wanted to rape my car with his car, I pulled into the city and quickly found a parking spot. One advantage that Toronto has over most big cities is that parking is plentiful. To the victor goes the spoils I suppose.

Anyway, after parking and browsing the bookstore, I wandered upstairs to find a seat. The upstairs area is nicely decorated and warm and seems like the sort of place that would host a fringe religious service. I've been to a few events here and taken one of the courses, and I'm always impressed at how friendly the crowds are. There's nothing snooty about these events. Part of this is due to Charlie Huisken, a genuinely likeable man who usually serves as MC. Charlie moved up to Toronto some decades ago and opened the bookstore over 25 years ago. He's very involved with these events and seemingly knows everything about Canadian literature and the American beats.

This evening he introduced the writers Farzana Doctor and Marusya Bociurkiw who both read. It was interesting to me how much their writing had in common- both were stories that focused on family ties and traditions and how to balance these things with existence as a politically engaged lesbian. They were both postmodern and traditional, cynical and sentimental, witty and serious. Like the best writing, and the best food dishes, they blended the best tastes and spices together without letting any flavor becoming overpowering.

Watching an author read from their work serves as a reminder that writing originally evolved from spoken language, and not vice-versa. There are various inflections, pauses, facial expressions, body language, and imitations that cannot be recreated on paper. Every humorist knows that the jokes that work on paper seldom work live and the best spoken jokes rarely translate well to print. And expert flirters know that the most innocuous words can be made very lewd with the right inflection and posture.

There's something more interactive about live readings too. Authors will often speed up if the crowd is lethargic or slow down for them to hear all of the punchlines if they are responding well. I enjoy listening to a room full of people sighing at an interesting thought or laughing at a well-delivered joke. And the stories were all easy to relate to; we might not all be lesbians from foreign nations, but we all have to deal with family. It occured to me that this is a challenge for everyone and that it has its rewards. Every generation wrestles with the one that came before it and is somewhat unique, but still carries on countless traditions. Many of these traditions have to do with food, so the theme worked well.

It was also interesting to hear blogging read in public. There's something quite solitary about blogging and it's easy to forget that many people do this to be heard. I honestly prefer live readings quite a bit. However, it's interesting to think that this could be literature too.

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