non-fiction by Nicole Brewer
Not too long ago, the hashtag-CanLit community was publicly saddened by the news that Art Bar, Canada’s longest running poetry-only reading series, would be having its last ever show this summer, not long after its 25th anniversary. I am also saddened by this, but it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. From what I can gather—from gossip—from people longer-involved than I, Art Bar has been struggling for a while: with turnout, with publicity, with readers, even with their own organizing committee. This is bound to happen, of course. Everything struggles. words(on)pages struggles, and we’re not even two yet; Art Bar lasted over two decades.
But first: I don’t know much. I’ve only been seriously invested in Toronto’s literary community for about three years, and I’m still learning more every day. I’m unfamiliar with a lot of history, legacy, and tradition in Toronto’s community and beyond. I’m not even from Toronto—not even from Ontario. I’m 100% certain that I’m missing a lot of information, but that’s why this isn’t about what I don’t know. This is about what I think based on what I do know.
Art Bar was the very first reading series I ever went to, at Q Space in the summer of 2013. I went every week for an entire summer—I left angry, I left inspired, I left excited, I left bored, I left, I came back. I did the open mic every single week—I, like many other people, first read my poetry out loud at Art Bar’s open mic. When I tell people this (that I went to Art Bar every week for a whole summer) something akin to a horrified admiration washes over their faces.
“I didn’t know about anything else to go to.”
Art Bar was really good to me, a nervous new poet with the impression I had something good to say. It was where I got booked for my first feature set—certainly the first time I got paid to do anything related to my writing. At those weekly shows, I encountered slam poetry, spoken word, and sound poetry amidst page poetry—each week, without fail, there was at least one grating poet-voice reader. I met Sue Goyette and Kate Cayley and Myna Wallin and Jacob Mooney, to name a few, and they were great and they were kind and they were inspirational. I enjoyed dozens of readings, bought dozens of books.
That is to say, it was good.
Art Bar’s flaws were quickly apparent, but until I found other readings series and shows, I didn’t know there was an alternative or a solution. There’s a bit of a vacuum around Art Bar—a vacuum within the Canadian poetry vacuum, I mean. Publicly, Art Bar was praised for what it was: the longest-running poetry-only series in Canada, a paying venue for readers, a weekly reading series, a large open mic. Right until the very end, they remain one of the only series open to booking essentially unknown poets. But privately—and, more important, actively—the series became the kid we shoved in a locker after cheating off their test. Behind its back, we teased it for being out of touch. We largely ignored it, until it became useful to us again: and even then, readers seemed to attend almost grudgingly, doing the bare minimum required to promote a new book and get a little paycheque.
I am learning more and more about what I’m calling the “old white poetry circuit” in Toronto. It’s made up of poets and organizations that did a lot of great work for poetry in Canada—they made money from poetry, they made a difference with poetry, they made a community out of poetry. And my impression is that they have largely failed to adapt to the mostly moneyless, thankless thing that Canadian poetry has become since then. 25 years ago, Art Bar was created by and for this old white poetry circuit, playing an important role in the community, but 25 years later it failed to adapt. In a newly-saturated literary scene, audiences dwindled, readers left early, and the Art Bar steeped in a mutually apathetic slump: without a conscious and active effort on Art Bar’s part to interact with new reading series and arts organizations, the community started to bypass the series; without a full and engaged audience, Art Bar perhaps couldn’t find the motivation to make necessary changes to stay relevant.
Can you imagine trying to effectively curate a relevant weekly reading series? With three readers a night, that’s about 150 readers per year. Even for a committee, just booking a series of that magnitude has to be an unbelievable amount of work. So no, it’s not surprising that Art Bar is closing down. But when we are publicly saddened by the news, what are we sad about? What are you sad about? Because it doesn’t seem fair to be sad about the closure when you’d probably struggle to remember the last time you went to an Art Bar show. I’m pretty sure the last one I went to was in January. Before that, who knows?
I’m saddened not for the end of an era (because it’s not an era I was a part of anyway), but for the fact that they chose closure over revival. I am younger than Art Bar; I am full of stupid ideas; I am a reckless optimist. Still, my number one bone to pick with the old white poetry circuit is the apparent apathy towards revival. It’s not everyone, obviously. I don’t even know if it’s most people. But it seems to me that right now, in March 2016, there are more than enough people out there, more than enough tools at our disposal, to reclaim and revive just about anything. Of course you can close something down at any time for any reason, but things don’t get to celebrate 30- or 40- or 50-year anniversaries by stagnating.
I don’t want to dismiss legacy. I don’t want to disrespect or forget a generation of people who established a lot of what Toronto’s current literary landscape draws inspiration from—even if only to become its antithesis. But it goes both ways, doesn’t it? The old white poetry circuit and all of its various establishments—Art Bar included—can’t expect a new generation of poetry to get right on board with what they set up. As frustrated as I am by the seemingly empty sentimentality around Art Bar’s closure, the series could hardly expect to continue drawing full and engaged audiences by doing the same thing year after year. Especially now, when yearly improvements and revisions are essential to any organization’s growth and success.
It’s nobody’s fault that Art Bar is closing. And the loss of one reading series is not much of a loss, now, with dozens of readings to choose from every month. But this closure does represent the end of something more, and if all we do is publicly mourn it while privately remaining unsurprised, I think we’ll find it difficult to create a community that grows—and lasts. So let’s talk about it. I want to encourage more actual discussion about what our community has to offer: what’s working, what isn’t, and why? Because what’s the point of continuing to exist in this vacuum? For people who so love to share our words, thoughts, and feelings, it seems to me we spend a great deal of time in silence.