Ed Nixon grabs the mic at Livewords.
“I kinda feel like I got a reading series the way someone would say, ‘Hey, Jess, I’m moving to Montreal. Will you take my cat?’” A seasoned promoter of the Toronto literary community, avid supporter of live readings, and host of Toronto’s Livewords, Edward Nixon recently gave me a run-down of Toronto’s diverse reading culture, its history and its potential. Nixon’s been running a reading series since 2006, but started hosting almost through a fluke.
“In the late summer of 2006, Julie Cameron Gray and Devon Gallant used to run a series called Diamond Cherry in Hillcrest Village. They were also mutual friends of Jim Johnstone. Jim was then publishing and editing Misunderstandings Magazine, which Sachiko Murakami founded with Ian Williams. Julie and Devon were going through some life changes and wanted to get rid of their series, but they didn’t just want it abandoned. Devon called me up and said, ‘Would you consider taking over Diamond Cherry?’ Before I could think about it, about a day or so later, I get this message from Jim Johnstone, saying, ‘Ok, we got the launch for Misunderstandings Magazine ready to go. You’re going to be doing it now!’ All I could say was, ‘Whoops.’”
Despite being a little overwhelmed with his sudden commitment, Nixon threw himself into hosting Diamond Cherry, eventually moving venues to a Queen West location called It’s Not a Deli. There, Diamond Cherry met its end. “Maybe it was a sign because one night in 2007, we got there and the place was boarded up. It had shut down! The show was in an hour, so we moved it to Tequila Bookworm and managed to get a lot of our readers and audience to come with us.” After that, Nixon “put Diamond Cherry to bed” and decided to move forward.
Nixon started Livewords in February 2008. I asked him: why try again? “My commitment to poetry and literature is certainly serious. But also, on the Myers-Briggs scale I’m an ENTP—a.k.a., an extrovert’s extrovert! I find I’m one of the 5% of the population who thinks public speaking is a really good idea. I don’t get nervous about readings, performances or hosting shows. I don’t need to abuse alcohol and drugs before I get in front of a microphone. I also wanted to put my own stamp on it.”
Putting his “own stamp” on a reading series included embracing eclectic programming to instill a sense of community. “I would never say in evaluating work that community comes before ‘quality,’ but I still think community is important in fostering any art form. Sometimes readings and workshops, salons, are some of the few ways people can actually get together. The difference between Livewords and other reading series (and I’d say the difference is somewhat marginal) is that we do mix things up. I run the show pretty much solo, with help from Jim Johnstone and Mark Laliberte and others. It is a personal project, and the fact that it’s varied and eclectic is part of what makes it interesting and engaging, so it isn’t always the same thing. I mean, naturally any reading series has different readers, so it is something different every time.”
Aside from having assistant guest curators and periodically featuring prose writers, Livewords also features launches for magazines like Carousel and Rampike Magazine. Nixon sees this as an integral part of his programming. “It’s a way for newer writers to come in. Established writers often contribute to magazines like Misunderstandings and Carousel, but a lot of newer writers and younger writers often do as well, and [they are] people I wouldn’t always know. It’s nice to work with out-of-town magazines and be their Toronto home. We’re also open to hosting small micropresses, and especially if they are from out of town, too.” In addition to this, Nixon also holds themed nights, like the Livewords Anniversary Show, which features readings from hosts of other reading series in Toronto, and heavily curated nights with four readers and an open mic.
The at once acclaimed and despised ‘open mic’ format is one Nixon believes he has down to a science. “With an open mic, you can’t guarantee quality or interest or engagement, but I think you can run it in such a way that you can make it an interesting experience. By tightly editing it, keeping it short. For instance, at Livewords, we have a very clear rule. It’s one poem and three minutes maximum. If you’ve never been to a reading before or you’re a brand new writer, whether at 20 or 40 or 60, an open mic might be a good place to go.”
On occasion, Nixon also runs themed open mics where readers engage with texts and translations by other authors and sometimes even bring their own translations. This has lead to beautiful surprises, which rarely occur in curated programming.
Nixon has “no aesthetic objection to performative reading,” but does not think a good reading needs to be performative. For young readers or inexperienced readers, he recommends paying attention to diction, clarity, and your audience. “Imagine yourself sitting in a living room reading to a couple of friends. The mic is there to carry your voice. You can be that person in a leather chair reading to a couple of friends. Forget you’re reading and forget yourself.”
What does Edward Nixon think could be improved about the scene? “Funding and recognition. I’d like to see council funding for hosting and coordinating a poetry show. We can get support for the readers, and you can get some money for marketing and paper clips and things, which is good, but you can’t get money to run a series.” The time an organizer puts into running and promoting a series is always on a volunteer basis, something the curator does out of love.
In terms of recognition, he thinks more people could be promoting reading series in publications. “I guess we have a collective responsibility to write about it, don’t we?” According to venues he’s dealt with, live music isn’t pulling out the same size crowds as readings. “So [The Black Swan, Livewords’ venue] programs a lot of poetry and comedy. It’s word-based work. They can’t, unless it’s a really well-known band, pull out a crowd. But nobody knows about this.” People who are not part of the literary scene seem to enjoy readings when they come across them, but exposure to these sorts of events is limited when you are coming in “from the outside.” Nixon believes more comprehensive coverage of these events may help increase the already thriving popularity of readings—a response to “the hunger for face-to-face, being present and in person for art.”
Livewords is composed of mostly curated material, but if you are interested in participating, attend a show, read at Livewords’ open mic, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The next Livewords show will include an open mic and feature Jeramy Dodds, Jim Johnstone, and Ian Williams on July 4th at The Black Swan.