Where is the Prose of the Trans-Scarberian?
Toronto is a privileged place to write poetry in Canada. It’s not cheap to live here, the national publishing houses don’t particularly care about all of the poets around, and in the digital age, an unknown Canadian in Burnt Church likely has an equal shot at publishing with Coach House as one in the Annex. Toronto, however, offers the value of social capital (which is a nice way of saying cronyism), as well as bigger pools for live audiences. But not all neighbourhoods are equal in the arts world.
This past spring saw the launch of the Toronto Public Library’s Toronto Poetry Map as part of George Elliott Clarke’s tenure as the city’s poet laureate. The map features clickable blue bubbles that reveal quotes from poems that are relevant to the geographic location, whether it’s the DVP or Union Station. The Toronto Poetry Map is in a protean stage, and anyone can contact the TPL with suggested additions on the condition that the poetry has been published in a book or a magazine. The contact page even comes with this quote from Corrado Paina: “we are unfinished humans / in an unfinished city.” As long as people still write and discover poems about Toronto, this map will never be finished.
It should come as no surprise, though, that most of these quotes can be found in the old city of Toronto, the central borough at the heart of an agglomerated city that includes five other ex-political entities. Outside of this central area there are huge zones of urban territory dotted sparsely with outlying verse at suburban nodes. Even within the city, those circles of poetry are bigger and more numerous in the west end.
There are plenty of reasons to explain this concentration of poetry. Old Toronto is the oldest and most populous part of the city (though North York and Scarborough are independently quite close to it in population). The central areas of any city are usually more richly represented in literature. Downtowns are symbolic territories. Thanks to tourists and commuters, there are millions of people experiencing the space, though they do not live there. This map of Toronto comparing the geo-tags of online photos shared by both tourists and locals produces a fairly similar pattern to the Toronto Poetry Map. Besides a few outer nodes and corridors, locals and tourists alike are more interested in central geographies.
The Toronto Poetry Map is also a very early work in progress. Between curation and user-generation, the map will fill out, not only in the downtown core but in the former municipalities, too. When it does, I think it’s reasonable to expect the pattern that already exists to continue.
The more far-flung submissions on the map now come from Corrado Paina (Jane and Finch, Markham and Ellesmere), Jacob McArthur Mooney (YYZ, Finch and the 427), Margaret Avison (Markham and Ellesmere), Rocco de Giacomo (Yonge and Finch), Lois Lorimer (Hav-A-Nap-Motel), Michael Lista (Hav-A-Nap Motel, Guildwood GO), and a handful of others.
What’s especially fascinating is the content of these poetic quotations. Corrado Paina’s poem recommends, “confine the mayor over there / 3 months a year / in distant Scarborough / and three months a year at Jane and Finch.” It’s a poem written before Rob Ford’s mayoralty brought the outer boroughs to political prominence, published in 2008 during David Miller’s transit-friendly, downtown-oriented tenure. It points to the pressing need to recognize inequality (whether that’s income, housing, transit, or policing inequality) in the often-neglected outer boroughs, a need that Ford exploited without satisfying. In a poem from The Scarborough, Michael Lista writes, “Park in the Guildwood GO lot and get stoned. / Who’s there? Nay, answer me. Stand.” Lista’s Scarborough plays to its white suburban image, an image that may still be accurate today in some places though it is increasingly challenged by new demographics and narratives. Lois Lorimer’s “Stripmall Subversive” dwells in Scarborough’s darker reputation for crime, especially on the stretch of Kingston Road where motels have become ad-hoc emergency housing: “when yellow tape’s stretched across the Hav-A-Sleep Motel, a girl is dead, and all that remains is police work.” Besides the Hav-A-Nap Motel (Lorimer’s Hav-A-Sleep), Pizza Pizza is the only other business that gets name-dropped on this map of Scarborough.
City Councillor Norm Kelly once complained that while Toronto media outlets typically locate violent crimes by major intersections, violent crime in Scarborough is categorized by the borough’s name. The borough’s poetic representation on the map is not particularly subversive to this mainstream image of a sometimes-dangerous, sometimes-boring and uncultured Scarberia.
In an Inside Toronto article, Lois Lorimer noted the absence of Scarborough poets, and said that many of the people writing about Scarborough may not be traditionally published. The poets living in the city’s periphery may also be on the periphery of its literary world.
On the subject of literature of the suburbs, scholar Paul Milton wrote: “Nothing … of any consequence ever really happens on a crescent. These are the sites of complacent banality, of the here and now, of everydayness. Art is about the there and then. Excitement takes place elsewhere.”
There are plenty of crescents in Scarborough and the other boroughs, but their strip malls and plazas offer the same structure of public and commercial space that crystallizes the city in the poetry of downtown. A quick glance at the quotes from downtown reveal references to the cafés on College Street, Honest Ed’s, department stores, grocery-laden sidewalks in Kensington and Chinatown, and parks like Trinity-Bellwoods. Scarborough and Etobicoke may lack the iconic, symbol-rich structures of Queen’s Park or Union Station, but they are rich in the more common kind of public spaces, spaces that are shared and recognizable. These are places where people meet and things happen. The difference between Pizza Pizza and John’s Italian, or Honest Ed’s and the Hav-A-Nap Motel, often comes down to a downtown romanticism that valourizes its own public spaces while shitting on more distant equivalents.
The Toronto Poetry Map will be an illuminating project once it fills out. It already shows some of the sites that are most prominent in the Toronto imagination: Union Station, High Park, CAMH, the Bloor Viaduct. But there are also poems in which Finch Station and Mimico Creek have left deeper impressions than the parks and towers downtown. As much as I’m excited to find so many poems that show familiar streets and landmarks through other eyes, the Toronto Poetry Map may prove even more valuable as a guide to different visions of a city that only barely overlap.