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Hold on, little guy!—as Ryan Pratt explains, the Hamilton and St. Catharines literary scenes offer a better method of getting out of your shell.

You know that quiet individual who grabs a seat in the back row and engages in temporary tunnel vision with his phone until someone approaches the mic? Nice to meet you, I’m sorry. It was in the Niagara Artists Center that I first grew complicit as an outcast, attending only three of the Grey Borders Reading Series events, which run monthly through the fall and winter. (That’s three appearances out of a possible nine, mind you; a statistic that says as much about my inflexible evening hours as it does the enduring heart of St Catharines’ poetry scene.)

Although infrequent, Grey Borders draws formidable talents, often enmeshing nationally or internationally known writers alongside up-and-coming voices from around Niagara. (Hats off to curators Eric Schmaltz and Craig Dodman for bringing that much-needed dose of culture downtown.) I experienced bill bissett in his chanting, shaker-shaking glory as well as visits by Brooklyn’s Steven Zultanski, Toronto’s Beatriz Hausner and Ottawa’s Pearl Pirie. It was through Grey Borders that I became acutely aware of St Catharines’s potential as a geographical nexus between literary hotspots.

Yet none of these revelations prevented me from slipping wordlessly outside as the applause died down, remembering a classic rock verse my father chanted like gospel. “People are strange, when you’re a stranger,” became something of a mantra as I moved fifty kilometers along Lake Ontario and anticipated my first literary event as a Hamiltonian.

Hamilton’s Lit Live is similar to Grey Borders, although the larger size of its community enables a rotating cast of guest MCs, not to mention cooperation with the city’s wider cast of literary supporters. That grassroots style camaraderie was evident as soon as I entered Homegrown Hamilton, the fair trade coffee shop that proudly hosts this monthly reading series. With its exposed brick walls, built-in stage, and abundant seating, Homegrown’s relaxed vibes were matched only by its inclusive appeal. Unlike the Niagara Artists Centre—which, in its defense, persists from inside a bubble—this place didn’t feel like the site of a secret meeting. Individuals came in to listen throughout the night, whispering drink orders and gathering in the dark, stand-only space across from the counter. There wasn’t time for me to be an awkward newbie; I was lucky just to get a seat.

So when author (and MC for the evening) Chris Pannell stated, “We may be few, but we’re a happy few,” I nearly fell out of my chair. Indeed, a blizzard had prevented two scheduled readers (and who knows how many onlookers) from making the trip, but I hardly saw the forty or so in attendance as “few”! After Jane Silcott read a soothing selection from Everything Rustles and Alexander Dolinin offered a glimpse of Stalin’s gulag through his historical fiction Against Destiny, Pannell dropped another surprise on me: special announcements! You mean, this isn’t it? As intermission commenced with conversation and the refilling of drinks, Pannell read a series of reminders about other, upcoming events: Janet Turpin Myers on the 14th… something about Hamilton Literary Award Nominations… Paul Vermeersch on the 23rd—I scribbled along in a daze.

The evening concluded with Gregory Betts’s This Is Importance, a collection of strikingly worded but hilarious phrases collected from his undergrads’ essays, and Jason Dickson’s The Hunt, a haunting, older title he chose to complement the snowy conditions outside. Unlike the self-conscious quiet that tempers many readings, Lit Live’s generous space and diverse crowd encouraged a boisterous atmosphere, which was audible in the laughs that greeted Dolinin’s wry dialogue as well as the shouts that had Betts flipping joyfully from one misunderstood subject to the next.

Nine days on, I’m sitting at a long table in Hamilton’s central library listening to Janet Turpin Myers discuss alchemy, serendipity, and writing from hypnagogic states. It’s heavy, mind-expanding stuff curated by LitChat. Ten people complete our circle, occupying a corner of the massive auditorium, and discuss the happy accidents that further our creative practices. And in an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The Last Year of Confusion, Myers shares a segment in which two seemingly incompatible but lifelong friends—an atheist and a Hindu—retreat to the woods in search of a “resonating nexus,” someplace where they can weigh the heaviest of existential questions. I shake hands, exchange first names and feel my nomadic, outsider shell crack open. This might be the place.

The Lit Live Reading Series will continue on March 2nd. Check http://litlive.blogspot.ca/ for details.

LitChat will continue on March 11th. Check http://litchat-hamilton.blogspot.ca/ for details.

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