The Feline Friendly MTL Lit Night

The diary entry is the newly trending genre among Montreal’s young English-language writers. Three of micro-press Metatron’s authors opened Montreal Lit Night on July 3rd at The Ossington, an event that counted a great number of Torontonians among its audience members. All three had one thing in common: they wrote semi-autobiographical poems and stories about ordinary events.

The first four readers, Jay Winston Ritchie, Ashley Opheim, Roland Pemberton, and Guillaume Morissette were launching their first or second literary efforts. For Mike Spry, it was the Toronto launch of his third, Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible), while Jon Paul Fiorentino read from I’m Not Scared of You or Anything (Anvil), his ninth book to date.

The combination of new and veteran writers was a wise one. The younger readers had a penchant for pushing the audience’s patience, although in this matter, Broken Pencil host Alison Lang might be to blame for skipping Torontonians’ cherished mid-reading break to refill their drinks. I noticed that even some of the readers couldn’t resist slipping out of The Ossington’s back room and into the bar.

Jay Winston Ritchie opened the night, reading from his short story collection, Something You Were, Might Have Been, Or Have Come to Represent. It was a solid opening, the selected reading was the right length, and he got the crowd laughing early as he read a story whose protagonist spent much of a pot luck party worrying about what his flavoured hummus said about him. He hit a strong note describing one of Montreal’s doomsday-like snow squalls on a familiar 10:45 beer run (the convenience stores [or dépaneurs] stop selling beer at 11), but finished flatly when he read the line, “Art imitating life … No. Life imitating art.”

Ashley Opheim followed with “Our Love Will Be Like WiFi,” a love poem for the twenty-tens. At first it was hard to tell whether Ashley Opheim’s delivery was a parody or uncomfortably sincere, although three quarters through her poem the audience started laughing. Maybe it was lost in translation for a Toronto crowd that didn’t know what to expect from Opheim. Her satirical strain seemed almost cruel in the way it targeted open-mic amateurs. However, Opheim’s poem was more of a dig at contemporary relationships and lifestyles, culminating in the decade’s ultimate expression of affection: “I want to share a vegan gluten-free pizza with you.”

Guillaume Morisette

Guillaume Morisette with Animal Companion in tow

As Morissette and Roland Pemberton took the stage to describe their amorous encounters in Plateau-Mile End they kept up a comedic strain. Morissette’s reading was an excerpt from his novel New Tab, where his anxiety over an ambiguous relationship with a girl eases when she overdoses on MDMA and they joke around with each other in the hospital bed.

Pemberton’s Magnetic Days takes us through a perfect day that roams from a Mile End basketball court to a Chinese take-out restaurant and a park in St-Henri. It was an urban idyll, an anomaly in a usually hostile world where the owner of the Chinese restaurant treats his customers with disdain on a good day and refuses to serve them on bad ones.

The danger of the semi-autobiographical genre is that it can sometimes seem self-obsessed, vacuous, or plainly unimaginative. The Atlantic’s May piece on a re-launch of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems makes the claim that “Lunch Poems—like Facebook posts or tweets—shares, saves, and re-creates the poet’s experience of the world.” While The Atlantic’s argument stretches the expressive capacity of Twitter, Frank O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poetry still popularized the themes of bohemian everyday life. The only things that happen in this kind of life are parties, love affairs, and sometimes experiences of art. Metatron has brought together writers who distrust narrative, political statement, and philosophy alike. Their poetry and fiction of the everyday sometimes lacks the drama of transformation, though Morissette’s New Tab (Véhicule) thankfully manages to draw this transformative element out of the otherwise repetitive diurnal material.

In the reading’s second half, Spry and Fiorentino remained committed to dramatic storytelling. Spry read from his dryly humourous Bourbon & Eventide. His delivery was designed to make you break down in despair as he recounted a relationship disintegrating from the start. The two characters in Bourbon & Eventide are equally troubled:

“They had their own language. ‘Cocktails’ were ‘adult beverages,’
‘hangovers’ were known as ‘daytime,’ and ‘having sex’ was ‘apologizing.’”

Fiorentino finished the night with a story that never seemed to start. His preamble, about his daughter, told in the slightly halted, faltering way impromptu preambles go, proceeded into a full recitation of his story belied only by the occasional glance at his phone. Behind him, Maryanna Hardy’s quirky illustrations from I’m Not Scared of You or Anything played in a loop.

The city of Montreal was present in almost everything read that night. To take examples from authors like O’Hara, Teju Cole, or Gail Scott, the narrative of ordinary days is often tightly wound up with the city in the background. The readers at The Ossington described a city that was young, anxious, and not especially good at relationships. How they related to the Torontonians in the audience is up for debate.

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