The Black Swan, the new home of Art Bar.
Publicity Agent Tracy Kyncl explores the wonders of sound in the Toronto literary scene.
On a humid, sticky Tuesday night with a thunderstorm on the horizon, I made my way to the Black Swan Tavern, the new location for Toronto’s longest-running weekly poetry series Art Bar, only to find out that the venue had been double-booked! So while I expected to immerse myself in a new atmosphere, I—and a surprisingly large number of people—trekked back across town to Q Space where its proprietor Luciano Iacobelli was waiting for us. Unfortunately, however, the extra travel time meant that I missed the beginning of the first feature but I was hardly disappointed by the vibrant and very audible displays of diverse talents that unfolded over the course of the rainy evening.
Kent Bowman is an American musician and poet who moved to Canada during the 1970s. It was here that he met the late Ted Plantos, a prolific poet who has published several collections with various printing houses including Wolsak and Wynn, Black Moss Press, and Seraphim Editions. The Ontario Poetry society presents the annual Ted Plantos Award each year to an aspiring author in his honour. Following Ted’s advice to begin writing poetry, Kent published two collections of his own and contributed to several anthologies including Imagination in Action published by Mercury Press, And Left a Place to Stand On published by Hidden Brook Press, and Crossing Lines an anthology of poets who came to Canada during the Vietnam War era. Kent’s last performance was entitled “New Orleans Will Rise Again,” which included a rousing guitar accompaniment.
In stark contrast to the sweet warbling melody of Kent’s verse, Will Kemp took the stage in a cacophony of awkward jokes, curse words, and even romantic “kudos” directed at his partner and muse, Nicole Brewer. As a performer, Will has a very exciting, explosive energy that comes as a welcome break from the more subdued or relaxed approaches taken by many poets while they read their work. But Will’s frantic style is perfectly suitable to his raw approach to writing. Will’s poetry reflects his contemporary pop culture upbringing in a way that is unique, humorous, and peppered throughout with cusses and epithets.
His first piece was a huge hit with the audience, a mash-up of a poem and hip hop video which delivers without missing the mark. Masterfully sexualizing literary terms, Kemp entertained and impressed with his rambunctious stage presence and clever twists on poetry lessons. “Daaamn girl,” Kemp would repeat, before launching into praise over “that aaaasssonance” and his lady’s “round vocabulary.” Clearly reflective about his craft, Will’s two pieces, “I Am Best When” and “What to Do When You Can’t Write Poetry for a Month” dealt with the incessant and often-idealized frustrations writers face when they don’t make money doing something they love. The latter poem is yet another example of Will’s talent for honesty and humour and demonstrates his ability to hit certain nerves with his audience. His opening lines, “Read every poem you’ve ever written / Hate every poem you’ve ever written / Burn every poem you’ve ever written,” aptly summarize the gnawing anxiety of being a writer and critic at the same time.
Although Will Kemp distinguishes himself as a writer of the newest generation of poets, one should not underestimate his emotional aptitude. His two confessional poems, written to his mother and grandmother respectively, were gritty and authentic, shockingly detailing very personal and painful moments in his life. At times, biographical poetry can suffer from over-indulgence—but Will’s writing never strays towards self-pity. Conversely, his poetry is focused and disciplined. Will lingers on memories and moments in time that have clearly impacted him profoundly, and he lets these episodes speak for themselves. During his last performance, Will shouted and cursed and the audience was riveted by the closeness he created in relaying his secrets and disappointments. Will Kemp is upfront, unabashed, even shameless, but very far from egocentric, and you should look forward to Skeletons, a forthcoming anthology published by Lady Chaos Press, which will include five of Kemp’s poems.
Tomy Bewick was the last feature of the night and rounded off this particularly sonorific installment of Art Bar. Tomy’s rhythmic sensibility and close attention to referentiality makes him a particular joy to listen to as he transforms words and meanings through clever sleight-of-hand and sonic remixing. He performs clearly, enunciating perfectly, and intonating where it counts in a style that is very assertive and passionate. His reading of “Sleeping Next to the Chainsaw” produced very memorable lines such as “doesn’t matter which suicide of the bed you wake up on” and the poetic image of a chainsaw that “sounds like hunger.” My only regret of the evening is that I didn’t have a video camera at the ready to record his poems, but if you have the chance to catch Tomy perform I can guarantee it will be a worthwhile experience.
Tomy Bewick isn’t like other poets. Can you tell?
Now that the fall season is upon us, Toronto will be a swarm of cinematic, artistic, and literary activity with heaps of launches to choose from.
Art Bar finally said goodbye to Q Space last week and moved to the Black Swan Tavern with new Host Josh Smith, which, if only for its luxurious leather arm chairs, is a perfect venue to update Art Bar’s image and entice new audiences into attending the weekly poetry series.
Shawna Dimitry performed mostly Spoken Word poetry and her flair for theatrical expression lends itself to the type of emotionally-trying issues that she is interested in discussing. Her first piece “We” offered a very intense look at how the psychiatric community oppresses the mentally ill and how individuals are more than a set of DSM symptoms. Shawna is an advocate for mental health awareness and her passionate performances, which incorporated different voices, gestures, and grimaces, captured the kind of haphazard approaches that have brought psychological practice under scrutiny while individuals suffer through mental illness under the weight of social stigma.
Liz Mariani took the stage next and enchanted the audience with her dry sense of humour and equally cool poetry. Usually Art Bar features local or Canadian poets, but it was refreshing to hear a voice from south of the border.
Mariani started off her set with “Standard Kitchen Heat,” a very sophisticated portrait of an early morning rise. Her next poem, “Game River,” demonstrated the extent of Mariani’s astounding vocabulary. Mariani impeccably balances her impressive diction with a style that is sharp, terse, and shows strong evidence of editorial discipline. Listening to Mariani read reminds me of the first time I fell in love with an avant-garde film. It was like suddenly realizing (or suddenly remembering, rather) that poetry doesn’t need a narrative to give it value. At the end of the day, it’s the form that counts. With Liz, you hear words in combinations you’ve never encountered before and her images reverberate sharply. “Orange Season” is a great example of Mariani at her most talkative, while “Parched” is more clipped, and calculatedly controls rhythm to great effect.
The cover of Sandra Kasturi’s poetry collection, Come Late to the Love of Birds.
Art Bar’s final feature, Tightrope Books author Sandra Kasturi, encourages her audience to get in touch with its animal side, as suggested by her 2007 collection The Animal Bridegroom, which includes an introduction from Neil Gaiman. Kasturi is co-publisher of ChiZine Publications, and a lot of her work deals with magic, mythology, and imagination as well. She performed some very interesting new pieces such as “Speaking Crow,” which looks to the “dream-time” for elusive truths about life. “Origins of Species,” from her latest collection Come Late to the Love of Birds had some beautiful images such as “love the size of a plump albatross” while “Specializing in the Pre-History of Whales” came accompanied with a funny anecdote about confusing Wales with whales. Kasturi’s identification with animals translates into stubborn mammalian giants who claim that “feet are the devil” while “Old Lions” paints a very pathetic portrait of feeble felines who feel that “it’s an awful thing to be a retired lion,” showing us how she can tickle the audience with her playful sense of humour.
As the weeks roll on into a busy fall, Toronto can look forward to many more diverse poets, novelists, and performers plying their trade in the city. The next few months are the perfect time to catch up with your favourite authors or experiment with new genres. And keep your eyes peeled for news about The Puritan’s fall launch taking place in late November!