Robyn Doolittle reads at Pivot

Crack has never been too much of a scandal at Pivot

If I had known a reading at Pivot could feature a not-so-serious love ballad about Heath Ledger, a surreal and splendid brawl between a bear and a 14-year-old Vietnamese boy, a borderline performance poem about the unreliability of the TTC (written years ago but still very relevant today), and a version of the Rob Ford fiasco spun out into an apt detective drama, I might have been less reluctant to trudge through the snow to The Press Club on March 12th.

The event certainly spiked a lot of interest; host Jacob McArthur Mooney remarked that the event gained more attention than Pivot had seen in years, mostly due to the eclectic cast of readers on the bill: poet Robert Priest, quirky children’s author and illustrator Evan Munday (Coach House’s recently-departed publicist), novelist Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (whose novel All the Broken Things was released in January from Random House), and Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle (author of the controversial Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story). Luckily, an abrupt snowstorm kept The Press Club on Dundas from reaching capacity too quickly, and the audience, huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in the long and crowded bar, enjoyed a set of readings that proved as promising as anticipated.

Relatively new to the reading scene in Toronto, I am consistently baffled by the difference in atmosphere at each event I attend. Always looking to socialize in a creative space specifically outside the academic sphere (which at times suffocates with its questionable didacticism), many young writers look to readings as an innovative space wherein the underlying impulse driving art (the sharing of work and ideas, the community atmosphere, the collaborative opportunities with others) can be identified, shared, and preserved. Readings, we’re told, are meant to be the sort of soft underbelly of the literary world—less concerned with politics, and more concerned with the sharing of common passions, or what Pivot host Mooney calls our communal “eccentricities.” It doesn’t take long to realize the sad truth, however: that the amazing impulse behind most reading series is often eclipsed by the constraining fact that art is always seeking not just its expression, but, inevitably, its market.

The Pivot Reading on March 12th was certainly an exception to this unfortunate trend. Pivot Readings, founded in 2008, is one of the most respected and established series operating within Toronto’s literary scene today. In an interview with Jess Taylor last September, Mooney discussed the importance of readings that cultivate an atmosphere of eclecticism and variety, that don’t insist too brazenly on being “inclusive,” that don’t indulge a democratizing impulse by trying to lure a wide-reaching (and often disparate) readership.

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Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer read from her new novel, All the Broken Things, at last week’s Pivot

Pivot’s mentality is to let the quality of the work stand for itself, and to focus on delivering that unique type of experience you can get only at great readings. “I think what makes a really exciting reading series is a crowd-defined communal expression of our group’s eccentricities, which are hearing poetry, hearing fiction, and listening in that sort of crowded room,” remarks Mooney. “Anything that defies the purity of that sets you up to spread yourself too thin.” Pivot walks a striking line between being “tailored to an audience that’s going to appreciate it” and having “interesting juxtapositions of styles and personalities” that invite a diverse set of listeners.

Most readings I’ve attended feature an entangled set of people scaling the literary front—editors, publishers, publicity agents, readers, listeners, emerging writers, established writers, a bartender rattling around in his or her till—coming together for what is often a lively affair, complete with that aesthetic tickle you tend to feel upon listening to a writer whose work you admire. Between sets, however, events can lapse into a rather intimidating space where publishing power, accumulated credibility, public recognition, and one’s list of publications become increasingly relevant, threatening to overwhelm both contributive insight as well as general enjoyment (which is why we attend these events in the first place). I don’t mean to suggest that all readings are like this, but my task in attending readings has been to learn to separate the experience of listening to the readers you love from the formalities that go along with the business and networking side of things.

Some reading events make this procedure easier than others. Pivot definitely nailed it this time around. If you weren’t interested in listening to Robert Priest literally stomp out his iambic meter onstage, or listening to Munday give his hilarious children’s glossary definition for “Sean Combs,” or hearing the ornately spun descriptions of boy circling bear, you would at least be interested in hearing Doolittle recount the scouting out of the anonymous witness who reportedly saw Rob Ford snorting cocaine off the back of a waitress’ hand. The assorted writers featured at the Pivot reading, their distinct passion for their projects, their varied attempts to engage the audience, made the overall experience one certainly worth attending.

For the first time in a long time, I left a reading event feeling more exhilarated than defeated, less concerned with who’s-who factoids than with the organic discussions the readers provoked. It was an evening with performances good enough to get lost in, to remember why we started this whole reading series business in the first place.

The next Pivot Reading is Wednesday, March 26th at The Press Club. Another terrific set of readers: Jeremy Hanson-FingerLiz LochheadGuillaume Morissette, & Stuart Ross.

For more Pivot events, head to http://pivotreadings.ca/upcoming-readings/

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