Daniel Scott Tysdal launches The Writing Moment … with a little help from his friends.
This past Sunday afternoon, an unusual cross-section of Toronto’s writing community gathered at Little Italy’s Bar Italia for an unusual book launch. Up on the bar’s second floor, what was being launched wasn’t a new chapbook or novel, but in fact a new poetry textbook, The Writing Moment, written by poet, University of Toronto professor, and former Puritan contributor Daniel Scott Tysdal.
I walked in the door about the same time that Tysdal adjusted his wooden tie and unwrapped the lifesize cardboard cut-out of himself. If that sounds slightly surreal and outlandish, it was. Letting loose with one of his enormous peals of laughter, he posed for a few pictures with himself before leaving his cardboard doppelganger to mark the way to the upper level, where an equally outlandish event was about to begin. Of course, with Tysdal’s trademark predilection for experimentation and originality, there was no chance that The Writing Moment launch was going to be typical.
Passing out slips of paper to attendees before the readings began, Tysdal asked people to jot down short lines within a few basic parameters. Collecting them again, he combined the lines at random throughout the launch to form “poems” from the body of work of famous (and fictional) poet laureate ‘Belinda Carmichael Gus,’ reading them aloud to laughter and applause from the crowd.
Asking for volunteers, he also entered four audience members into two variations of a “poetry deathmatch,” giving them guidelines for writing pieces throughout the show which would then be presented at the end of the readings. Onstage, he seemed to be having the best time of anyone present. Offbeat and engaging, Tysdal provoked laughs and interest in The Writing Moment in equal measure. His exercises demonstrated just how easy (and just how much fun) creating poetry can be if you take the right angle.
Much like his work, Tysdal is a charming mix of sincerity, passion, and novelty. His unconventional voice is what makes him a consistently exciting poet, but it isn’t hard to see that it was the man’s honest enthusiasm that made him the perfect choice for putting together the textbook. For poetry, a genre that can sometimes be confusing and alienating for people who haven’t had much experience reading or writing it, Tysdal’s approach is the equivalent of laying out a welcome mat in front of pen and paper. Poetry, he seems to say, is not just for poets anymore.
As he gave his opening remarks, he beamed at the crowd and spoke a little to the philosophy he had adopted in writing the text. Tysdal explains that “Practice precedes abstraction,” and The Writing Moment tries to facilitate in its readers a habit of spending the time and mental space on the crafting of poetry, helping each writer to find his or her voice. “Everyone’s a poet,” he said, “and everyone can benefit from poetry.”
Certainly, Tysdal lives by that mantra. As a former student of Tysdal’s, I can comfortably state that I have never met anyone as good at encouraging younger poets through the methodical identification of their strengths and the constructive analysis of their weaknesses. The strength of the event, and of Tysdal as an educator, is his ability to strip away the pretension that so often clouds poetry in favour of exploration and genuine enjoyment of the genre. All poetry is valuable, and all poets are valuable in Tysdal’s worldview. There are no shameless attempts at one-upping each other, no out-of-hand dismissals. Just heartfelt discussion about an art form that everyone can enjoy. With an enthusiasm like his, it was no surprise to see the community that had crowded in for the event.
Stewart Cole chews on the difference between scene and community in his recent Puritan essay.
My use of the term “community” here is deliberate. For those of you who have already read Stewart Cole’s recent essay “From Scene to Community: On Poetry Culture in the Chummy North,” you will likely have picked up on my meaning. For those of you who haven’t, you can (and should) find the essay in the supplement to The Puritan’s most recent issue. In his essay, Cole delineates the difference between a healthy, encouraging community, and a selfish, petty ‘scene.’
“A ‘scene’ finds its members so concerned with personal accolades and advancement, so inured to the bourgeois glamour-capitalism of the literary world at its worst that a) they can’t imagine that anyone might be motivated otherwise, or b) they allow any seeds of such alternative motivations in themselves to go unfertilized for fear that their own advancement will be impeded.”
It is difficult to imagine someone less entrenched in the mires of the ‘scene mentality’ than Tysdal. Though the achievement was his, Tysdal acted more as a host than as a ‘celebrated author.’ From the outset, he shifted the afternoon’s focus from himself and his accomplishments to the creativity and poetic expression of others—a gesture that itself promises to energize and invigorate the very community of students and writers who are there to show their support. Be it through crowd-sourcing “Belinda Carmichael Gus” poems, or having students read their own work, Tysdal reminded us that it shouldn’t be about what poetry does for us, but about what we can do together as a poetic community.
That such a large number of people came out to celebrate The Writing Moment is no coincidence—men and women like Dan Tysdal allow us to forget our reputations and just simply enjoy the art that we create, and in today’s climate of constant exposure and instant criticism, that’s a rare feat.