What to Grab Onto: A Newcomer’s Guide to Toronto’s Literary Huddle

Last week at the Coach House Wayzgoose I met a couple of the first year U of T MA in Creative Writing students, reminding me of how, just 5 years ago, my classmates and I finished our graduate department orientation in the early sun-dazed week of September and headed to another kind of orientation in bpNichol Lane.

Those first years of going to book launches in Toronto, I stood back as my more extroverted classmates approached their literary idols. I hovered as other writers beckoned to each other and cosily chatted by the bar. The venues were often loud, hot and crowded with various degrees of dampness depending on the time of year. Twenty dollar bills disappeared like burrowing moles. Being shy, soft-spoken, relatively unpublished and often too poor to purchase the new titles, I felt that any attempt to speak to writers and editors would be perceived as grabby and insincere. I conscientiously avoided everyone I recognized out of fear they might think I was warming them up for a favour.

But then, why move to Toronto, the self-proclaimed hub of Canada’s English-speaking literary world? Not many people are able to participate in that world, because of language barriers, distance, poor health, and so on. Here I was, young, able-bodied, well-educated– the main barrier to attending events being my own disinclination and over-sensitivity. Get out your eyeshadow, Phoebe!

5 years later, I still forget names and would prefer to stay at home with a new cookbook than to circle like a piranha in the gin-and-ink scented waters of the Toronto literary community. But I’ve found a few ways to fulfill my professional capacity as an up-and-coming poet while still having fun.

Get to know your own cohort first

It’s easiest to talk to other emerging writers if you’re also an emerging writer, no matter what age you are. Support others who are at the same stage of their careers as you by going to their events and mentioning their work to editors and they’ll do the same for you. Writers who only talk about their own work all of the time quickly get a reputation for being self-serving.

Stop dressing like a student

You don’t have to show up at a bar for a casual reading series in a full suit. Although one young poet who always wore a quiet blazer and tie to every event did so because I believe he’s more comfortable that way when he meets older writers and asks them for a coffee. Many people go to events after work and don’t have time to change, so it’s common to see a well-dressed, pin-stripped crowd in various shades of black. You might feel out of place if you’re in a bedazzled hoodie, especially if you’re already a self-conscious person to begin with.

Find a Pretext

I met many more people when I edited Echolocation during my second MA year, as I needed to email publishers and editors for review copies, ad-swaps and myriad other small requests. When I met them face-to-face, it was great to be able to thank them for their help. I’m also much more comfortable promoting organizational interests than I am my own. However, people can see your skills when you’re involved in some way in the literary community. Help with a reading series, offer to read submissions for a literary magazine, volunteer at a conference, etc.

Ask writers out for coffee (or to the zoo)

I don’t do this often, but it’s how Elizabeth Bishop met Marianne Moore. Proof enough that it’s a perfectly socially acceptable way to exchange information and to ask a writer about their particular area of expertise– maybe you want to know more about organizing a literary festival, holding a workshop, running a reading series, and that writer has experience doing one of those things. Offer to meet close to the writers’ home or workplace at a time convenient for them– after all, they’re the ones giving you their time.

Bring Cookies

Cookies are always appreciated, anywhere you go. Host Jacob Mooney frequently feeds Pivot Reading attendees with delicious oat-coconut clusters. I once brought a tabouleh salad to our program director’s house, and a tiny woman loved it so much she asked me for the recipe. That woman, I found out later, was the poet with 3 published books who has since become a dear friend. So bring cookies really means, remember that you have other interests outside of writing. When utterly star-struck, I’ve found refuge in talking about travel, families, babies, dogs, baseball, raw salads, etc. If I had talk all the time about the status of my manuscript I might bash in my own head with a pint glass.

Pace yourself

You don’t need to meet everyone every night at every event. The fall/spring book launch seasons last longer and longer each year, and it’s impossible to meet everyone and if you try you’ll end up forgetting half the names. Allow people to get to know you. A thank-you to someone for hosting the event, a quick chat over a festival book table– over the years these interactions add up and people begin to recognize you and your contributions to the community. Think about their point of view, having lived and worked in Toronto for decades and each year seeing new writers move to city. The famous coldness of Torontonians is mostly a sense of efficiency and even protectiveness. Is it worth it to learn your name if you’re only going to leave in a year or two? Be less in a rush. Act like you’re here to stay.

Come early/Stay late

Do one or the other, not both. Hosts and organizers appreciate first-comers as it means there’s less chance of someone walking in late during a reading. You can get a seat and talk with other early birds. Other people prefer to come late, after the first rush of the crowd or if they’re coming from another event. After the readings, the crowd thins, everyone’s on their 2nd or 3rd drink and starting to unbutton things, the organizer can finally sit down, and some of the best conversations take place on the patio as well as some of the most memorable moments. What will be yours?

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A Restless Home

I’ve spent the past 10 days in my parents’ tiny but airy apartment overlooking Commercial Drive, a noisy and electric hippie enclave on the east side of Vancouver. Although this apartment was my live-and-workspace for a few wayward years after my undergrad years at UBC, I’ve been beset by an uneasy sense of homelessness since I got here.

I was born and spent 19 years in Ottawa, 8 in Vancouver, and now 6 years in Toronto, long enough for each place to reciprocate in friends, workplaces, and odd cravings, but not long enough to be unthinkingly, presumingly, at home. Ottawa left me with an affection for Irish pubs, deep snows, and the gentle slope of the Gatineau hills, while on the West Coast, I learned how to bike in spitting rain, how to order food in an izakaya, how to interpret ferry schedules and to vent about rental prices and gentrification; while in Toronto’s west end I grew addicted to West Indian roti and Portuguese natas, to racing sailboats in the harbour and to the constant stimulant of the city’s conversations. Rather than feeling more settled with each year, I find myself jerking my head around, wondering, “what’s next?” and feeling as though at any moment, the hardwood floors of rented abodes will be yanked out from under me.
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More than I’ll Admit

I don’t admit to myself that I’m busy when each day is a list of tasks. In the waning days of March, our landlady announced our house was being sold, the house I’ve lived in since moving to Toronto five years ago. We’ve since packed up, rented a van, signed a new lease, and settled into a cavernous character house overlooking Riverdale Park, and every day sitting down to my desk in our new share office has never felt onerous.

Still, trying to edit and write while in the midst of moving remains one of the most difficult states of being I’ve encountered. Interruptions occur constantly– house viewings on both ends, additional expenses, reference books and files are taped off in boxes. 

Here’s what I managed to get done: I have work in the current issue of CV2, you can here “Mourning Doves” here. I also have two poems forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine, my first appearance in that publication. A chapbook is in the works for fall release with Bardia Sinaee’s Odourless Press, which for now I’m calling “Occasional Emergencies.” I’m tentatively sending bits of my full-length poetry manuscript to publishers, like throwing pebbles into the well. I can’t even see the ripples they make. I just have to believe there’s water down there. 

My next update may be in Europe! I fly next week into London, where I’ll spend a week seeing all the free galleries, free galleries and Queen’s gardens as I can. Then I take a cross-eyed itinerary of trains down to Lisbon to attend the Disquiet Literary Program. I’ve arranged hostel and homestays, but not much else. I have a rover’s attitude to travel– what I’ll get to, I’ll get to. I’ve found I’m much happier seeing half a gallery a day and wandering into a neighbouring park after asking an attendant where to get a good coffee, than checking another item off a list. It’s this way that a city can get acquainted with you. 

Laborious Fruits

The sporatic-ness of posts here is counter-balanced by reviews and posts elsewhere. In response to the dismal counts of women’s writing being reviewed, as well as women who review on both VIDA and CWILA, I put aside the diffidence I had towards leaping into the critical fray. This reluctance I now see as historically and socially determined. I believe that an insidious kind of self-censoring is internalized when a woman writer doesn’t see other women being published or reviewed in major publications. They are more likely to unconsciously believe their opinions don’t count, thereby perpetuating a cycle where they either don’t submit, or are reluctant to respond even when invited by editors.

The initiatives I’ve taken are incremental, and I still feel I could be more drastic, more ambitious. My reviews of poetry books by Erin Knight, Susan Steudel and Julie Bruck on the Toronto Review of Books’ blog, Chirograph are brief, but I’m glad of the chance to ekk out a kind of ethics of criticism for myself, an approach that is neither necessarily positive or negative, but is instead strives to be attentive, probing, and, if required, explanatory.

The Puritan‘s staff editor informed me that my review of Matthew Tierney’s Probably Inevitable was the first unsolicited review from a female writer they had ever received. It’s troubling that even younger women writers are reluctant to write criticism, as The Puritan features primarily emerging writers. It was a bold move to publish two very different reviews of Tierney’s book, and on The Puritan’s relaunched blog, Town Crier, I address oft-made generalizations about Creative Writing programs and their graduates. In the Town Crier, myself and other Puritan contributors will be exploring topics related to reviewing, criticism, publishing, and myriad issues not typically covered by Canadian print and online media, such as granting cycles, the process of applying to Creative Writing MA and MFA programs, etc.

I have never found myself amid such a robust scene of young and upcoming writers, whose talents are hardwearing, and whose ideas and opinions regarding writing and the writing life are so divergent and diverting. Poet Bardia Sinaee has just launched Micro Bublé, a site reviewing micropresses, locals Dragnet Magazine, Rusty Toque and Little Fiction continue to deliver strong punches, and the Emerging Writers Reading Series is now more than a year old.

With much of my critical writing pitched to other publications and blogs, the focus of this blog will shift slightly as I’ll soon be adding my editing and manuscript reading services, as well as content relating to networking, freelancing and job searching for writers. Meanwhile I’m also working on nonfiction pieces that may or may not dive into the female flâneur, the immigrant in the city, writing and hockey… mentioning them here seems a good way to commit to their eventual coming-into-being.