The Art Bar, 1991-2016

Art Bar, June 24, at Black Swan

[ADDENDUM: I wrote this as an elegy for the Art Bar Reading Series after attending what was, apparently, its swan song in late June of last year. As it turned out, in the months following this “final show,” a new team resurrected it; please visit The Art Bar Reading Series for more information. I decided to leave my post as is, despite the change in plans, despite it remaining the longest-running, poetry-only reading series in Canada. I decided to leave it as is because it reminds me that, sometimes, a public reading can be self-transformative.]

In 1999, at the Imperial Pub Library on Dundas Street in Toronto, in a big room upstairs that looked like a cabin, alongside Uncritical Mass, I was excited and petrified to be sharing poems from my first chapbook, Gypsy. Afterwards, out on the street, a woman came up to me, took my hands in hers and said I had too much energy. That it was coming out fast and going in too many directions. “You need to focus,” she said. And so it was at The Art Bar, one of the longest reading series in Canada, that I first learned how to read poems out loud.

At some point, the venue moved to the Victory Café, and I would spend many Tuesday nights there, trying to grow into a better writer by listening, learning, engaging, and drinking. On one of the many Dead Poet’s Nights, I nervously recited Primo Levi’s compelling poem, “Unfinished Business,” wanting so much to do Dr. Levi justice, to honour him in some small way as one of my heroes. The Art Bar was the place where I got to do that very thing. And sometime before that night, I had featured there alongside Robert Kroetsch; I remember playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” during my reading to help me relax, but mostly, I remember Mr. Kroetsch’s kind words to me, a gesture of encouragement I have held close ever since. The Art Bar gave me that.

My attendance would wane over the years, after the series moved to Clinton’s and then to Pauper’s. I had, in some ways, drifted away from that particular world, perhaps too enclosed in my own. But, on the nights when I did go, I always witnessed something special, whether it was Ray Hsu (Dr.Ray.ca) tearing out pages of his book to chew on, or James Arthur mesmerizing everyone in the room with his incredible, melodic, off-book recitation. The Art Bar had all that.

The very last time I was there it was to read from a new collection, and my nerves were on fire as if I hadn’t learned a damn thing about controlling all that energy that woman first told me about that summer night on Dundas Street seventeen years ago. There was a certain vibe: the room was packed, and the audience was listening, and the other two readers lit up the cavernous space of the series’ final venue, the Black Swan, with their beautiful words. That night, I was high-fived and told to “Keep on going,” which is all any of us can do. One more lesson learned from The Art Bar.

So, thank you, Art Bar, and all the people who kept it vital for so long. Thank you and good night.

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Almost There…

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Rejection is the inevitable, sometimes painful part of the submission process for all writers. I keep twenty years’ worth of rejections in a series of portfolio books, and once in a while, I take the books out and flip through the pages to read over the wealth of responses: “Thanks, but no,” and, “Sorry!,” and, “Your writing does not meet our needs,” and, “Try to avoid abstractions,” and, “I’m afraid the humor here didn’t quite work.”

I learned, over time, what things not to do; for example, never send, as an unpublished and inexperienced “writer,” that poem you drunkenly wrote last weekend about unrequited love to The New Yorker. I also learned not to write the clever cover letter as a way to “stand out” (I cringe over such audaciousness, and all the unnecessary bolding and italicizing). As I got older and more experienced, my approach to my submissions became more professional, more polished, and, slightly more successful. And I say slightly because acceptance is still elusive, even with all I have learned. Perhaps it’s not seeing the work clearly enough or not knowing exactly where it might fit. It’s not always clear who the audience is, where they live, and if they’re listening. And, in the meantime, as I search for the right fit, the right place, the rejections slowly trickle in.

Some rejections sting more than others. When I submitted that poem to The New Yorker, I was wholly naïve and impulsive, and yet I also knew better. I knew sending an unpolished, unedited, hell, stupid poem to such an esteemed publication was a waste of time. But I did it anyway. Sometimes, I think I just wanted the fancy slip of paper with its lovely letterhead, as if it was a notch in my lipstick case. Something kind of cool.

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Some rejections are helpful. An editor might provide feedback that explains why the piece wasn’t for her, or, a note of encouragement to submit again, which lessens the sting, and keeps hope alive. But some rejections take longer to get over, perhaps because they strike at your very being. Just this past week, I received two rejections, but one stood out more than the other. It included this gem:

“Your work was almost there.”

Almost there. The words punched me in the gut. Where, I wanted to cry to the unnamed editor, is There? And if I’m not There, where am I? Nowhere? It’s the kind of rejection that aims to be hopeful, like that time you ran into an old friend, someone you hadn’t seen in years, and she told you how glad she was to hear you’re still at that writing thing. Hopeful and kind of condescending. It’s the kind of rejection I’ll carry around in my head for a while. Even if I know that there could be anywhere or everywhere or even here.