Word On The Street 2012
On Sunday, September 23, people flocked to Queen’s Park in Toronto for The Word On The Street literary festival. Despite intermittent downpours and chilly weather, the circle was packed with readers eager to take advantage of book sales, listen to engaging talks, meet their favourite Canadian authors and publishers, and enjoy the street food.
Armed with an umbrella (thanks Mom!) and a regrettably thin sweater (that was all me), I stepped out of the subway and descended upon the park.
Everywhere I looked, I saw literary celebrities, from publishing greats like Cynthia Good giving writing tips and Alana Wilcox selling books to authors like Shane Peacock and Mariko Tamaki chatting about their latest books, and experts David Suzuki and Jeff Rubin discussing the future under a packed tent; I even spotted Olivia herself ducking into Hart House for a VIP lunch!
But it was the Vibrant Voices of Ontario tent that captured much of my attention. Hosted by Becky Toyne and Steven W. Beattie, 19 Ontario authors took the stage over the course of the day.
Kathryn Mockler read poems from The Onion Man. The protagonist and narrator, a young female factory worker, offered up seemingly simple descriptions of her daily life that got big reactions from the crowd, like the wage gap between workers who had been with the factory under old ownership (~$20 an hour) and newer workers like her (~$6.50).
Christine Pountney read from the provocative and thought-provoking Sweet Jesus, which features a Christ figure as a gay male who works with children in palliative care as a clown. She aimed to portray, with respect and sympathy, those with and without faith, including a married woman on the Christian right.
In the afternoon, four eco poets (Roo Borson, David Day, James Deahl and Dennis Lee) took the stage as a panel to discuss the genre and their own work.
David Day called it the “poetry of humanity.” The “power of poetry,” according to David, is that it “connects aspects of the world” to us. He told a story about how the D.H. Lawrence poem, “Whales Weep Not!”, has helped to “save whales” more than any scientific arguments. It was directly involved in changes to Australian law.
Dennis Lee added that our relationship to the natural world has been changing rapidly, and needs to keep changing. He felt that maybe a poet with a “clear vision about this” is an eco poet. In his own art, he has been working toward a “more responsible way to use language.”
Roo Borson identifies differently with the genre; although she is personally motivated by ethics, it does not enter her art directly, deliberately. Ethics connects to her art through her.
“I write about what I love and see,” she said. “Straight content matters” but poetry is also about “making melody” to calm us, to open the mind to our surroundings. She focuses on details rather than what she is for or against.
James Deahl, on the other hand, definitely feels he is writing in opposition to consumer culture and artificial things between us and nature. But as extreme as this might sound (he wished we could go back to the typewriter), Deahl implicates everyone. We are “tearing up whole countries,” he said, and we can’t duck that responsibility because as consumers we are part of a society that allows it.
Surprisingly, each poet agreed to an element of the spiritual in their work. David linked this to what he believes is one job of the eco poet—to find a new mythology connecting us to other species.
Another theme was urban environments; Dennis felt there is a place for the urban in eco poetry and that it may be unavoidable. Roo added that Torontonians are living in a blend of natural and urban environments. “From above,” agreed David, “most of Toronto [looks like] forest.” Roo also noted that the impulses to build, live together, use tools, and communicate are natural; some termites, for example, build condos. We just need better balance.
Looking around Queen’s Park, the trees and grass (though carefully placed and maintained) were as much a part of the experience as the tents, books, crowds, and surrounding architecture, which included the ROM, U of T, and looming above, the CN Tower. When asked about the responsibility of the reader—what eco poetry does or should demand of its readers—Roo Borson said that we have to bother to read poetry in the first place. Seeing so many people braving the rain to celebrate reading and engage with challenging ideas was inspiring in itself; our presence reaffirmed the power of art and opened ourselves up to it.
Click here for a photo gallery from The Word On The Street 2012.