Think it’s difficult to produce a literary scene worth mentioning if you’re a minority group? Think again. The Anglo writers of Montreal have been called a triple minority (they’re artists, of a minority language in their province, the province being a linguistic minority in its country), and yet they were the founders of the first cohesive literary scene in the entirety of Canada. In fact, one of the scene’s most important publications first saw light in the lap of our own alma mater. The McGill Fortnightly Review, published between from 1925 to 1927 by F.R. Scott, was instrumental in the formation of the Montreal Moderns, a group of writers including A.J.M. Smith, P.K Page, and Irving Layton, who effectively brought modernist writing to Canada. Later, of course, came Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood. While the modernist project became less urgent after the sixties and its writers began to look outside the movement’s framework, Montreal’s artists did not lose their way with words. The city has been called the spoken word capital of North America, and proof of the good health of its literary scene is shown by frequent readings at different venues around town, certainly not restricted to spoken word. One of these events was last week’s Montreal launch of the literary web site Joyland, at the Green Room.
The founders of the site, Toronto-based writers Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis, call Joyland a hub for short fiction. The web site brings together writers from seven different cities; each location has its own editor who is free to select the writers they want to feature. In Montreal, that person is Concordia professor and writer David McGimpsey, who was also at the helm of the evening’s event. Often hovering frighteningly close to the line that separates hosting from stand-up (there was, for instance, a lengthy monologue about the sex lives of panda bears), McGimpsey nonetheless presented an admirable line-up of both established and emerging writers: Nick McArthus, Sina Queyras, Arjun Basu, Allison McMaster and Eva Moran were amongst those taking the stage. Moran read a hilarious piece from her book Porny Stories, about a Harlequin novel writer who gets to follow the red-clad Mermaid Marianne on a series of man-eating escapades. Using these adventures as inspiration for her writing, the protagonist becomes the poster child for Harlequin’s new series: raunchy, with none of that sentimental crap. Another highlight was Basu’s story of an Oedipus complex with a twist: a young boy is in an illegitimate relationship with the mother of his girlfriend, who he has impregnated (don’t worry, he puts an end to the incestuous love triangle by leaving the mother).
Schultz was the last to read her work; after she left the stage, Davis said that he was happy with the Montreal launch. “This is a different scene from that of Toronto in several ways, not least because the Montreal scene is more integrated. Most writers do both poetry and fiction, and there is an audience for both.” Davis is right; Green Room was filled with a substantial crowd, despite it being a Monday night. “Fiction [readings] can be a bit iffy, but I’ve never had a bad event in Montreal”, he added.
McGimpsey agrees, saying that here, literary events seem to fit in with people’s expectations of a night out. Because of the universities, especially Concordia with its creative writing program, events such as poetry readings become a natural part of the city’s cultural life. “It’s not very difficult to get involved, but you have to become actively interested”, McGimpsey claims, recommending that aspiring writers submit material to open readings. By going to readings, especially those with a featured writer, you will get acquainted both with different people and styles.
McArthur, another of the writers featured at Joyland’s Montreal launch and a former student of McGimpsey’s, suggests the Pilot Reading Series at Blizzarts, the last Sunday of every month, as well as readings at the Yellow Door.
“The Montreal scene is special, because as an Anglo, you need persistence to live in Montreal”, McArthur says. And perhaps that’s part of the explanation of the local Anglo lit scene’s vibrancy. Granted, English is Canada’s majority language, a fact that may discredit the minority status of the Anglos to some extent. But why then didn’t the Montreal Moderns and their heirs, whether modernist or not, emerge out of, say, Toronto? As McGimpsey points out, a smaller community is easier to unify, while at the same time it increases its participants’ intensity of dedication and interest. Being at a crossroads of languages and cultures probably helps, too. Certainly, the multicultural metropolis that has sparked the imagination of so many great writers of the past will continue to inspire many more in the future.