Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Of Swallows, If Pheasants and the Toronto New School of Poetry

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By Melanie Janisse

I enter through the door of 282 College through a thicket of computer shops and walk up the narrow gunmetal stairs only to be confronted with a baroque red couch sitting there on its own, waiting for a very special explosion of ideas to grow up around it. This is not a bookstore, even though there are books being loaded onto shelves for the official opening on April 13th. This is "a cultural studio, where books may be purchased and sold, assemblies held, research and publications organized, et cetera." Their words, not mine.

I have an urge to collapse upon the velvet of the reception couch and utter thank-yous into its fabric. Thank-you strange furniture for holding vigil as a litany of bookshelves slowly wind their way around the room, as boxes and boxes of books line up like willing soldiers underneath the massive church windows streaming light into what will be this: Most importantly, red couch, thank-you for the invitation to hold court with a community of others that want the same thing:

Before the university’s walls, before any talk of a creative class, there was the studium generale, one of the original institutions of the modern city, where the figure of the scholar first sprung from the mingling of books, bodies, and a will to culture.

Of Swallows, Their Deeds and the Winter Below. Indeed. The most fabulous name ever for a not-bookstore, more a meeting of the minds, where books happen to be for sale.

"I’m here for the Cage workshop and to meet the Toronto New School of Writing," I tell the red couch. While it doesn’t respond, I don’t care. I give it a loving fondle. I bring my small bag of supplies up the stairs and into the really very romantic boardroom that acts as a think tank ground zero for the Toronto New School of Writing. I might say that the philosophy of the New School and Of Swallows, Their Deeds and the Winter Below dovetail perfectly. More to follow.


Alexis and her friends were at the café last night finishing a mural in my back room. The mural (just as a funny aside) is a whacked-out drug mural in the vein of Alice in Wonderland. A fairly threatened restaurant owner began telling the community that we are a bunch of druggies. So, while drinking a stiff selection of herbal teas, the back room mural/joke/project began. One of the lovely tea drinkers – a communications student at York - began talking to me of schools. We mulled over the Socratic and Platonic structures of university. We debated the pros and cons of each. I mentioned the New School to him and our conversation opened up into notions of community-based anarchy, in between spaces and notions of learning that extend beyond the current spectacle of commodity-based education. What if a school was not to provide marketability, but engages in nurturing learning, experimentation and the pursuit of the unknown? I found this on the New School’s website and sighed a big sigh of gratification.

The purpose of the TORONTO NEW SCHOOL of WRITING is to offer creative and critical writing workshops led by writers who have an interest in art creation moreso than marketability. The TNSoW fills what we see as a huge gap in the writing and educational communities by offering courses that don’t necessarily lead to a “marketable” end product, like a crime novel or a screenplay, but actually engage people in the process and art of thinking about language and writing.


Here is a moment from my life: I am driving down Brush Street in Detroit. I have been out all night and the sun is coming up through the thicket of brush jumbling out of the broken foundations, abandoned gas stations and lost urban space that the Detroit riots permanently eradicated from the urban fabric of this street. It is a set of rotting teeth. The structures of city, capitalism and consumerism vanish in front of my steering wheel like the ever-approaching horizon. Somewhere in all of our consciences we all know that the landscape of Detroit is a permanent fail of these structures.

Out of nowhere and in a burst of morning sun, a massive flock of pheasants spring out of the brush. Suddenly I am in the post-apocalypse, but in ways it is a landscape of hope. I have eaten felled urban pheasant and dined on the salads of inner city Detroit organic farmers who till the soil of lost homes and lost hopes. Back in the '90s it was wacky, but now these movements are gaining international attention and kudos.

I know. What does this have to do with a strangely named bookshop and an alternative school of writing? Simple. When structures of capitalism and consumerism fail or are failing us, we crave spaces that ask us to separate ourselves in whole or in part from the spectacle of these systems and provide hope, inspiration and meaning. It is a particular use of notions of anarchy that embrace "falling-apartness" and intuit loose and informal structures that are ever-changing in order to nurture and foster an open-end. The introduction of such schools and spaces in urban Toronto speak towards a deep-rooted desire for a milieu that disrupts the staunch capitalism that fuels the economy of our fair city. It lends itself to a psychic shift in the creative community of our city’s writers, who are willing to collectively turn away from marketability and commodity-honed writing and into a wild jumble of birds bursting out of a pile of broken concrete. I wish the Swallows and the New School a fare thee well in their emergence.

Stay tuned for the next installment where I take a Cage workshop at the TNSofW and chat with Bill Bissett (a personified John Cage song) about his new tenure at The Workman Arts as the poet in residence.

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

Click on any image to start the slideshow of photos by Melanie Janisse

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