Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Catharsis of Screaming

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The Scream Literary Festival1

On the wall in my kitchen I have a framed broadside of a Robert Kroetsch poem, titled "Hornbook #15" from The Poetics of Rita Kleinhart. It’s signed in pencil and in the corner, obscured by the frame and in the same graphite scrawl it says, “Scream in High Park 13/98.” The poem predates my time working for The Scream Literary Festival. I got a few copies of it from the “archives” (Bill Kennedy’s sister’s basement) while we scrounged for treasures (internally referred to as “Scream Poo” which naturally accumulated over the many years of running a festival; the storing of the unused ephemera is something of an essay in itself) to reinvent for last year’s exciting book-length dinner reading of Margaret ChristakosExcessive Love Prosthesis.

Given that Robert Kroetsch just passed away in June, I want to recreate the poem here. I re-read this poem every morning while I make my coffee:

Hornbook #15 from the Poetics of Rita Kleinhart

I am one nervous poem. Can a poem be nervous?
Well of course a poem can be nervous. Just think about it.
First things first. How am I to view the end of the millennium?
Who the fuck wouldn’t be nervous? Things change.

It’s my nerves. Consider, for instance, the annihilation of species.
My habitat is on the way out. The forests are burning.
Recycle, recycle, they tell us. The humans, I mean.
It’s my frayed nerve endings. I don’t know where to begin.

Language, apparently, changes. Then where does the ego hang its hat?
Listen, I’m not telling you. I’m asking a simple obvious question.
And the oceans are rising. The ozone layer is full of holes.
I’m not asking for pity. Pity up your royal rectum.

I’m trying to make adjustments. So off with my end rhymes.
When does the end justify the moans? Ha, funny.
It’s my wrecked nerves. I suppose the eternal would be even worse.
Once upon a time, and later, and later again. Holy shit.

Robert Kroetsch, 1998.

Kroetsch, of course, is undeniably one of the major poets in Canadian letters, and I, along with many others, am saddened by his passing. Many will say so in the coming weeks. It’s a way of mourning, to recreate the person in our minds not as a day or a poem but a whole life. I feel a bit like the Scream has died, and I want to remember it as a whole life, even if I was only around for few years of that life. Stephen Cain already wrote a thoughtful review of the festival as a whole, but his focus on the Pucks and Prosperos misses a lot of what excited me about “Screaming.” I will focus on what it gifted me and what I hope it gifted others.

The Kroetsch poem asks how poetry deals with the big issues. Not the poet, but the poetry. Language changes. Things change. The Scream changed and changed and changed with the poetry, with the language, with the poets, with the people who invested their time. What I loved about the Scream was that feeling of “trying to get away with something” each year. We aimed high and again and again tried to figure out the path to putting on a big show. It was rarely the same path and the ideas didn’t always come on a granting schedule. They came when they came and we hoped they made a difference but accepted too that the translation from idea to event might end in failure. And that was part of the excitement of being part of the festival. That we could try.

I read the Kroetsch poem every day partly as a way into my own writing world. The “recycling” of ideas and the always-potential extinction of poetry and sometimes that overwhelming feeling that poetry must carry the weight of the world in which it’s written is very present for me as a writer of the stuff, a teacher of it, a publicist for BookThug and a co-director of the Toronto New School of Writing. If you’re a numbers person then you know poetry is small. If you make it visual you have a tiny bubble of publishers producing it and within that you have a very smaller bubble of readers reading it. I worry about it. Pity up your royal rectum…but I worry about it. I think about it. I’m called upon to defend my participation in it far more often than I’m asked about the work itself. Why do it?

I think the Scream looked at that question and said, fuck it, let’s not sit on the whys, and let’s just DO it! There was a spirit to the festival that was more about embracing change than in looking back and bemoaning a bygone golden age of poetry. It never forgot its roots nor failed to pay homage to those writers whose work continues to play on in the work of new writers and thinkers, but as I learned in my four years there, the Scream never expected the same event to work the same way twice. There was always a feeling that we needed to anticipate and embrace change if we wanted to be relevant. We tried not to put on the same festival each year. We considered the shifting concerns of the time and worked with them rather than against (though sometimes against).

I don’t want to lament the end of the Scream with rose coloured glasses on. It was hard going. For two years I was the publicist for the festival. For another two years I was the Associate Director. The volunteers who really invest in the Scream don’t sleep a whole lot. Kate Eichhorn once asked, “Have you all been wearing those same t-shirts all week without washing them?” And of course we had. Laundry isn’t so important when you’re attending 13 events in eight days. Volunteers showed up in the middle of viral infections to take tickets. Others put relationships in jeopardy to make sure they made it to this event or that rather than going to the family reunion. One summer I lived off leftover cake for a month and still lost 10 lbs while I tried, so hard, to make sure people came to our dozen events. It was an exhausting and all-consuming investment.

So, I look at my time there without that post-birth euphoria; I remember the pain of “putting on the festival.” I have nothing but awe for Maggie Helwig and angela rawlings and others who held the Associate Director position before me. It’s an arduous and often thankless job. I’m stunned by the work of Marianne Apostolides, Cris Costa and Carey Toane who each held the Granting Coordinator position while I was there; Leigh Nash who was first a volunteer, then the Volunteer Coordinator and finally the Publicist; Aaron Tucker and Andrew Faulkner who often saved the day and did the tasks of web updating, author liaison and event coordination; and Eugenia Catroppa and Natalie Zina Walschots who often pulled the details together. These are the, mostly women, who “make it happen.” They book the venues, fill out the forms, spend hours in spreadsheets, make the hundreds of phone calls to sponsors, venders, event coordinators and on and on. They’re rarely remembered in the long goodbyes that get written when things end. I want to make sure we don’t forget that the Scream was hard, often non-creative work and artists did it for free, frequently to the detriment of their own writing time, because they believed in having this unique series of events in Canada. They wanted to see it happen and to be part of it. Many of them did the awful, unforgiving jobs of dealing with the bureaucracy behind securing funding and did their damnedest to make sure the festival happened each year. And, ALL of them contributed ideas and events. Don’t forget them.

The Scream is a habitat for poetry. It’s a place where people became friends and worked hard and figured out what the poetry/writing scene was all about. That might seem a stretch to those who’ve been part of the scene a long time, but for those of us who found ourselves in our 20s, post-degrees, looking for a way into — what seems from the outside — to be a world where everyone knows each other, the Scream was a training ground and a place to watch and listen to those with more experience. It was also a place where one could, even as an unknown poetry-lover, contribute to a national conversation.

When I came to Toronto from Windsor Ontario I knew almost no one. I felt very much like I was jumping at the windows of a building called writing and had no idea where the door was. The first gift the Scream gave me was a door. I was attending events before I came on at the Scream, but I felt like everyone was excited to see the people they knew and I was, more often than not, smiling a goofy smile, saying hello and then slinking off to watch the show from a more isolated space. Once in the Scream, I got to know some of my favourite writers and also realized how little I knew about the history of poetry and about the amazing amount of real skills it took to be a writer and an organizer.

The Scream let me in and it gifted me tools I didn’t have. It taught me to be a publicist. It taught me layout design. It taught me that there was a viable community of artists and thinkers. It taught me to be humble as a writer as I watched some of the best writers take the stage. It taught me to ask the hard questions of poetry or theory or ideas or politics rather than to sit comfortably on the fence. It taught me that asking those questions didn’t need to be combative but could be fun, engaging, weird and any number of other adjectives. Screw the creative writing degree, I learned more at the Scream than I learned in any MA workshop (with apologies to the University of Windsor writing program).

The “it” of the Scream was, of course, people with real skills. Mark Higgins, who headed up publicity, was in real life an accomplished designer and promotional expert. The trades have apprenticeship but poetry seems to be this “figure it out on your own” endeavor. I just had to volunteer at the Scream and I could learn more than I ever would have on my own about design, promotion and generating public excitement by watching Mark work. That elusive “mainstream audience” always seemed possible and within reach while I worked there.

Maggie Helwig, who, bless her soul, made the Scream into an incorporated full-length festival, (no small task!) taught me that being a writer couldn’t be mutually exclusive from being present. I felt, from her, that I could engage the ideas that were circulating in the poetry community (and the world) and not “shy away” or “back down” from those considerations. This isn’t “why do you write this archaic, weird, difficult stuff.” This was a call. You need to engage. You need to be present. And these questions you ask in poetry are worth asking, even if only five people show up. I can’t say I didn’t consider this before the Scream, but I can say that I learned so much from watching people actually DO it and doing it with them too. One of the best events I ever attended was at night, in the middle of High Park with only four people in attendance. Maggie’s “Panopticon” performance involved a half dozen cloaked strangers trying to disrupt our traditional pre-mainstage reading held every year late at night in the middle of High Park. There were more performers than attendees, and yet, it will take me a lifetime to find an event that better executes its concept.

Bill Kennedy, an idealist at heart, has such love and curiosity around poetry. I couldn’t help but learn to think of poetry as a body in metamorphosis. Poetry was never static at the Scream. It was something we were looking at as a curiosity. The question was always, what are the poets worried about? Or, to put in another way, what are the poems worried about? We were often a year or two ahead of the big issues in Canadian letters. Actually, forget that, we were trying to decipher those issues that were already affecting everyone even if the papers hadn’t registered them yet. The poets are curious, what are they curious about? The thematic gestures Bill made in those four festivals I was a part of all proved to be critical considerations of the larger population and we were often addressing those concerns long before the CBC morning shows picked them up.

When we did The Death of the Book, we had no idea that Pages Bookstore — where our massive display was going up — was about to go out of business. Putting up a giant poster declaring that the book is dead in an independent bookstore that had just announced it was closing was a moment that felt so connected to community and to the changes that community was experiencing. There are many examples of this “listening” and “curiosity” that resulted in memorable and moving moments. They weren’t always numerical successes by way of bodies in seats or tickets sold or a perfectly executed show, but they were genuine and felt so important to be a part of. Learning to listen and be curious are gifts I’m the better for having received.

I take the sense of curiosity I learned at the festival into BookThug and the Toronto New School of Writing. I’ve become someone who is curious about what the poets are doing (with apologies to the Tragically Hip). I spent my first three years at the Scream listening. I wanted to figure out how these writers were thinking about writing and their place in a larger conversation. I organized but didn’t get involved very much in the creation of events until the fourth year when I felt ready to try (and potentially fail). By the end of my run at the Scream I knew how to navigate the often impossible red-tape of the granting agencies, I knew how to promote an event, how to deal with spreadsheets, how to organize a volunteer group, how to design a good poster or t-shirt, how to organize my time and the time of others, how to balance a budget and how to pull things together on a shoe-string budget. I learned more than I can put on a CV. These are gifts. Thank you.

What I lament in the loss of the Scream, besides the amazing venue that it offered artists, booksellers and organizers, is the training ground it offered young writers. There’s a whole generation jumping at the windows of this building trying to find the door who will never have the Scream as a way in. The Scream was a place to listen and learn, to be curious, to try your hand at event coordination and the recycling or inventing of ideas. If you want to get to know the writers you admire, where do you go now? If you want to think of poetry in context of the socio-political state and have a voice in all of that on a public level, where do you go? Hell, if you want to see 12 poets totally killing a crowd of hundreds outdoors in a park, where do you go now? As Bill has said, “kill the brand,” make it your own. Do it your own way. Try.

Some has been made of the lack of a “new generation” to take up the flame of the Scream and step into those positions that are, yes, hard, though rewarding. I think many of those who dedicated their time to the Scream in the time I was there took what they learned and turned it into valuable voices in the poetry community. I think too that this generation was very much involved with the festival and did take it up; they’re a group who will take up the flame of the Scream but in their own ways.

Leigh Nash, previously the publicist to the Scream and long-time volunteer, is now working at Coach House Books and runs, with her partner Andrew Faulkner (also a Scream executive and event coordinator), ReWord, an editing business, and The Emergency Response Unit, one of the few chapbook publishers in Canada. Carey Toane, who was the Granting Coordinator for the Scream, has a book coming out with Mansfield Press and took up the Pivot Reading Series in Toronto, which has now been passed on to other Scream volunteers. Carey, along with Elizabeth de Mariaffi (another volunteer), also started up the Toronto Poetry Vendors publication project, which puts poems in bubble gum vending machines in venues around Toronto. Cris Costa, who was once the Granting Coordinator for the Scream, became the Administrative Coordinator of the Kootenay School of Writing. angela rawlings and Maggie Helwig have organized more events than I can count and both of them had amazing organizing capabilities before they entered the Scream as well. These are just of few of the many who took what they learned at the Scream and continued it into their livelihood and art.

Things change as they do, and there isn’t a young writer out there that I know of who isn’t working several jobs and paying down an incredible debt for schooling/mortgage/kids/insert-debt-of-choice. Perhaps it isn’t that there is “no-one” to take up the torch, but that the people of my generation (those in their mid-20s to mid-30s) are working their asses off to survive even while they attend events or even coordinate them. Maybe this was always true, but it feels like in the past ten years or so that working for free is becoming more and more of an impossibility. Even for art. But it’s especially true on the level of time, attention and heart-and-soul required of a festival of this size. Kudos to those that volunteered for years for the Scream to make something truly unique available in Canada. You gave your time, your energy. The Scream, too, received many gifts.

But I suppose the eternal would be even worse. If the Scream went on, burning as brightly as it had, those volunteers would tire and become doctors and lawyers. Kidding. But there’s something to be said for ending on an upswing. I just hope we all feel the need to fill this gap with something that includes those who want to participate. It’s not just planning events that are fun and radical, it’s providing a space for those writers, who are new to the writing community or not, to engage and be curious about art. A place where we can all try and succeed or fail at making an idea present in the world. And though I haven’t touched on it here, the Scream was a place to highlight the interesting work that’s being done all the time in Canada and internationally and I hope that spirit continues on. Organizing is fun. It’s incredibly hard too. It’s a lot of learning to listen and to adapt to language and the world, which do change. The spirit of the Scream is coming with me wherever I go. I hope I can do even a fraction of what the Scream has done in my lifetime. I really do. I’ve been given a lot of gifts that I’d like to pay forward.

And because I can’t think of a better last line for the Scream, I’ll just say: Holy shit.

Jenny Sampirisi is the author of is/was (Insomniac, 2008) and Croak (Coach House, 2011). She is currently the Managing Editor of BookThug and the Co-Director of the Toronto New School of Writing. She is the recipient of the 2011 KM Hunter Artist Award for Literature. She teaches language, literature and creative writing at Ryerson University. For four years she worked in various capacities for The Scream Literary Festival.

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