Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


A look at an unlikely literary festival.
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As with all things to do with the Scream Literary Festival, this story starts in a bar - the Victory Café. Its brown and beige interior is familiar to most Torontonians who live in the Annex neighbourhood. A good selection of craft beer keeps its patio crammed through the summer months. Its small but well-trod stage on the second floor has made it a touch point for the city's artistic communities, the poets among them.

I'm sitting at one of the few empty tables on the patio. Bill Kennedy appears around the corner of the building with briefcase in hand. His brown hair is approaching shoulder length, and he's wearing shorts and a checkered button-up tee-shirt – standard business attire for the Scream's artistic director.

“Sir, it's been a while,” he says, shaking my hand.

For the 2003 and 2004 festivals, I was the Scream’s volunteer coordinator. I'd been given a glimpse behind the scenes at what is now one of summer's most important cultural events. I'd watched as a group of volunteers that can best be described as “rag tag” make their mark on Toronto, the city of festivals.

I've run into Kennedy many times since my Scream tenure but never as frequently as when the festival's executive committee met weekly in West End bars to order pitchers and hash out event lineups. Meetings were never formal, or well-organized for that matter. Planning was often sidetracked by tangential debates, jokes or just plain gossip. Of course, as the weeks ticked by and spring became summer, we buckled down and worked, driven by the manic energy that comes late at night in the hours before a deadline. Kennedy called it “gonzo energy,” and Scream thrived on it.

After a bit of catch-up, Kennedy and I move inside the Victory to escape the street noise. As we sit at one of the two-person booths opposite the bar, Kennedy is lamenting his busy schedule. I believe this was the exact topic of the last conversation we'd had some 12 months earlier.

“I've just got too many irons in too many fires.”

He smiles as he says it, but I don't doubt his fatigue. In addition to Scream, which now has a year-round planning cycle, Kennedy runs a web-development company called Stop 14 Media, works three days a week at York University cataloging art projects and writes and edits fiction. He even published a book with Scream alumnus Darren Wershler-Henry in 2006 called Apostrophe (ECW Press).

“The problem is I just can't say no to any of these things.”

This penchant to say “yes” may have been how he got involved with Scream in the first place. As its third curator, he sits at the hub of an ever-changing group of volunteers who've grown the Scream from idle dream to international-caliber literary event.

The idle-dream part came in 1993 when budding author Matthew Remski started getting tired of the way poetry readings worked in Toronto.

“Most nights were spent going from one café or bar to another,” he says, “listening to the same group of readers we'd heard the month before.”

A few members of that group decided (in a bar) that something needed to change. That group included Kennedy, Michael Holmes (now senior editor at ECW Press), Alana Wilcox (now Coach House Books editor-in-chief) and another future Scream artistic director, Peter McPhee,. Memories of the exact location of that conversation are hazy, but the consensus was that things needed to move beyond the “sense of sadness in the same group of people reading over and over,” as Remski puts it.

Remski's growing dislike for dark, smoky bars as literary venues lead to thoughts of building something bigger. “As the voice of the community grew, I thought its presence should too.”

The number of reading series in the city at that time was far smaller than it is now. The Café May and Idler series were perhaps the biggest , and book launches always brought the small-press crowd out. Beyond that, Harbourfront offered the only other regular venue for live readings. Its series started in 1974, though its scope and direction drew a more mass audience to events such as the International Festival of Authors.

Still, the idea of a Harbourfront-sized crowd's gathering for the sole purpose of a poetry reading appealed to everyone involved.

Kennedy remembers it as a rather daring, subversive idea. “Wouldn't it be funny if we hijacked the Dream in High Park stage and put on a reading outside?” he remembers saying. “And the real joke was, 'What if we call it Scream in High Park?' Now we're stuck with this ridiculous name.”

For Remski, however, the stage appealed to deeper passions.

“I've always had a deep reverence for natural beauty... and that stage is like a secular cathedral.”

Anyone who's attended one of the High Park readings – now the festival's “main stage” closing event – will know what Remski's talking about. As the readings progress from dusk to dark, there is an unmistakable intimacy that grows in the amphitheater. The sounds of the park and its traffic fade over the course of the night. Children gather near the stage for the first set and somehow manage to sit quietly. Wine is opened and picnics are unwrapped.

As the darkness deepens, the stage lights illuminate the underside of the foliage overhead, creating a sense of enclosure. Some people leave during the intermissions, but most stay to the end. And those who do are treated to what has been termed an “open-air anthology” of North American poetry.

“What Scream did was bring together all the different communities,” says Coach House's Wilcox, who was Remski's girlfriend in those days and helped him fund the event. “At the time there were, for example, the experimental poets, and spoken word was just starting, but… [Scream] was about having fun, [and] finding out what else was going on instead of staying within our little communities.”

Despite a rainy forecast and a late-gathering audience, the first Scream was a success. The final headcount was more than 450. So after Remski and Wilcox drained their shared bank account of its entire $2,000 balance, they made almost all of the money back. Remski knew he'd hit on something unique and sustainable. Which was mostly why he left.

“I ducked out pretty quick,” he says. “It was inevitably going to get complicated by growth... I'm not a community organizer so much as I'm interested in ritual.”

He turned creative director duties over to McPhee and left for Europe, where he would eventually meet his wife, Dennison Smith, and discover a new career as a ayurvedic consultant.

McPhee, who has since authored Running Unconscious (Coach House, 2000) and moved to British Columbia, curated the event through the remainder of the '90s. During those years, prominent names such as Steve McCaffery, Joy Kogawa, Tomson Highway and Leon Rooke took the stage. So did blossoming talents such as Christian Bok, who won the Griffin Award in 2002 for Eunoia (Coach House Books). R.M. Vaughn read during his tenure as playwright-in-residence at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

“It was so good for Toronto,” says ECW's Holmes, a two-time Screamer himself (1993 and 2005). “And so good for literature in this country.... Writers I knew back then who were young and unpublished have come up as the next generation. It was our time to do it, and Scream was maybe the start of all that.”

McPhee stayed involved after handing the organizational reins to Kennedy and still bears the semi-official title of creative director emeritus. Kennedy, however, drastically expanded the role in 2002 by evolving Scream in High Park into The Scream Literary Festival.

Past events have included art shows, poet-spotting hikes through the Annex and ghost-story readings. This year's festival is 16 events over nine days and includes a panel discussion, three workshops, a fan-fiction and machinima-film night and a bevy of readings and parties.

“We've grown mostly through volunteer labour and an odd perseverance pursuing some bizarre concept no one can quite articulate,” Kennedy says. “We just kind of want to do something else.”

That “something else,” just as Remski anticipated, has grown over the years into something more complex than anyone could imagine in 1993. And it continues to grow, though Kennedy's plans are kept well-grounded.

“I think the name of the festival is just goofy enough that we'll never legitimize,” he says, his pint of Tankhouse Ale a few sips emptier than my own. “It will never turn us into the Toronto International Poetry Festival or something like that. We're always going to have a mandate to do something a little stranger.”

The Scream Literary Festival runs in the first two weeks of every July. The 2008 edition takes place from July 3rd to July 14.

Paul Vermeersch

Jeromy is a full-time writer for a major Canadian business trade publication (but don't let that fool you... He's a music and culture reporter at heart). When not writing about advertising, he's chasing indy bands across Toronto. He'll write a book someday. Honest.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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