Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poet as Provocateur: A Note on Salon Culture

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Poet as Provocateur: A Note on Salon Culture

Wherefore has the art of the literary salon gone? Wherefore the tasteful amusement of eavesdropping on crafty conversationalists, lounging about for the love of literature’s delights? Where does one go to see opinions dance and clash in testy gatherings of writerly egos? Literary salons, which flourished in France during the 17 and 18th centuries, seem antiquated by today’s standards, little more than languid parties for petty bourgeois readers, foreign assemblies in an era pulsed by tweets and text.

The word salon first appeared in France in 1664, and the first renowned salon was hosted at the Hôtel de Rambouillet in Paris. Hostess Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet (1588–1665) ran the salon, establishing rules of etiquette for the exchange of intellectual ideas. Responsible for solidifying the salon as a place of reasoned debate, Madame de Rambouillet’s salon was open to anyone possessing good manners, sincere and passionate ideas, and a love of good conversation. Contrary to popular opinion, the gatherings made “unpretentiousness” a rule (she is purported to have said that the last thing a person should do is make another feel that their ideas or talents have no worth) for purposes of savoir-vivre.

The literary salon has been painted as a place or palace of politeness rather than politics, with poets as king. Things have changed since the Enlightenment era of the 1700s, however, with literary historiographers having studied the evolution of cultural meanings attached to conversation and exchange over several decades. From the salons and academies to the societies and cafés, such venues played a critical role in the emergence of what Jürgen Habermas has termed “the public sphere,” which arrived in political contrast to court (i.e. aristocratic) society. The literary salons inhabited a middle ground between the closed, inner world of the privileged and the outer world of the masses, making the literary arts a topic of philosophic interest to be debated by all.

Thankfully, Torontonians and Ontarians at large have understood the importance of such an environment, and attempts have been made to keep these venues—and the conversational ethic—alive today. Toronto’s The Spoke Club and Open Book: Toronto have been in partnership to present the Toronto Literary Salon, which, modeled on the early salons of the 1700s, has endeavoured to offer a place where authors and readers can engage in friendly debates on the wonders of all things literary. 2010 offered a range of wonderful Canadian writers, and I am hopeful that 2011 will have more events in store.

The Influency Salon, headed by Margaret Christakos, was created for the love and distribution of reading, disseminating, and praising poetic works and their important place in the world. Named after the beauty of writerly mentorship, and recognition that the practice of writing requires an audience and/or readership, Influency aims to create a sense of community engagement with literary texts. It also aims at creating greater levels of fluency in order that the leap from readerships to informed readerships can manifest in more profound ways.

Then there is the Salon du Livre du Grand Sudbury, the largest francophone cultural event in Northern Ontario, is also the fourth largest literary salon for francophone art and culture in Canada. Each year, the event brings together more than 70 authors and artists, 58 community partners and at least 200 publishing houses from across the country.

Though our province, and Toronto in particular, offers a spectrum of literary activity, we must not let the tradition of the literary salon go out with a whimper. The salon can be a place where relationships between author and text, text and reader, reader and author transform in an ongoing fashion; a place where inspirations are pulled apart and previous modes of thought renegotiated in renegade fashion.

I have flirted with the idea of starting a salon, loosely called "En Flambé." The name, while seemingly pretentious is in fact as solemn as a tasty banana dish. My vision for the event would indeed be a mix between serious discussion, play, performance and hors d'œuvres. Or if not an event, perhaps a book project; a collection of poets who are literally “on fire.” Which should be the point of poetry... to shed light, or light words on fire… venture into semantics but with greater verve, and joie de vivre.

While the heyday of the salonnières of Parisian high society may have passed, it might still be beneficial (or an interesting cultural experiment) to demand its resurrection (or the trade, if only temporarily, of our usual objects of entertainment for the entertainment of thoughts in the Aristotelian sense). In the shift from an alphabet age to an electronic one, reviving the ability to talk and relate with others will become a necessary social experiment, or at least I hope it will, so that we might not forget the art of the heart-to-heart.

For Further Reading on the History of the Salon

Beasley, Faith E. Salons, History, and the Creation of Seventeenth-Century France: Mastering Memory. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Chesney, Duncan McColl. “The History of the History of the Salon.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 36 (2007): 94-108.

Kale, Steven. French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

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

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Adebe D.A.

Adebe D.A. is a writer whose words travel between Toronto and New York. She recently completed her MA at York University, where she also served as Assistant Editor for the arts and literary journal, Existere. Her debut poetry collection, Ex Nihilo, was published this year by Frontenac House, and subsequently longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the world’s largest prize for writers under 30.

Go to Adebe D.A.’s Author Page