Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Art Bar at Any Other Bar would Still Be the Art Bar

Share |

We poets living in Toronto (or in Canada, perhaps) have a reliable way of dating our entrée onto the scene. We can ask ourselves: Where in the city was Toronto’s Art Bar when we first read there? And who was at its helm?

I wanna boast that I was present, back in 1991, when Allen Sutterfield launched the venerable reading series in his basement. I was around back then, but I wasn't all that cool. Neither was I present, as an invited reader or audience member, when the series packed up its tent and moved to the yet-to-be-gentrified Gladstone Hotel.

But I do indeed have sweet memories of the first time I did read at the Art Bar. It was sometime back in the mid 90s. Its home, then, was Csarda’s restaurant on Elm Street. (Close your eyes and picture a dark, narrow space; red-and-white checkered tablecloths; candles flickering from the mouths of old, basket-wrapped wine bottles; schnitzel; and palacsinta. An intimate version of the kind of Hungarian joint that used to line Bloor Street between Spadina and Bathurst, before all U of T students subsisted on bite-sized morsels of raw fish.)

The Art Bar was, in those days, run by Pierre L’Abbe, with assistance from Allan Briesmaster. I think I can remember Pierre introducing me. l definitely can remember my heart pounding in my chest and my hands shaking as I stood up, rather shyly, to read some of the poems that would eventually make it into my first book. (Ah, I still don’t possess even half the confidence and braggadocio of even the most neophyte slam or open mic poet.)

Well, the peripatetic Art Bar has livened many a boite over its almost 19-year lifespan. Allan Briesmaster was kind enough to give me a mini history lesson the other day. Speaking of its locations, he mentioned: the Gladstone; Matyas Cellar restaurant at the Hungarian House on St. Clair West (in what was in the 1940s an old synagogue, I think); Csarda’s; the Imperial Library and Pub on Dundas Street East; and the Victory Café on Markham Street. He also respectfully listed a long line of energetic impresarios, a few of which included Pierre L’Abbe, David Clink, Phlip Arima, Heather Cadsby, Colleen Flood, and Alison Hancock.

Right now, the Art Bar is located just up the street from my home, at Clinton’s Tavern (where, in past years, I’d dug the Cowboy Junkies, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, and Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band) and it's being run as a co-op by a team of no less than seven. Well, I tripped down there on Tuesday night to catch readings by Andrea Jarmai, Dane Swan, and Clara Blackwood. I thought it would be a fitting bill for me to blog about. Because I distinctly remember Clara, as a young teen, sitting demurely beside her father, Allan Briesmaster, at many an Art Bar reading. She was even present before I was, back in the days when the series was held at The Gladstone. "I went to see all the eccentric poets and seedy characters who hung out at the hotel," she told me a while ago. "I thought that, like, this is sooo different from where my family was living in North York!"

Who would've thunk it? There’s no dough in the venture, but the Toronto poetry scene is almost as dynastic as Hollywood. With such poets as Clara Blackwood, Lara Solnicki and Jacob Scheier following in a parent’s footsteps. Clara is not only her father's daughter, but the girlfriend of her fellow Art Bar reading mate, turntable-ist and post-slam, urban poet Dane Swan. (Clara and Dane will argue charmingly about which reading series they first hooked up at. "Was it Cryptic Chatter? Or the Coffee House Cabaret? Or Diamond Cherry?".)

Dear Reader: This Tuesday night Art Bar reading seemed magical to me even before it began. When I arrived at Clinton's, just a few minutes after 8, the place was packed: a who's who list of poets so long it would take up the whole blog. As there were almost no empty seats, I sat down at a front table to the left of the stage beside a woman whom I'd never seen before. What luck! She instantly offered to buy me a drink! Over glasses of Grand Marnier, I discovered that my genteel table-mate was eighty-two-year-old Mrs. Eve Gabori. She revealed that she, and her husband, George (now deceased), helped to support famed Hungarian poet George Faludy when he first arrived in Canada. She also told me that the two men had spent time together in a Communist prison camp, all this after her husband had survived Dachau (she, on the other hand, had been sent to Auschwitz). Eve had ventured out tonight to hear Andrea Jarmai, who has some won some acclaim for her translations of Faludy's work.

After host Valentino Assenza's warm welcome, Andrea Jarmai was first up. In a voice that resonated with depth and warmth, she read from her 2008 Lyrical Myrical chapbook, Fools. I have this book: elegant, nuanced lyric verse; a judicious use of rhyme; a hint of Rilke. She also read a translation of a long, meditative poem, "Dolphins," by the aforementioned George Faludy.

Next up was Dane Swan. Reading from his chapbook in progress, Trying to Count Electric Sheep (but the radioactive glow is bothering my insomnia). I'd never heard Dane read before. Though I can't really make out exactly what he's talking about, I absolutely love the conversation. Whitman, move over, Swan sings the body electric.

Of the featured poets, Clara read last. New works as well as crowd-favourites from her first poetry collection, Subway Medusa (2007), the inaugural book published in the First Poets Series by Guernica Editions (my own fab publisher). As she won applause for her ironic and pithy poems (Clara writes lines like "I listen to Dr. Phil on my iPod while in the shower"), I couldn't help glancing over at her father, poet and veteran Art Bar organizer, Allan Briesmaster. He was beaming with delight and pride.

P.S. My table-mate didn't get the opportunity to hear Clara. After purchasing Dane's most recent chapbook, Narcotics//Flora, she apologized for not being able to stay and bowed out. But not before giving me her telephone number and inviting me over for a home-made meal. It seems that, for me at least, the Art Bar's Hungarian connection will remain intact. So, here, just for fun, is a great Goulash recipe.

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.

Karen Shenfeld

Toronto poet Karen Shenfeld is the author of The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999) and The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival.

Go to Karen Shenfeld ’s Author Page