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A Tale of Puck and Prospero

An Unorthodox Recollection of The Scream in High Park
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Scream in High Park

As much as I’ve tried to avoid the easy analogy, I continue to find that thinking about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in relation to the 18-year-old Toronto literary festival, which came to be known simply as the Scream, is the only way to proceed. Let me be upfront from the beginning:

I have been involved with the Scream in one way or another almost from its inception in 1993. I was a volunteer at the mainstage from 1995–1997, in 1998 I was a performer, in 2001 I was the festival’s Artistic Liaison, in 2006 I was a jurist for the mainstage and from 2007 until this year I was the President of the Scream’s Board of Directors. I have met some of my best friends in the literary community through working with the Scream, and the Scream was the first public event my youngest son attended at only a few weeks old.

So, any attempt at objectivity in writing about the Scream is clearly impossible for me. Framing my discussion around Shakespeare’s early comedy then, might give me some distance, or at least allow me to step aside from the immediately personal and say something concrete about the festival.

But again, it’s the easy analogy: the festival was so named as a pun on The Dream in High Park, the Canadian Stage Company’s annual performance, since 1983, of Shakespeare in the Park. The Scream mainstage is conducted at the same outdoor amphitheatre as the Canadian Stage company, usually on the second Monday of July, which is a blackout night for the Shakespeare performances. And I’m not the first to compare the Scream to Shakespeare’s Dream; Lynn Crosbie’s poetic recollection of the first festival, in her poem “Alphabet City,” uses A Midsummer Night’s Dream as its intertext.

Yet, as many have commented over the years, the Scream is not a stable entity that is easily defined. For example: it is a one-night performance that is also a multi-day festival; it is primarily a poetry venue, but one which also welcomes some of Canada’s finest storytellers, playwrights and sound performers; it is run primarily by volunteers and “amateurs” yet produces some of the most professionally designed posters and textual material and some of the most thoughtfully curated performances and events this city has witnessed; and, while it was initially associated with the “spoken word” poetry movement, it is also known for its embracing of the experimental and avant-garde. In short, the Scream is many things to many people, few of whom would agree completely with the others.

In keeping with this contradictory spirit, the Scream’s dualities might be better expressed by comparing its development to not one Shakespeare play, but two. The second play I’m thinking about is not one of his early comedies, but his reportedly last play, a drama which also engages with dreams, madness, poetry and, most importantly, magic: The Tempest. I propose, then, to look at the Scream through a “mash-up” of these two plays, with particular focus on its two artistic directors as analogues of Shakespearean characters: a puckish Peter McPhee and Bill Kennedy as a modern Prospero.

Prologue: A Dream of Oberon

Fittingly, however, the Scream did not begin with a Puck or a Prospero, but an Oberon, a young poet and novelist who dreamed the festival, and then departed, leaving the mechanicals and fairies to carry on the vision.

According to McPhee’s introduction to Carnival: A Scream in High Park Reader (1996), one of the few documents of the early festival:

In the winter of 1993, Matthew Remski, a 21-year-old poet, small press publisher and community radio broadcaster, was organizing a reading. He had learned that the Shakespearean stage, at the site of Canadian Stage’s annual summer production Dream in High Park, would not be used on Monday nights. He was going to hold an outdoor poetry festival … The rest of us thought a festival was a great idea and offered many suggestions—but very little help. He drew on and then enhanced our sense of community.

By the first week of July, preparations were complete. Sixteen writers would read from their work (and be paid for it). Matthew put up posters. He also put up most of the money…

It rained off and on throughout the morning of July 19 … However, at 7 o’clock we had an audience of 450. And by the end of the night we knew it would happen again.

McPhee’s rather romantic and communitarian view of the Scream’s beginnings, however, belies a perhaps equally important impetus in the formation of the Scream: that of frustration at absence. For young writers in Toronto at the beginning of the 1990s, there were few venues for alternative or non-traditional poetries. Many of the magazines and small presses which had been initiated in the late 1960s by the Boomer generation had either folded or were inaccessible to the new Generation X writers. These young authors knew the experimental literary tradition instigated by such writers as bpNichol, Nicole Brossard and bill bissett but had seen the centre of activity and networking represented by Nichol’s publishing and community activism collapse with Nichol’s death in 1988.

The name of festival, then, might not just be read as a pun on a Dream in High Park, but also a literal scream: a scream of frustration, a scream of release and, most importantly, a scream in the sense of the new generation to be heard and acknowledged. It was a scream to invoke agency at a low point in literary publishing and during a politically conservative era. But it was a collective scream, which was intended to show connections between the older generation of radical writers and the new group arising. That first festival in 1993 clearly demonstrates this linking of generations with several pioneers of experimental writing in Canada (bissett, Paul Dutton, Christopher Dewdney) performing on the same bill as young emerging talents (Christian Bök, Adeena Karasick, Lynn Crosbie, Michael Holmes).

Yet this was a scream that was soon heard. The Scream in High Park’s emergence and growth corresponded with the rise of Generation X counter-culture, and the media, looking for ways to define this generation, saw such cultural manifestations as ‘zines, graphic novels and a renewed attention to poetry as markers of this new slacker lifestyle. By the mid-1990s, poetry was suddenly being discussed in the mainstream media and could actually be considered popular culture: poets were invited to perform at the Lollapalooza alternative music festival, MTV and MuchMusic commissioned poetry videos for broadcast and poets were featured in Now Magazine’s weekly fashion profile.

In an article in Books in Canada published a few years after the first Scream, Stan Rogal commented that poetry was in the spotlight during the 1990s, but rightly noted that the majority of attention given to poetry by the mainstream media was to a particular type of poetry — performance poetry:

performance poetry appears to be a ‘90s phenomenon. But historically poetry has been closely linked to an oral/ performative tradition, whether as recital, song, theatre, or storytelling. It is doubtful there has ever been a time when poetry has not been performed in one way or another. What is new, I think, is that the media have finally recognized that not only are poets performing their work in varied and various venues, but there is an ever increasing audience. This makes poetry a very sexy topic.

Rogal goes on to connect this move to historical precedents in the Beat movement and to examine the roots of performance poetry — then mostly being referred to as “spoken word” poetry — in dub and action poetry. Moreover, he situates the Scream in High Park as part of a new phenomenon of the 1990s: that of taking poetry out of the academy, or from an elite culture, to a popular or mainstream audience, citing video poems and fringe festival poetry events such as the Poetry Express (a mobile reading on a city bus with six poets performing ten-minute sets over the sound of traffic and city). It is at this point in literary culture that the puck of the Scream was passed to a new Artistic Director.

Act One: A Puckish Period (1994-2000)

It is not difficult to see McPhee as a contemporary Puck: impish in disposition, quick to laugh or make a joke, with a strong affection for nature and the pastoral elements of Canada and capable of creating magic in his own poetry, and of recognizing the magic in others. McPhee’s own poetry combined the conversational style of the New York School with a Beat poet’s attention to rhythm and sound-effect, creating a poetic persona equal parts Tom Waits and Al Purdy, and featuring an unabashedly boyish sense of wonder (his signature piece for many years was “Why the Stegosaurus is my Favourite Dinosaur”). This poetic hybridity, or openness to many forms — music, pop culture, Canadiana, confessional and conversational poetry — represented by McPhee’s work can actually be viewed as representative of what he attempted to achieve for the festival as a whole during his tenure as Artistic Director of the Scream.

Besides a love of poetry, McPhee’s other main interest was music, and it is apparent that he saw the Scream literary festival as potentially being akin to a folk festival or jazz festival: a space where many aspects of a large genre could commingle (Celtic folk with Maritime, or with blue grass, or with gypsy, or with electric and psychedelic folk; or where free jazz could mix with modal jazz, vocal jazz, fusion, or swing). Similarly, then, the genre of a literary festival could be expanded to include not just lyric poetry, but sound poetry, narrative poetry, dub poetry or storytelling. McPhee’s programming was at all times inclusive and eclectic. In a retrospective article on the Scream, published as McPhee was retiring as Artistic Director, Julie Crysler noted,

Go to the Scream and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear classic Can-lit, bizarro sound poems, slam-style spoken word, often a bit of dub, multidisciplinary performances pairing writers with musicians, djs, dancers. On McPhee’s stage there are writers young and old, gay and straight, male and female, WASPy and not, pretty famous and totally obscure.

In order to maintain this diversity, McPhee also instigated a five-year moratorium rule whereby a performer needed to wait five years after reading at the mainstage before she or he could be invited back again. A second unique programming element that distinguished the Scream from other literary festivals was its deliberate disregard for the seasonal nature of publishing and the typical promotion and publicity cycles of the Canadian literary scene. That is, rather than look to see which authors had new books they needed to promote, what a given publisher was attempting to foist on the public or who was currently in the media spotlight, the programming of the Scream was determined by what the Artistic Director thought was interesting and exciting to put on a large outdoor stage. Thus, on a given Scream night one could see a writer who hadn’t published a book in a decade or an oral storyteller who had never published in print form, or a jazz musician who was now branching out into poetry or a well-established writer with dozens of books in print or a young writer who was just getting material together to put out a first book. This mentality was completely antithetical to how publishing and promotion worked in Canada, and it didn’t endear the Scream to mainstream publishers or their publicists.

In this first decade, the literary festival that the Scream most often defined itself against was Eden Mills, another outdoor summer festival, held near Guelph, which had been founded a few years earlier in 1989. To the Scream organizers, Eden Mills represented “playing it safe” and following the expected routine of CanLit programming and promotion: that festival was mostly front-list, big-name Canadian writers, with a few poets or non-mainstream writers included tokenistically. The Scream saw themselves as the rebellious teenagers to the parental Boomer generation represented by Eden Mills.

But more important than this contrast, what connects this early period to Shakespeare’s Dream is the concept of the carnivalesque. By this I mean the classic festival of inversion where society is turned upside down for one day; where the oppressed can rise and speak and where libidinal drives and excesses of all types are indulged in freely. One might think of Mardi Gras, or even Halloween, as this type of carnival, and certainly Shakespeare’s play partakes of this tradition with its night of love, magic, mistaken identity, elixirs, masques and the inverting of the dynamic between the world of the mortals and fairies, and of the dream world and the waking world. The Scream, for its part, during this period was subtitled “a Carnival of the Spoken Word” rather than being a straight literary festival, and the emphasis was always on a single night: one night of literary magic under the night skies of High Park where the so-called “Scream Effect” could happen: where up to 1200 people would watch in near silence as a poet invoked the muses, took emotional risks or performed something totally aesthetically unexpected and, amid the bats flying by and the ambient noise of crickets, pull it off in way that could never have happened in a bar, art gallery or indoor stage. The next day one was expected to wake up hung-over, having been emotionally changed by the experiences of the previous night and shaking one’s head and wondering if it had really happened.

Act Two: The Prospero Period (2001-2011)

As well as leaving a legacy of powerful single night performances — with legendary individual performances being too numerous to list, but including one of Al Purdy’s final public performances, astounding readings by sound poets like Paul Dutton and Owen Sound, and knockout readings by writers soon to be internationally renowned such as Dionne Brand, Christian Bök and M. Nourbese Philip — in one of the final years of McPhee’s tenure as Artistic Director he introduced an event which would provide the seed for the future direction of the Scream.

Like the Scream itself, founded somewhat on a dare, the book-length reading soon took off from a joke over pints to a foundational element of a new festival. Back in the late 1990s, expressing admiration for Gerry Shikatani’s epic poem Aqueduct, one of the largest books of poetry published in Canada during this period, McPhee and Bill Kennedy speculated about how funny it would be to ask Shikatani to read the poem “in one sitting,” which then expanded to “at one sitting with the audience eating a gourmet meal” (Shikatani had long been a food critic for various newspapers). Then Shikatani surprised everyone by agreeing, and the event happened: the book-length reading was born.

That the book-length reading became the pivot point between McPhee’s programming of the Scream and Kennedy’s is not coincidental. As the 1990s turned to the new century alternative poetry culture began to lose its lustre, and with the mainstream media looking elsewhere for literary stories, Kennedy had the difficult job of attempting to maintain the public’s interest in poetry, of dealing with the new funding formulas for literary festivals imposed by the Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council, and appealing to poetry’s core constituency without seeming to “sell out” (the ultimate betrayal to Gen X readers and audiences). Kennedy’s solution was to attempt to take the “Scream Effect” out of High Park and into multiple spaces and over several days: to see if the “magic” of the outdoor park reading could be converted, transformed, or at least be spread to other venues, other genres, other communities.

I once again use the descriptor “magic” to talk about the festival, but as the baton of the festival passed from McPhee to Kennedy the nature of that magic changed. As I see it, it is the difference between the magic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and that practiced in The Tempest. The magic in Dream is restricted to one evening in one enchanted wood; magic in The Tempest is more majestic: it can occur anywhere on Caliban’s island, control the weather (causing shipwrecks and storms) and produce something from nothing. The magic in Dream is organic, using love potions of pansies; the magic in The Tempest is more apt to be mechanical: Prospero performing his spells using books, magic staff and a “quaint device.” I believe this change in magic is akin to the change in performance venue and style as the Scream moved from a single-night carnival to a week-long festival.

Thinking of the second phase of the Scream in terms of The Tempest also requires us to see Artistic Director Kennedy as Prospero, which isn’t that difficult to do. Tall and gothic-looking to McPhee’s more rustic appearance, Kennedy can remind one of the magician not so much of the Shakespearean stage but of Peter Greenaway’s 1991 film Prospero’s Books. In Greenaway’s version, we have a magus who is obsessed with spectacle and a series of astounding books (such as the Harsh Book of Geometry which, “when opened, complex three-dimensional geometrical diagrams rise up out of the pages like models in a pop up book. The pages flicker with logarithmic numbers and figures. Angles are measured by needle-thin metal pendulums that swing freely, activated by magnets concealed in the thick paper.”) While Kennedy is bookish in comparison to McPhee’s natural inclination towards to the aural/ oral, Kennedy is, in the words of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery, a “kid of the book machine”: someone who relishes all aspects of print from the small press ‘zine to the finely bound and printed tome, and who has applied his singular graphic design talents and computer skills to developing websites, online books, poetry apps, as well as more conventional desktop publishing of magazines, posters and print books (for such presses as Coach House and Snare Books). Thus, if McPhee could be seen as the elf of eye and ear, Kennedy would be the wizard of word and image.

Under Kennedy’s charge, the Scream moved from a single night performance on the mainstage in High Park to a week long series of events (one year it was actually a 13-day series) scattered throughout the city preceding and leading up to the mainstage reading on the Monday night. Events changed from year to year, but included literary walking tours of various neighbourhoods in Toronto, panel discussions, youth writing workshops, opening night galas, collaborative poetry performances with dancers and musicians, multi-media presentations in the basement of Type books, art shows of graffiti or concrete poetry and, each year, a book-length reading in which participants such as Lisa Robertson, Christian Bök, Dionne Brand and Dennis Lee read complete collections of poetry at various Toronto restaurants. To many, this last event was best represented by Christopher Dewdney’s reading of the complete Natural History outdoors in the reclaimed natural environment of the Toronto brickworks, with a local organic menu of dishes suggested by the poem itself.

The connection of the Scream to the spoken word had also become something of an albatross, and even by 1997 the subtitle of the festival had been modified to read “a carnival of the spoken word.” To further distance the festival from this tradition, and to unify an increasingly disparate programming, Kennedy introduced the idea of organizing Scream events around a central theme, such as appropriation, the future of the book or aesthetic provocation. As well as providing an organizing nexus, these themes were topical and seemed to be one way of also making poetry visible to the public: the premise was the idealistic conception that poetry could contribute to public discourse, that if given a focus through a controversial issue, the general reader would be interested in knowing “what the poets were doing.”

Despite these successes, the Scream eventually hit a glass ceiling in terms of its ability to expand and continue. Unlike the Ottawa or Calgary literary festivals, the Scream could never be the single major literary festival in Toronto due to the presence of the International Festival of Authors (if the early festival contrasted itself to Eden Mills, the second phase of the festival saw itself as radically different from the IFOA) and, in recent years, the appearance of Luminato. The Scream could not compete with those festivals in securing corporate sponsorship, and as the festival expanded the requirements of federal and provincial granting agencies became increasing Byzantine. Moreover, the running of the Scream became a full-time job, but was only funded on a part-time basis, and more often than not it was sustained by the sweat of volunteers who increasingly burned out after a year or two of involvement. Finally, the core members of the Scream, the early founders who had stuck around, were getting tired; those who had begun as frustrated Gen X’ers were now all in their forties, and there appeared to be few members of the Millennial Generation who wished to carry on the torch of the Scream. After much discussion, Kennedy decided that this year, July 2011, was to be the last year of the Scream.

Epilogue: The Music Crept by Us

I will leave it to those who are more objective to determine what lessons are to be learned from the appearance and conclusion of the Scream in High Park. Is it a story of changing demographics and generational responses to Canadian literature? (A move from postmodernism to something else? A transition between the Boomers and Gen X?) Is there something that can be learned about the dangers of applying neo-liberal economic strategies to artistic enterprises (the constant pressure to expand, increase markets, charge higher ticket prices or else be deemed a “failure”)? Is there something flawed in funding formulas which changed over the past two decades to sponsor individual writers and programming, rather than festivals in and of themselves? Has the growth of online culture and social networking compromised the importance of the physical literary reading or made poetry even less relevant to the public?

What is the legacy of the Scream? Will the older poets continue to wax nostalgic about the event or will younger writers miss the presence of the festival and start something of their own? Interestingly, Kennedy is concluding the Scream by opening it up to others, by giving the Scream back as a gift to the literary community. As the current website of the Scream proclaims:

We have one final request, aimed at all of those who do such good work keeping lit alive in this town. We'd like to invite you to organize a literary event between Tuesday, July 5th and Sunday, July 10th (except for Thursday the 7th, which is our opening night) as part of what we're tentatively titling “Wreck our brand™: a Scream unFestival”. It could be a reading, a workshop, a new series, an homage, a critique, a protest or what-have-you. You don't need our permission—hell, we're not going to support it directly—but do something in a Screamly spirit and we'll post the info to our site. To be clear—we're keeping these events at arms length because we have neither the staff nor the money to support them. But nothing is more in keeping with the origins of the Scream than making an event without money or support, so go and build something that matters to you.

At the conclusion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck asks forgiveness for his indulgences and offers a hand in friendship while, at the end of The Tempest, Prospero breaks his magic staff and drowns his books: any future magic will be in the hands of the next generation of Miranda and Ferdinand. Likewise we wait to see what new poets and organizers will bring to the Toronto literary scene in future years — what “brave new world” awaits us?


UPDATE:

Peter McPhee wrote to let me know that the Book Length reading at the Scream was first initiated by Gerry Shikatani himself, rather than at Bill Kennedy and McPhee’s urging.

Shikatani’s statement before his reading that night, in part, noted:

I decided on the idea of reading/speaking/performing the entire text while I was living in Paris when Aqueduct came out in 1996. Like much of Aqueduct, as project (not simply book), my exploration of concept and process generated this notion.

The collaboration between the three publishers, as process, was integral to the project, not simply a way of making the book, as object, feasible.

[…]

The work was never intended as isolated poems, but a complete narrative, perhaps a ‘long poem’ or a novel — read front to back as a novel which traces, I hope, kinds of cultural and linguistic transformations within the breathing body, notating an evolution of perception.

The event is for me personally, a way of also experiencing the text, experiencing duration as public act.


Bibliography/ Further Reading

An amazing online archives of the Scream in High Park is currently being assembled with posters, recordings of readings, videos, and many more features. It can be perused at: http://screamp3.artmob.ca/

Crosbie, Lynn. “Alphabet City.” Queen Rat. Toronto: Anansi, 1998.

Crysler, Julie. “His Final Scream.” Write 1.2 (2000): 19-23.

Dewdney, Christopher. The Natural History. Toronto: ECW, 2002.

Greenaway, Peter. List of Prospero’s Books: http://petergreenaway.org.uk/prospero.htm.

McPhee, Peter. Carnival: A Scream in High Park Reader. Toronto: Insomniac, 1996.

--- Running Unconscious. Toronto: Coach House, 2000.

Prospero’s Books. Dir. Peter Greenaway. 1991.

Rogal, Stan. “It Seems to Be a Verb: Performance Poetry has Jumped Down from the
Ivory Tower and Hit the Streets with a Hot Sweet Beat.” Books in Canada 23.7 (1994).

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 1600.

--- The Tempest. 1611.

Shikatani, Gerry. Aqueduct. Toronto: Mercury/ Wolsak and Wynn/ Underwhich, 1996.

Stephen Cain

Stephen Cain is the author of I Can Say Interpellation (BookThug, 2011) and three earlier poetry collections — American Standard/ Canada Dry (Coach House, 2005), Torontology (ECW, 2001) and dyslexicon (Coach House, 1998). He has also composed a collaborative series of micro-fictions, Double Helix (Mercury, 2006), with Jay MillAr, and co-authored, with Tim Conley, The Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (Greenwood, 2006). He lives in Toronto where has been a literary editor at the Queen Street Quarterly and fiction editor at Insomniac Press.

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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