Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Profile on Influency Salon, with a few questions

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Influency series

On May 8, 2008, Hamilton writer and composer Gary Barwin reported on his own experience with Margaret ChristakosInfluency series, posting a short write-up on his blog:

Margaret Christakos runs a fantastic course through continuing ed at University of Toronto called Influency. She invites eight poets to read and lecture. Each poet gives a half hour reading and is invited to give a talk about the work of one of the other poets. Margaret tends to match up poets with work that is outside of their usual concerns to create a bit of a frisson. The students read a particular book (or books) of each poet. This book forms the heart of the lecture by lecturing poet. Margaret begins each session with a talk looking backwards and forwards at the works, bringing up other related issues, and generally creating a broad conceptual framework in which the discussion takes place.

In 2006, Toronto writer, editor and critic Margaret Christakos started the first of her semi-annual Influency Salon courses through the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, inviting participants to engage with contemporary writing as serious readers and critics. Each session invited eight Canadian poets with new publications to participate both as writers and critics, brought in for an evening as author to read from their work and answer questions, and another as critic, asked to present a lecture on the work of another of the participating authors. My own participation in Influency, for example, meant presenting a paper on Camille Martin’s Sonnets (Shearsman, 2010), and Kaie Kellough presented on my wild horses (University of Alberta Press, 2010) a couple of weeks later. This spring, another session of Influency had been scheduled, but was cancelled due to low enrollment. Christakos has decided not to pursue further Influency courses for the time being. Providing an essential critical outlet during a fallow period of contemporary critical dialogue, Influency bridged and perhaps even opened up a series of other opportunities, given the growth of such sites as the new Lemonhound, Canadian participation in Jacket2, among other venues.

The scale of each course was impressive, and opened up stylistic and geographic boundaries between writers, as poets responded to the work of other poets’ work they might not necessarily have been familiar or attuned with. Since 2006, Influency hosted and discussed the work of poets including Antonio D’Alfonso, Triny Finlay, Maggie Helwig, Robert Priest, Trish Salah, Billeh Nickerson, Larissa Lai, Sina Queyras, Nathaniel Moore, Sue Sinclair, M. NourbeSe Philip, Ronna Bloom, Dennis Lee, Rachel Zolf, Meredith Quartermain, Roy Miki, Ken Babstock, Clifton Joseph, Kaie Kellough, Lisa Robertson, Susan Holbrook, Gregory Betts, John Barton, Camille Martin, Erín Moure, Stuart Ross, Billeh Nickerson, Karen Solie and Souvankham Thammavongsa. All of the Influency sessions were facilitated by Margaret Christakos, but for the fall 2012 course, which was facilitated by Jenny Sampirisi. On the litlive.ca website, Influency poet Trish Salah produced a lengthy report, including:

Suppose poetry was something people read, listened to, talked about, interpreted, argued over, wrote about, dreamt about, came back to, rethought, wrote about, argued over, read again. Suppose those people who read poetry read not only the poetry that they most attached to, but across a wide range of poetries and poetics. Suppose such readers of poetry learned to relish, if not all poetries, the encounter between them. Suppose they made a point of talking to one another, of gathering over poetry. Suppose people who were poets were among those people. Suppose we cultivated an ethic of reading and talking and writing (about) poetry that was generous, generative, unhurried and unapologetically critical. […] It is, in my experience, and to my knowledge, a unique encounter, to read to a room full of already fluent readers of one’s work, to be witness another poet’s encounter with one’s work in the form of a prepared talk, to be engaged by number of students in the class with their informed, careful and at times provocative readings, as well as by the formidable, if congenial, critical attention Margaret Christakos herself brings. It is not an accident Christakos calls the class a Salon, evoking a history of literary gatherings, theatres of wit and conversation and by some accounts, an emergent bourgeouis public sphere. And of course there is food, snacks during, informal drinks and dining after most sessions, and a banquet at the end.

An extension of each session was the online Influency Salon website, which hosted a number of the presentations by invited writers, as well as a number of responses by Influency participants, allowing the immediate discussion around each class to expand beyond the boundaries of the individual session. The entire point of Influency, it would seem, was to open up a dialogue, and what a dialogue it has been. Also, some of the intriguing elements of Influency have been in seeing a number of writers emerge from these sessions, a number of whom have participated repeatedly, including Shannon Maguire, Liz Howard, Paula Eisenstein, Ralph Kolewe and Chris D’Iorio, all of whom have started publishing books or chapbooks over the past year or so. Given the length and scope of the series, there are most likely more.

rob mclennan: How did you first get involved with Influency? How did it begin?

Margaret Christakos: The short answer is that I had in mind for a few years before I devised Influency some sort of round robin forum where poets would get the chance to experience lengthy critical and audience engagements with their books, and also to participate as deep readers of their colleagues' work. The long answer is online in a framing essay called "Shaping Influency Salon: Some Notes" at http://influencysalon.ca/matters/shaping-influency-salon-some-notes

rm: How, if any, has Influency shifted your approach to writing and poetics, including that of your own work?

MC: Influency was a poetry teaching/learning/presentation context that ran for six years. Over those 130 evenings a great many exorbitant desires were released by poets to poets, from writers to readers to writers. The charge swirled around. My approach to writing and poetics now has been affected, yes. I have seen a community form around widely staked parameters of attention that many thought would be overwhelming and draining to audiences everywhere, and I didn't think so then and I sure don't think so now. It's made me recognize that poets basically have to commit to becoming the critics they/we want, and that we have to dare to write the intergenre essay we want to write about other poetry, not the essay that will fit into the narrowly prescribed formats produced by most reviewing venues.

In terms of my own writing, it has given me the opportunity to write responsively in relation to many Canadian poets' work, to weather my barometer on who's writing what and why across the country and across very different poetry communities.

rm: In your interview in Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics (Coach House Books, 2009), you talked about the frustration of your first few trade books coming out during a period when criticism wasn’t being written in Canada. Over the past decade, the amount of reviews and critical pieces being written were seriously being reduced, with newspapers and literary journals regularly shutting down space for criticism. Was Influency founded, in part, to counteract the loss of so many of the traditional spaces for criticism?

MC: No, Influency arose as a mode of combining social, pedagogical and critical space for contemporary poetry in the framework of continuing ed. I needed to find some work, and I went to U of T School of Continuing Studies because their creative writing program hires contract instructors based on body of work, not on PhD status. Mostly I was disinterested in what the straight-up reading series formats did and could do. I wanted a place where writers could actually talk about the depth of thought contained and active in their often exceedingly private work. I had organized a number of larger events in the Toronto community that brought diverse poetries together into public spaces with wine and food. But still, the potential for new audiences to become enthralled with why poetry is so damn interesting, so intellectually activating, was not being tapped. It took a formal space like an adult ed classroom with a registration process that brought writers together with readers who had committed to a 10-week process of learning to start to really tap into that potential. It takes time and rigour to come into deeper contact with so-called difficult poetry, but once you're in there, the pleasures of navigating a new relationship with language and its effects are intoxicating. So people stayed. The embodied social piece of it is important.

rm: What were your initial plans for Influency and how well do you think they were achieved? What was unexpected?

MC: My initial plan was to try to see if audiences could cross over to become poetry makers, theory makers, writer-readers. The unexpected outcome was that the readerly and writerly capacities of almost everyone who took part blossomed amazingly. Next, part of the plan was to help poets and their publishers sell books of poetry and have them read. Unexpectedly, the registrants delighted in receiving eight fresh books of poetry at the start of a session. They would giggle maniacally, as though it was pure crack.

rm: When you were in Ottawa recently, we chatted about how the Toronto scene over more recent years has started to offer new kinds of courses interested in more so-called difficult poetry. Do you feel some of these other courses have taken away registration from Influency? Do you feel as though the series simply ran its course?

MC: The class ran for six years — which is quite a long time! — and then twice in the last year and a half it was unable to run due to insufficient registration. I needed at least 20 for it to run — and that's a big group. Given that I have to involve eight poets in a fairly involved phase of preplanning and prethinking, I don't want to implicate other poets in a speculative event. There are other really interesting learning contexts and paid spaces for poetry discussion happening in Toronto, but they are perfectly compatible with what the course did so I think that's great. Poets are also the main audience for other poets, and many poets are broke. Some of what happens in the class can be extended on the web magazine, if new resources become accessible. It takes loads of work and time to sustain a good website.

rm: With Influency behind you, what are you planning to do next?

MC: Influency is a form of engaging with poetry that others can implement. There is an online magazine that I would like to see continue to evolve, but it requires financial support and administrative infrastructure. I'm not sure what I will do next, or also, as the page turns. I don't think of Influency as something that is behind me. It's more like the Force.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

Photos by Ralph Kolewe.

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