A Rant on Harbourfront, Poets, & Porcine Lipstick


By Shane Neilson

I remember the night clearly: three years ago, at the venerable Artbar. It had snowed earlier in the day, making the way into Toronto difficult. I was supposed to meet the Artbar organizers, but I was running late and missed the customary pre-game meal. I was one of the readers that night, there to dabble with a few poems from my first collection, Exterminate My Heart.

I remember the night clearly not just because of the weather, which was difficult, but also because it was my first reading in Toronto— a right of passage for any Canadian poet. I was glad to be there. My turn came after the opening act illustrated Oriental poems with a series of fans, and I read before the final act did a series of poems in the spirit of Kramer’s MOVIEPHONE voice.

Another reason I remember that night is because I met two future friends—the rather remarkable poets Jim Johnstone and Evie Christie. Jim, Evie, and I watched the cattle call of an open mic proceed. The first reader was a dwarf named Vladimir who read his poems in Hungarian. The second was a transvestite who had memorized explicit dialogue from what we eventually learned was a script he/she was trying to produce. So it went. When the open mic was mercifully done, Jim and Evie and I talked about poetry, about poetry presses, about poetry scandals. But the dominant topic of discussion for the evening was the proposed Harbourfront competition for poets.

I hadn’t heard of it. Jim asked, “Are you having your publisher submit your name?”

“My name for what?”

This led to an explanation of the concept of the Harbourfront competition: publishers of poetry in Canada send in the names of house poets to a central clearinghouse. From this list, a crack group of twenty poets is assembled. The twenty poets then compete amongst themselves for the final coveted position: a slot to read at Harbourfront. Jim and Evie were excited. Both had asked their publishers to put in their names.

But I was thinking of Harbourfront, the holy grail of reading series in Canada, where poetry is mostly ignored. Not entirely, mind you—there is the token poet or two who appears there. Not enough. I said, “Isn’t it insulting that Harbourfront treats poetry like a poor little sister, a sibling who can only play when the older sibling (fiction, even genre fiction) decides? That the poets have to gather together and fight amongst themselves for the one spot that they’d never be able to obtain anyway?”

I didn’t say the other bit that I was thinking: that Jim and Evie suspected that they would themselves never appear at Harbourfront, ever, by any other means. I also didn’t say that I conceived of the whole enterprise as like a group of slaves getting together and deciding, after a performance in blackface, who the slave-iest slave was, and then that slave leading the other slaves in a toast to the magnanimity of the masters.

But there was worse news to come, and I didn’t get a chance to say that. It turns out that the list of twenty poets is randomly generated. In other words: who really gets into Harbourfront is elected there because of a lottery. There is no presiding consciousness who selects the poets who compete, no stamp or imprimatur of taste, no thought process. No rationale. Just luck. And luck is dumb.

I decided that I would not have my publisher send in my name for the projected competition. And in the two years that have followed, I have maintained that position. A month ago I received a query from Biblioasis, asking if I would be a part of the Harbourfront Poetry Appeasement Operation. It was, of course, a mass email to all the poets recently published by the press. Which is, I propose, exactly my point. I responded by saying that I did not want to participate, and I outlined my reasons why. A few weeks after this, the Porcupine’s Quill also asked me if I would participate. I declined, but to my horror my name was actually forwarded by mistake to the Harbourfront Ontario Gaming Commission Commodore 64, and my name was eventually selected. When I discovered this, I refused to participate again, reiterating my longstanding objections to the ugly whore-like treatment poets receive from Harbourfront.

It’s hard not to think of the face Harbourfront projects to Torontonians in this context. Look online: there is the photo of Jacob McArthur Mooney leaning over the podium, holding his book of poetry as if it is an actual book of poetry that has snuck in to Harbourfront. Mooney was the first winner of this contest, and he has been its host ever since, upping the ironic ante: Mooney has been rewarded with a perpetual gig there, but only after choosing segregation. I am willing to bet that Harbourfront will further reward his sycophancy with a spot for his new book of poems, Folk. Subtitled: How To Get Ahead In The Short Term.

I do not begrudge the publishers their desire to promote their books and authors. Indeed, since that night at the Artbar I have done dozens of readings in support of my publishers. The difference is, of course, that I have been asked to be a part of these readings. I didn’t pull a lever and hit jackpot.

After writing the Quill that last time, for some reason I thought of those open mic poets at Artbar. And then realized that the Harbourfront Non-Invitational is a kind of open mic.

I now regret that I did decline. A far smarter move would have been to accept the anointment by Big Blue and use my five minutes to rant about how poetry deserves better than to be treated like the lipstick that is applied to a pig. Surely that would have been a true validation of the defense self-justifying apologists—like Jacob McArthur Mooney, the first winner and subsequent host for life—put forth, which says that randomness somehow leads to a better representation of poetry itself. No cliquey-ness, no exclusion, they preach. But I said no, perhaps out of fear, and now 19+1 (pay Big Blue extra) poets will dutifully read from their books and grasp at the opportunity to frolic in the Harbourfront Green Rooms. Which, of course, will be stuffed full of prose writers who should, if they’re local, show the poets the token they plan to use that night for the TTC.

Dedicated to Zach Wells


  1. Posted March 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Remind me again why so many people think writers are self-important whiners with no sense of perspective? –Nathan Whitlock

  2. annie
    Posted March 18, 2011 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    Yowsa. Someone’s bitter. It’s always kind of sad when emotion squeezes its way out the end of a pen and the hapless (or in this case, bitter) writer tries to pass it off as argument. Fair point, and true– poets are treated shabbily (poets who happen to be women, especially), but why resort to finger-pointing, slagging your friends, and taking shots at the earnest folks who show up for an open mic?

  3. alex
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    The comparison to slaves is hard to understand. Isn’t there a difference between artists who self-select into a group that doesn’t always have cultural advantages & a group that was forcibly created and is part of a long history of racial oppression?… “Blackface” wasn’t performed by slaves; it was performed by white people pretending to be slaves, to express race-based hatred and mockery. This comparison doesn’t make sense in context and is in very bad taste.

  4. Posted March 17, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d just like to clarify a few things, Shane. I’ve never been excited about a reading in my life never mind having dreams of reading somewhere. I also *never* asked my publisher to submit my book but was invited to read at Harbourfront last year (and the terrible truth is that my ego wouldn’t allow me to think ‘I’d never be invited’ to do anything). I can’t comment on the scene as I don’t really participate in much but I do think it’s nice that Jim’s reading this year and that more people will buy his lovely book and read his poems.
    –Evie Christie

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Shane Neilson

SHANE NEILSON is a poet from New Brunswick. He will publish The River and The Road, a book of criticism on Maritime poetry, with the Porcupine’s Quill in 2017.