Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

How to Run a Reading Series (Episode 2: Johan Hultqvist of Free Speech)

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How to Run a Reading Series (Episode 2: Johan Hultqvist of Free Speech)

In the first incarnation of this series, we talked to Carey Toane of Pivot at the Press Club, which serves as something of a throwback to the simplicity of the kitchen party, the salon, and other traditions in which artists have gathered on common ground to share their work. Our next host has created something that exists in an opposite corner of the room, wherein the programming is varied, the light-hearted tone closer to that of a cabaret, but the feeling of shared community strengthened by the diversity of form brought to the table. The Free Speech reading series takes place in a miniscule room on the second floor of a coffee shop, Tinto, midway down my favourite street in the city, Roncesvalles Avenue. Free Speech is notable for being a series with both an expanded and a limited scope. Expanded in that they featured performers that stretch from poetry and fiction to songwriting, clowning, stand-up, and spoken word, and limited in that all these performers live somewhere in the artistic mecca that is Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park neighbourhood.

I took some time out of the life of Johan Hultqvist, the multi-talented man behind the Free Speech idea. Here is what he had to say:

JMM:When did the kernel of Free Speech come to you? Was there something you were trying to emulate, or deliberately break away from? What’s the first step in getting something like this off the ground?

JOHAN: As you know, Free Speech features West End writers of all stripes. For quite some time, I had dreamt of putting on some sort of Parkdalian Music Festival because there were so many brilliant musicians in the Parkdale-Roncesvalles Village area and I felt that the local residents who weren't on the music scene had no idea that all these heavy musicians and rising stars lived right around the corner from them. As time went by and I got more entrenched in the arts community I kept meeting poets and novelists and playwrights and comedians who all lived in the neighbourhood. Then, in late 2006, my friend Eden Hertzog, who is a great writer and songwriter and entrepreneur called me up and said "would you like to put on a reading with me?" The reading was just supposed to be an incentive for us to wrap up some unfinished pieces of short fiction. We invited another friend to read and songwriter Brian MacMillan to play a song after each piece. We had a good turnout and such a great time that I suggested we make it a monthly event featuring neighbourhood writers only. Having a musical chaser after each 15-20 minute reading seemed to keep the audience fresh and alert so the formula stuck.

I didn't really know what I wanted the event to look like; I was just excited to introduce people in the community to their talented neighbours. As I often had a personal connection with the featured writers and songwriters I would introduce my guests by sharing personal stories as opposed to just reading someone's bio. And if I didn't know a writer personally I'd try to find connections between their work and my own everyday life in order to prove to myself that there are stories everywhere. If someone's bio is printed in the program do you really need your host to read it to you? Why not tell a story instead?

JMM: What’s your approach to programming like? Do you tend to have rules in regards to poets vs fiction writers (and in the case of Free Speech, vs comedians vs songwriters vs storytellers)? How about more subtle things, like older vs younger, established vs less established, funny vs serious?

JOHAN: I try to be pretty eclectic and I also try to program something light or funny for each installment. I like having a poet, a fiction writer and some kind of comedian on the same bill. And I try to keep a spot open for a less established writer or perfomer each month. The only strict rule I have is that the featured guest have to live in the neighbourhood. Or if they don't, they need to have a strong or unusual connection to the West End.

JMM: And, for the record, what is that neighbourhood? Is it all of the West End? Just Parkdale? And do you have any examples of a "strong or unusual connection", beyond an address?

JOHAN: I use the term "neighbourhood" very generously, resulting in a Free Speech "jurisdiction" that stretches from Dufferin to High Park. So if you're on the wrong side of the tracks you're out of luck. But I've invited writers who grew up in the neighbourhood or lived there for a long time before moving away. And if I become infatuated with someone's writing I might go to great lengths to find some kind of West End connection. Maggie Helwig doesn't live in the neighbourhood but I loved her Girls Fall Down and I knew that she had been involved with the Scream in High Park literary festival for quite some time. It turned out that she also works with various churches in Parkdale so I was thrilled to be able to invite her. The first time I ever heard slam poet Amanda Hiebert read she did a heartbreakingly beautiful piece called Linda about the waitress at The Skyline Diner, an old mom and pop place on Queen, or to be exact, "two blocks east of Lansdowne where the action is", as Amanda writes. Michael Winter does live in the hood but if he hadn't I still would have invited him to read because so many neighbourhood fixtures, like legendary Roncesvalles watering hole The Intersteer, are prominently featured in his novel The Architects Are Here. I will admit that I have a weakness for writing set in my neighbourhood. The other day I was having breakfast at Roncesvalles and Howard Park and started daydreaming about Jeff Latosik's lovely poem 'Eight Kind of Knots' which starts out with a stalled streetcar at that very street corner. The Free Speech series has made me wonder what happens to your neighbourhood, your everyday reality, when you recognize it in a work of fiction. And what happens to a work of fiction when you recognize it as you move through your neighbourhood? I haven't quite articulated answers to these questions yet but I'm certainly enjoying the process.

JMM: The style of a reading series owes as much to its location as to its programming. What would you say Tinto brings to the series? How has your relationship been like with the owners and staff? What about the regulars? Do they come?

JOHAN: Ricardo and Elvia at Tinto have been amazingly supportive and I am very grateful to them for letting me use the space. It's such a fantastic reading room; it's small and intimate, there's no distracting bar noise and the servers are discreet. There's no doubt that the intimate character of the room has helped shape the series. It feels like someone's living room. Tinto has really succeeded in becoming a community hub and Free Speech was always very much about community-building. Tinto regulars come to the reading series and the reading series crowd return to Tinto for other events or just to have dinner. I have featured writers who confessed that they wrote the bulk of their manuscripts over coffee at Tinto.

JMM: One of the two things all organizers have in common is they would love nothing more than to talk about what they have coming up in the next few weeks. The other thing is what they have going on themselves, on the literary, cultural, or professional fronts. So?

JOHAN: Well, the fall season of Free Speech starts on Tuesday, September 29, at 7pm). The whole season isn't entirely booked yet but our guests include Ray Robertson, Karen Solie and Lauren Kirshner to name a few. For me personally, the next five weeks are pretty hectic: I'm getting married on October 24. Leading up to the wedding, I will be touring with my band Mr. Something Something in the US, and somewhere in there I need to find the time to finish a few short films that I will be showing at the annual LabCab Festival at The Factory Theatre on Halloween.

As some bonus reading today, a facebook friend recently reminded me of this awesome thing in which Michael Carbert tees off on the whole reading series culture. Thanks to Carmine for the link!

Wishing Johan and partner a happy, happy wedding,

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.

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page