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Alex Boyd - I.V. @ X
Alex Boyd

In 2003, poet Alex Boyd took over running the I.V. Lounge Reading Series in Toronto from series founder and fellow poet Paul Vermeersh. With the second I.V. Lounge anthology I.V. Lounge Nights (which Boyd co-edited with Myna Wallin) launching from Tightrope Books at the Tranzac Club on May 29, 2008, and with a big ten-year anniversary bash coming up on May 9th at the I.V. Lounge itself, pagesbooks.ca editor Shaun Smith checked in with Boyd to discuss the decade-old series and the reasons for all this reading.

 


 

SHAUN SMITH: Why are live readings so important to a literary culture, both locally to writers and audiences, and to the larger intellectual and artistic landscape?

 

ALEX BOYD: There’s an episode of a science-fiction show somewhere where a device prevents anyone from firing weapons at each other on board a particular ship. I think of the IV Lounge series a bit like that – it’s ideally something of an oasis of like-minded people who normally work away at something that’s fairly isolating and internal. It's a safe place to present work. I don’t offer comments or criticism at all (even though I wear a very different hat as reviews editor for Northern Poetry Review). I see it as my job to try and strike a balance where I’m relaxed but respectful of the readers who took the time to come out. The author gets the warmth of the experience and the chance to sell a few books or even try something new out on the audience, and the audience gets to experience a sample of the writing, with the “bonus feature,” (perhaps I’ve bought too many two-disc special editions) of the writer presenting it and hopefully adding to it.

 

I used to work for Chapters and chat pleasantly with an elderly writer who came in and he said he was working on a novel. When I eventually asked if he’d tour to promote it he suddenly said, “I don’t do any of that shit!” He seemed to see it as frivolous, but I’m afraid the reality is, it’s quite necessary these days, as one more way to promote your work. Blame it on capitalism or curiosity, but it seems very much engrained in our culture that we want the product and some of the framing material as well, not just the film but the “making of.” We seem to want to pull everything apart and at least take a peek at the internal mechanics, and while I think sometimes we lose a little of the magic and reverence, I really don’t see how anyone can alter that particular cultural trend.

 

Alex Boyd (L) & Paul Vermeersch at I.V. Lounge
(L to R) Goran Simic, Alex Boyd & Colin Carberry at I.V. Lounge

SS: Some people complain that live readings are tedious. How would you respond to such statements? What is it these people are missing?

 

AB: It sounds as though they’re missing all the good readings. But there are a lot of key elements that need to fall into place: a comfortable atmosphere, an experienced reader, a brief but relevant introduction, and a reader who does something other than barely get it off the page. As much as possible, I think readings should also be free. It’s promotional work, providing a sample, and people don’t walk away with anything concrete, in terms of a product. I don’t mean to keep comparing it to film, but charging people fifteen dollars for a reading is like charging people fifteen dollars to see an actor on a talk show, instead of the film he’s in. If literature has a reputation for being snobby or inaccessible, it certainly doesn’t help that folks are asked to pay for the privilege of even hearing people talk about it. Of course, it makes sense people will pay a certain amount to see an established reader trying to support a tour, but at a local event with emerging writers (and the IV Lounge mixes emerging and established) I think it should be free.

 

SS: Do you think there is a difference between doing live readings of poetry and prose—for both author and audience?

 

AB: Poetry should be slowed down when read, as listeners have their thoughts caught on interesting metaphors and ideas, and if the poet rushes through reading the poem, the whole thing is over by the time they catch up. And, obviously both should be read in a lively manner or the writer is doing little more than saving you the trouble of reading it.

 

Jessica Westhead reads at I.V. Lounge
I.V. Lounge Nights launches May 29th, 2008, at The Tranzac Club, Toronto

SS: I've heard numerous poets say that live reading, or at least the vocalization of a poem, is essential to a poem's creation. Do you agree? How does doing a live reading illuminate a poem for the poet?

 

AB: Reading a poem aloud or at least to yourself in your head is one way to check for rhythm and musicality, which can keep your poem from sounding like prose given a certain shape, or scattered down the page. And if you find yourself trying to give something emphasis with your voice, it can be a clue that you need to make sure the emphasis is there on the page, as far as word choice. None of this is to say I think poems should sound like speeches, it’s just a matter of making sure form and content are inseparable, and that can mean using everyday language if you want your poem to be the voice of a Texas lawman, or some such thing.

 

SS: In writing, there are frequently classic "mistakes" people make when learning the craft. What are some classic "mistakes" writers make when giving live readings that others should try to avoid?

 

AB: Long introductions, when the work should pretty much speak for itself, and it’s the simplest thing in the world, but reading for too long when you should always leave the audience wanting more. When my poetry book was launched, I told my publisher, Goran Simic, I’d read twenty minutes of poetry, but he said, “Read four poems,” and though I stretched it to five, he was completely right – between thanking people and reading five poems, I was up there twenty minutes, and even that was probably a little too long.

 

SS: What have the last five years of hosting readings taught you about people's relationships to language, words and writing in our culture?

 

AB: Language is slaved to a barely functional, extremely banal purpose most of the time, and that’s basically the function of needing to get stuff done. But fortunately we do create these pockets where language is used for narrative, which is how we communicate a lot (and, a lot more effectively, I think) and to take it a step further, poetry tries to bring an almost muscular freshness to language, even the so-called traditional stuff is more experimental than most language, if it’s good poetry. For George MacKay Brown, for example, to describe candy floss as “sweet fog” brings a certain freshness to a standard idea. Using functional language all the time is a bit like never leaving the highway, and by comparison poetry is a bit of a joyride, and maybe that’s the way to market it, as a pleasure. Working in the so-called “real” world helps me stay pretty grounded and in touch with that person who might read but might not, has limited patience and vaguely unpleasant memories of being forced to dissect poetry in school, and dwell on it long past any enjoyment. I just think it’s important for writers to make sure their work is accessible, and only after that, worry about pushing the barrier, in terms of how experimental you are. I read experimental work that I’d have to say doesn’t push the barrier as much as fly right over it to land out in a cornfield, somewhere. You need to start by getting the reader’s attention in a way they know, and then hopefully go somewhere new, and worthwhile. That sounds very simple, and in fact it is very simple, but the simplest things to do in art are the hardest. Very simple to say people are struck by what’s original, meaningful, accessible and effective all at the same time, but certainly, you don’t come up with something like that every day.

 


 

Alex Boyd was born in Toronto and he studied at Brock University in St. Catharines, graduating with a BA in English. He is the author of poems, fiction, reviews and essays that have appeared in such publications as Taddle Creek, dig, Books in Canada, The Globe & Mail, and Quill & Quire, as well as on various websites such as The Danforth Review. He is the co-editor, along with Dani Couture, of the website Northern Poetry Review. His first book-length collection of poems, Making Bones Walk, was published by Luna Publications in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.