Monday, June 23, 2008

The Dusty Owl Reading Series: A Chat With Steve Zytveld

What led you to start the Dusty Owl?

It just seemed like a good idea at the time. There was really wasn’t any sort of conscious decision to start Dusty Owl. It simply grew out of what we were doing at one point in time, and it has continued to grow from there into what it is today. It’s never been about beginnings and endings so much as it’s been about continuity and constant change.

In the fall of 1994, I was elected the president of Carleton University’s English Literature Society (or, ELS, much as I hate acronyms). I’d been involved with the ELS since September 1991 when I first arrived at Carleton to study English, and I volunteered to edit the ELS newsletter, which was at the time a photocopied bulletin sheet called ArtsFlux that gave notice of upcoming ELS events, with some short poetry by ELS members tossed in.

The first thing I did was to expand the newsletter into a little creative-writing digest – I had been involved peripherally with the small-press spec-fic scene in the late 1980s, and I thought I could apply what little I knew to publishing student writing. And so, in January 1992 (just a couple months behind schedule) the first issue of Writers’ Bloc rolled off the presses. It was something like thirty pages of poetry, fiction, even a short play, complete with a coming-events page; it was also where I first published the first dribs and drabs of The Passing of Arthur King, an act of literary incest I frankly have regretted to this very day.

Although I would remain active in the ELS, I stepped down from editing Writers’ Bloc at the end of the 1992-93 academic year, weary of soliciting submissions from students and non-students, wrangling editorial committees, layout, negotiating with printing companies, plus organizing other ELS events such as readings and field trips – and on top of that working two jobs, keeping up with my studies, and trying to manage some sort of social life. Keep in mind that Cathy and I were dating by this time.

By the end of the 1993-94 year, however, that edition of the ELS had pretty well run its course, as all student groups tend to do. During the summer of 1994, I was among a few Carleton friends – including Warren Fulton, Nick Tytor, Warren Layberry, John Mahony, and Cathy MacDonald – who got together to rebuild the ELS. When things got formally kicked off in September 1994, I ended up being elected its president. One of the things I was very set on doing was to reach out to the community beyond the Carleton University campus. As the new editor of Writers’ Bloc – which he renamed Box77, after our postbox at the English department – Warren Layberry managed to attract submissions from pretty well all over Ottawa as well as from Carleton University itself.

Now, although we continued to hold all sorts of events on campus – such as our reading by Michael Ondaatje in March 1995 – I set out to find a venue where we could hold open-mic readings off campus, to reach out to the community at large. In October 1994, I phoned Wim ten Holder, the owner of Café Wim on Sussex Drive in Lowertown Ottawa, and asked him if we could hold a Leonard Cohen-themed open-mic reading at the café. Wim was understandably hesitant, but he did give us the go-ahead.

We were hoping for ten or twenty people – seventy actually showed up, providing a full evening of poetry and music inspired by Leonard, with plenty of other people reading his poetry and interpreting his music. When we finished up after midnight, Wim approached me and asked when we could hold another event like this. And so, for the next year and a half, we continued hosting these open-mic poetry-and-music nights at Café Wim. Most of them were tribute-type readings, homages to literary figures such as Edgar Allen Poe or J.R.R. Tolkien, but then there were seasonal events such as our erotic poetry night in February 1995. And we didn’t discourage people from meandering off the night’s theme – the idea was above all else to help people get their work out there to receptive and welcoming ears. These events always started at 8pm on a specific Saturday night of the month – and often two or even three times a month – and they almost always jammed on until after midnight.

When my second and final term at the helm of the ELS ended in March 1996, Jean-Marc ten Holder – Wim’s son and the new manager of the café – approached me as we wrapped up our last event there and asked if I would be willing to carry on the readings on a regular basis, tossing in a fifty-dollar budget per event as an incentive. I readily accepted, providing the readings could be a little more structured: the open-mic component was essential, but I felt that we had to host poets and other writers – preferably local ones – as featured readers who would anchor the readings.

We also needed a name for our new reading series. In a late-night session fuelled by beer, coffee, cigarettes, and vague ideas, Jean-Marc, Cathy MacDonald (we had just become engaged), and I settled on the name ‘Dusty Owl’. We felt the Owl part was necessary – Café Wim was just a couple doors down the street from where the storied Café le Hibou had been until something like twenty years earlier, and we wanted to pay some sort of homage to our cultural forbears – if not at least to pick up a little of their mojo. And the Dusty part? Well, time passes, let’s just face it… and it just worked.

On the Dusty Owl site you talk about “the heyday of Ottawa open mike poetry readings” in the 1990s. What were some of the other readings going on at the time?

Well, that description is now a little dated – and it wasn’t all that accurate in the first place. I think that it’s fair to say that when we launched our website in 2004 and we wrote that, we were looking back to the heyday of Dusty Owl itself. And keep in mind that this is when we had just revived the Owl – we were feeling our way forward with a degree of uncertainty, looking back at the previous incarnation across a five-year gulf of inactivity.

But there had been a lot going on around us – there’s no way I want to sound like I’m dismissing just how active the community was back then. We were sharing the scene with rob mclennan’s Poetry 101 (and his many other projects), Warren Fulton’s Vanilla Reading Series at an ice cream shop on Elgin Street and his Vogon series at Zaphod’s, and Victoria Martin’s Electric Garden Reading Series at the Stone Angel Institute on Lisgar Avenue. There was stuff going on at Carleton and U of O that was being put on by students and faculty alike. Tree and Sasquatch were also going on, needless to say, and there were plenty of readings and book launches happening all the time in our then-thriving independent and niche bookshop community. And, sometimes, readings would pop up in some unlikely places – such as one at Frankie’s, a gay nightclub on Frank Street, off Metcalfe, with only a few days’ notice, and dozens of people still showed up.

Having said all that, I should tell you that I found this pile of old issues of Bywords from about this time when I was doing some housecleaning a year or so ago. Now, Bywords was quite different from what it has grown into now; back then, it was monthly and only eight or twelve or so pages, and there was more space given over to events listings, calls for submissions, and contest announcements – this was in the mid-1990s when the Web was just barely catching on, and a handout like Bywords (with a circulation of 250 or something like that, it was distributed free of charge which is why I have to be reminded to pay when I pick up a copy these days) was a priceless resource for any poet working in Ottawa then.

But that evening, when I was thumbing through these ten-year-old copies of Bywords, I found myself lingering over the events calendars that, sandwiched between the pages of poetry, took up the little magazine’s centrefold… I was amazed at just how many blank days there were in that calendar. And now, when you look at its present-day version on www.bywords.ca, you can find at least two things happening every day in this city.

There’s so much that has started here since we revived the Owl, or that had been going on and we’d caught up with, I am tempted to think that the current scene has overshadowed what we were doing as a community those ten years ago. I’m quite reluctant to say that what we were doing then has in any way inspired the new generation that’s coming up now, although I’m more than happy to say that they’ve picked things up and are carrying it all forward nicely.

Who was your first featured reader? Who were some of the other readers in the first incarnation?

We didn’t have a featured reader for the very first Dusty Owl reading. It was a launch party for the first issue of a fine little poetry mag called Yield, edited by fellow Carleton University alumni Carl Mills and Richard Carter, and which died out a couple years later. I know I have a few copies of it stashed away somewhere, but I just don’t know where exactly. Which is too bad, because I can’t remember who was in it, let alone who read that evening.

But a remarkable number of poets who we have hosted at the revived Dusty Owl were also featured readers when we were at Café Wim: Ronnie R. Brown, Rob MacLeod, rob mclennan, Brent Robillard are the ones who immediately come to mind. But there are also so many who dropped off the map, like Pamela Chynn and Dave Gregory. I keep thinking that we hosted Stephanie Bolster in our early years too – maybe as part of an anthology or magazine launch – but we were poor archivists back then and my memory isn’t what it used to be.

Who were part of the Dusty Owl crew in the beginning? What had happened to them?

In the beginning, Dusty Owl was pretty well a one-man show.

Now, I’ve described the Owl as an offshoot of the Carleton University English Literature Society of the mid-1990s, which had been an amazing team effort. But in the spring of 1996, when Dusty Owl was just getting under way, the circle of people who had been making things happen for the ELS over those previous two years were beginning to scatter to the winds.

Warren Layberry had left the previous year to start up Bad Moon Books. Brent Robillard had taken on Box77, but was wrapping things up at Carleton so he could go on to write and become a teacher. Nick Tytor was moving on to Algonquin College’s journalism program. The work of the ELS was now being taken up by our friends Kathryn Hunt, Carolyn Weiss, and Chris Brown.

In this way, Dusty Owl had become my path to follow – nearly everything fell to me in the beginning. I mean, Cathy was involved, but not to the extent she is now. She’s always had this role of making sure that the readings move along smoothly – helping people find their seats, passing the hat, handing around the open-mic signup sheet, stuff like that when I’m up on stage – but she’s now much more involved with the PR and media-relations end of things.

Now that I think about it, I should say that other people did do much to chip in during the early days. Kane Faucher and Nick Tytor helped me out a lot with postering. Nick, John Mahony, and Warren Layberry often posted announcements about the readings on the National Capital Freenet’s writers SIG.

But I was pretty well responsible for everything else. I booked the writers, designed and made the posters, put up the posters (sometimes out in the streets of downtown Ottawa until three or four in the morning, even in the depths of winter), faxed the notices out to the newspapers and radio stations, and talked to the media when necessary. Oh yeah, and I hosted the readings too.

Was the closing of Café Wim one of the reasons Dusty Owl disappeared in the late 1990s? What were some of the other factors?

No it wasn’t, actually. By late 1998 or early 1999 – I don’t remember exactly when, and the posters which were our only real paperwork at the time are now mostly lost – Cathy and I decided that it was time to take a break. I was just putting the finishing touches onto my BA, Cathy and I were settling into married life, and there were all the usual outside pressures. So we went on hiatus for what was supposed to be a few months, maybe a year or so at the most, and it was all agreeable with our friends at Café Wim. But then that outside stuff began to weigh on us a little more heavily – or maybe it was just procrastination setting in. But in any case, the hiatus dragged on into 2000 when Café Wim closed its doors for good due mostly to skyrocketing rents, although I think mounting competition from the corporate coffee chains was definitely a factor. So we were already long gone when Café Wim called it a day – although we’d had every intention of returning.

Are there any (printable) anecdotes you’d care to share about Dusty Owl?

I almost wish there were. I would love it if in some way Dusty Owl was the stuff of legend.
Then again, there are some things best left unwished-for. Everybody we have hosted has been wonderful to work with. All of our featured readers and musicians have been considerate and accommodating, without any no-shows or confrontations with audience members or anything like that. There’s been very little heckling – the regulars at Swizzles (as they had been at Café Wim for that matter) have been really good to us in that way, giving us the space to do what we do. And our open-set readers and performers have also been awesome, sticking to the unspoken five-minute limit most of the time.

I mean, there’ve been some really cool moments. Like when we hosted Ed Broadbent at our annual Midsummer Night’s Dream reading in June 2004 – local Green party candidate David Chernushenko had been in on it and was a good sport in the process, and Conservative candidate Mike Murphy was part of the fun, although I’m not sure he fully understood what he had gotten himself into. Then there was the time in 2005 when we hosted Phil Jenkins and he brought out his guitar and sang a few tunes for us. Or when I jammed onstage with Dave Lauzon at the last Chocolate House – he played guitar while I read a poem the room had written. And, of course, when we hosted George Elliott Clarke, and he brought Greg Frankson up onstage to read from his new play with him. But, memorable as these are, they are just moments and tend to lose something in the retelling.

I’m sure there are some really good stories out there – and I’d love to hear them – but when I’m hosting a Dusty Owl reading, I’m in this kind of bubble where my attention is almost completely taken up by what is happening onstage, and that everyone – the readers or musicians, the audience, even the bar’s staff – are as well-looked-after as I can manage.

What led you to resuscitate the Owl?

Cathy and I started talking about resurrecting Dusty Owl mere weeks into the hiatus. It just seemed so simple at the time – we’d assumed that Café Wim would be there for us to come home to. Well, that wouldn’t be the case.

But we never stopped talking about the Owl, even with friends and family. Throughout the hiatus we discussed possible venues we could approach, but a wrinkle always came up, which caused us to stay our hand – one place, for example, shut down before I could drop by to talk to the owner, while another took up a similar event. In fact, Cathy and I came close to moving to Kingston five years ago, and I had begun sniffing around there for a possible venue – but the whole move fell through, taking hopes of a revived Dusty Owl with it for another year.

Aside from the readings you organize, Dusty Owl is also involved in a number of community activities. Can you tell me about them and what made you decided to get involved?

When we were at Café Wim, Dusty Owl was initially somewhat conservative in its outlook and approach. We tried to manage some sort of balancing act in which we tried to foster new voices and visions, while trying to keep overt politics and issues checked at the door. The lie in this approach was given fairly early on.

I hinted earlier on here that I worked my way through my studies at Carleton University by working as a security guard. In the fall of 1996, my then-employer Bradson Security Services locked out its roughly 350 workers organized by the United Steelworkers in a labour dispute that hinged largely on an involuntary wage cut, replacing us with scabs – oh, excuse me, replacement workers – the intent being to be break the union and undercut its unionized competitors. The lockout dragged on for nearly a year, during which someone else worked my job and got my paycheque, while I was on the picket line between classes and surviving on strike pay.

In early 1997, just a couple months into the lockout, I noticed during a Dusty Owl that people wearing Bradson uniforms – scabs – were coming into Café Wim to buy takeout coffee; there was an office building across the street that had contracted the services of Bradson and where the scabs apparently had no idea how to work together and operate a coffee machine. Soon afterward I approached Jean-Marc so I could explain my situation; he was kind enough to not only hear me out, but to order Café Wim’s staff to refuse service to anyone in a Bradson uniform until the lockout was over. Of course, the scabs probably took their business to the Starbucks on he next block, but that would have also meant an extra walk for them through Ottawa’s sub-zero winter temperatures, and more than double the price (consider here that they were earning little more than minimum wage). The lesson I learned from this episode was that community action is the purest form of politics, and that artistic communities can be a big part of the equation.

Dusty Owl has since then endeavoured to engage our communities, and we have found that there are so many segments and strata – with the literary community being only the closest one at hand. The fact that Swizzles is a gay bar – and that I, a straight guy, have been gay-bashed – means that we owe a debt of fellowship to Ottawa’s queer community. Underlying our approach is a basic understanding that is as invigorating as it is scary and true: ‘If not us, then who?’ And keep in mind that despite its sprawling growth, Ottawa’s activist communities remain relatively small.

Which is why we are more than happy to take part in the Ottawa Small Press Fair, or protests against cuts to Ottawa’s municipal culture budget, or why we feel such dignity when we march in Ottawa’s Pride Parade. We really do believe that when two or more of us are gathered together, we can make a difference – or begin to.

When did you decide to start Dusty Owl Press and why? What type of stuff do you publish? Who are some of the writers who you’ve published?

There’s a line on our website that I think pretty well explains the rationale behind Dusty Owl Press: it’s “an organic extension of the Dusty Owl Reading Series”. The Press tries to carry on the eclectic and anarchic sensibility of the Reading Series through the publication of small-run chapbooks and our little magazine, The Dusty Owl Quarterly.

Dusty Owl Press began just a few months after the Reading Series in 1996 when I published a couple poetry chapbooks by Kane Faucher. I had wanted to publish chapbooks by other new poets, and I had been planning a horror/dark fantasy/weird sci-fi zine – but the original Dusty Owl Press fizzled out for pretty well the same reasons the original Dusty Owl Reading Series went on hiatus, being time, family, money, jobs, school, etc., etc.

After the rebirth of the Reading Series in 2004, Kathryn Hunt took the helm of Dusty Owl Press and began publishing elegantly-designed – if inexpensively printed – chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and everything in between. And in September 2004 she began The Dusty Owl Quarterly, our little literary mag – I won’t call it a ‘zine’ because I don’t think it ever quite achieved that level of intimacy or anarchy. I have, by the way, recently taken over the editorship of the Quarterly and expect to publish my first issue this summer, hoping to continue carrying on the Dusty Owl spirit by publishing poets we have hosted at the Reading Series itself.

We’ve so far published chapbooks by – just to name a few – Brent Robillard, S. James Curtis, rob mclennan, and DeAnne Smith, and we’ve published a novella by Daniel Allen Cox. And I wish I could tell you here who we’ve published in the Dusty Owl Quarterly over the past few years, but that’s a bit like trying to remember who’s appeared in the open sets at the Dusty Owl readings – just too many names to recall right now.

What is the Object of Desire contest and what was the motivation behind it? What was the most unusual item?

Dusty Owl lives by two mantras: “Intellectual Hooliganism” and “Serious Whimsy”. As for myself, I like to describe our cause and effect as ‘Silly Ideas That Work”; it’s like watching the Chaos Theory in action.

In the summer of 2004, just a couple months after we had re-established the Dusty Owl Reading Series, this idea hit me when I was at work. Now I was at this time an evening security guard in this office tower in downtown Ottawa, so you will understand I had plenty of time on my hands. I am also a pretty free-associative person, so I tend to let an idea run about in my head when it pops in there until it reaches some sort of fruition.

I’d been looking for some sort of hook, something to keep people in their seats until the Dusty Owl readings finished for the night. I was thinking some sort of mini-slam; after all, the Carleton ELS had staged in 1995 one of the first poetry slams ever held in Ottawa, with Warren Fulton and Kane Faucher as the judges, at Mike’s Place, Carleton’s graduate students bar.

The idea is quite simple. I bring in some utterly prosaic object I’ve bought at some discount store, and I challenge the audience early in the evening to write a poem about it (or maybe a short story or a song or even a piece of interpretive dance, but people tend to stick to poetry). The competition takes place at the end of the reading, after the featured reader’s set and after the open mic. The piece that receives the most audience response not only nets its creator the object itself as a prize, but will be included in a long-promised anthology we hope to publish someday called Objects of Desire.

Like I said, our items tend to be quite usual, so it’s not easy recalling any object any more remarkable than the others. The aforementioned hot-water bottle comes most easily to mind, but we also brought in this tea-bag holder a couple months ago that stimulated a great deal of discussion and response.

What’s the Midsummer Night’s Dream reading, and why did you decide to do it?

Our Midsummer Night’s Dream reading is one of the holdovers from our days in Carleton University’s English Literature Society. (Another is, by the way the Chocolate House, which was originally an event we organized with the University of Ottawa’s Undergraduate English Students Association, and the name was then-EUSA president Bergen Wilde’s idea.)

Open-book open-circle Shakespeare readings were a central activity of the ELS’s program; interested members would agree on the choice of one of Shakespeare’s plays (usually one being studied at the time in Charles Haines’s or Ian Cameron’s third-year Shakespeare courses, for curricular relevancy) and we would meet up at the home of a member or other friend, each with a copy of the agreed-upon play so we could each take a part to read aloud as we made our way through it. Shakespeare really isn’t all that enjoyable when you read him by yourself, but he comes alive when you read him with accompanying voices and eyes – especially if the experience is enhanced by ‘cerebral lubricants’ such as beer or wine (or other substances).

In June 1992, the then-recording secretary of the ELS, Ian Danby, suggested that we celebrate the onset of summer (and gather together the few ELS members we knew to be in town) with a reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the wooden stage of the little amphitheatre (now long gone) between Patterson and Southam halls on the Carleton campus. Something like five or six of us showed up – having to therefore take multiple roles – but we managed to get through the play and have lots of fun with it in the meantime, with passersby occasionally stopping to watch the tomfoolery. Held on campus, this became a tradition until I became ELS president, when it moved into the semi-private room with the big round table up the stairs in the back of Café Wim. It became part of the Dusty Owl schedule, but it also became a casualty of the hiatus.

It returned to life when we started up again at Swizzles. This was during the 2004 federal election when Ed Broadbent made his brief but spectacular return to federal politics, running as the NDP candidate in our riding, Ottawa Centre. We thought it would be cool to cast him in the role of Puck, but the election was mere days away and he didn’t have the three or so hours for the whole play, and he was reluctant to take part unless the other candidates could be accommodated. Now, the father of some friends of ours had recently died of leukemia, so we gave the event more relevance by making it into a fundraiser of the Leukemia Research Fund; when we approached the candidates running in the riding for the other major parties, David Chernushenko of the Green Party and Mike Murphy of the Conservatives agreed – although Richard Mahoney of the Liberals excused himself – and we gave them twenty of so minutes of excerpts from the play to read onstage to a capacity crowd.

After the candidates read through the sections we gave them, and did a little electioneering – all very friendly, by the way – they went their separate ways to leave us to carry on our reading of the play as we’d originally intended. In the end, we raised a nice little chunk of cash for leukemia research, garnered a little media attention, and – most importantly – had fun while engaging the local community.

So the Midsummer Night’s Dream reading again became a regular part of our program, as both a fundraiser and as a break from our usual reading schedule – and we have raised a handy amount of money for various good causes over the years. But, much fun as it has been, we’re thinking that the one we held a couple weeks ago will be the last one we hold for a while. We’ve been doing it for five years at Swizzles, after how many years at Café Wim and other places, so we’re thinking of switching to a new play, to see how it works out. Maybe The Taming of the Shrew or The Merry Wives of Windsor – although these may lack some seasonal relevancy. I’ve also been toying with the idea of rewriting A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a tragedy, in which everything spirals out of control and ends terribly, with Puck ending up as a wandering spirit, exiled from the world of faery… so we may do that some year… well, it’s just an idea.

In your manifesto, you talk about the need for cross-pollination of the arts. How has Dusty Owl done that?

My immediate answer is: not enough!
There are only a small number of people active in Dusty Owl at any given time, and we have brought a limited range of artistic abilities and demands with us.

We do try to bring people together through Dusty Owl’s projects, whatever their talents, but there’s so much going on in this city and beyond that we miss out because of time and similar considerations. Ideally, we would love to bring these creative people together on various projects, but even if we had the time there’s no guarantee we would have the money and other resources to bring these projects to their probable conclusions.

In the meantime, we try to encourage people to bring their work – books, CDs, zines, posters, crafts, whatever – to share or sell at Dusty Owl readings. And we try to bring people of different talents into our publishing projects. Eventually we hope to have the budget to do things like operate an online radio station for spoken-word, poetry, and roots music. But that’s a good ways off. More immediately, we want to organize some sort of festival that gathers together all the talents we have encountered and bring them to a new audience.

What are other factors necessary in a strong artistic community?

I can only think of one above all others: communication.
I mean this on a number of different but interlocking levels: there’s the willingness to just get your vision out and hope that someone can see it too; there’s the desire to seek out others who just might want to hear what you are saying, and to make sure you reach them; there’s the strength you should possess to take their responses in a constructive and instructive manner; there’s the willingness to take in what others say in the first place, even before you can engage them on any basis, and maybe make yourself more perceptive from the effort. What I’m suggesting here is not easy by any means and demands people actually take the time to think about what they’re doing and why it should really matter to them, let alone other people.

As I see it, Ottawa is in a rare and delicate position because we have all these different communities working in so many media and sensibilities, and who bring so many different approaches into the mix. And we may have some schools, and some outlets, and some forums, but we really lack the more dedicated infrastructure in place in cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, or even Halifax or Winnipeg.

The communities at work in Ottawa tend to be seen as kinds of farm-teams for what’s going on in these better-developed centres – even in New York. I don’t think it has to be that way. We are doing good work here, and I don’t think people should have to leave Ottawa to prove talent exists here.

You raise funds chiefly by passing a fedora at readings. Why don’t you apply for funding?

Let me clarify here a little first.

Passing the hat is a big source of Dusty Owl’s revenue, but it’s certainly not the only one. We also raise funds through the sales of Dusty Owl merchandise –t-shirts, pins, and Dusty Owl Press publications – at small-press and indie-culture fairs, and at Dusty Owl readings themselves.

We have, by the way, applied for funding. Just a couple months ago we put in an application to the Ontario Arts Council for a grant to augment the money we pay our featured readers, and to cover promotional expenses which often comes out of our own pockets. And now that we have gone through that experience, we are going to explore and pursue funding sources from other bodies as well, in both the public and private spheres. I mean, someone should make some of that money do some good, right?

I should also note that the hat we pass around at Dusty Owl isn’t just any old hat. It’s a genuine felt fedora – depending on the mood I’m in, it’s my Sam Spade hat or my Indiana Jones hat – a made-in-Canada Biltmore that I bought at The Bay twenty years ago for fifty bucks. It’s probably my favourite piece of clothing; I’ve worn it to church, to costume parties, on my honeymoon, just around the neighbourhood… And it’s been in my hand at almost every literary event I have hosted.

Who does what at Dusty Owl? How did you meet one another?

I mentioned earlier that Dusty Owl in its early days was pretty well a one-man show, with a big supporting cast. Looking back now I’m surprised at just how wide the gap in time is between the people who got involved when these ELS things were going on at Café Wim, and the people who jumped in after we set up shop at Swizzles a decade later.

Cathy MacDonald – who is now my wife and bestest pal in the whole world – was already involved in the ELS when I showed up at Carleton in 1991. She later became the treasurer and has continued to maintain the whole logistics end of things while I’ve run madly off in all sorts of artistic directions. Her full-time job pretty well kept her out of things when we launched the Owl at Café Wim, except for keeping things running smoothly at the readings themselves, but she has become our PR/media person since we moved into Swizzles.

Kathryn Hunt became active in the ELS when she first arrived at Carleton in 1993, and even then it was through her friendship with Carolyn Weiss, who became recording secretary in 1994. Like Carolyn, she became an active member of the ELS, even though she didn’t actually become involved at the executive level until after my tenure as president was done; but she had been in the meantime a voice of reason through all our necessary chaos, and we really became friends when we discovered that we were both Doonesbury fans who could recite lines of its dialogue back and forth. Also like Carolyn, she returned to Ottawa after teaching English in Japan for a couple years – helping us organize these informal breakfast writers-group meetings at the old El Morocco. She was a source of profound support and encouragement when we relaunched the Owl. She now runs the Dusty Owl website and is the editor of Dusty Owl Press, although the editorship of The Dusty Owl Quarterly has recently fallen into my hands. And she has taken on a constant role in the Dusty Owl readings, helping new audience members become more comfortable, chatting up our featured readers, and sometimes running the merch table.

Nick Tytor became involved in the ELS in 1992, and served as its vice president from 1994 to 1996. He has gone on have an advisory role in Dusty Owl, brainstorming new ideas, inspiring me in writing my own poems, helping out with postering and other street-level promotion, and being another supporting presence at the readings themselves.

Chris ‘the Dog’ Doyle has been part of the very soul of Dusty since we started at Swizzles four years ago. I will talk about him more later, but let me say at this point that he is at the very least the best sound engineer for a project such as ours – and at the very best the sort of friend no artist should live without.

We met Steve Curtis – whom we affectionately call Kuma, Japanese for ‘Bear’ – mere hours before we met Chris the Dog at our first reading at Swizzles. We didn’t really become well acquainted until I ran into him a few days later on Laurier Ave. in downtown Ottawa and thanked him for joining us for that first reading. Over these four years we’ve seen him grow as a writer, and Dusty Owl Press has published quite a few of his stories as little books. He has also helped get our publications into a few bookstores in Peterborough and Toronto, and has chipped in at various small-press and indie-culture fairs we’ve been part of.

I don’t really remember when we first met Sean Zio – he simply seems to’ve always been there – but I think he also found us out at Swizzles. He began the highly successful Ravenswing fairs three or four years ago with our friend Festrell, and has been a relentless Dusty Owl booster. He has been running the Dusty Owl Playdate, a freeform writers workshop at Mother Tongue Books since last fall. He is simply a positive force in the Cosmos.

How did you end up at Swizzles?

Cathy and I found out in early 2004 that our longtime friend Tanja Pecnic had taken over ownership of Swizzles Bar & Grill sometime before Christmas 2003 – I don’t know exactly when, and I don’t like pressing the issue on these sorts of matters, as it is literally her business. Although I had been meaning to for some time by then, we didn’t drop by Swizzles to see her until late that February. You see, I had been stopping in from time to time at the Glue Pot Pub – a couple blocks west along Queen Street – since 1990 or so, and Cathy and I had become regulars there when we moved into the neighbourhood in 1996. Tanja began working the bar at The Pot sometime in the summer of 1997, a couple months before Cathy and I got married. So Tanja has a bit of a history with us… she’s kinda like family we never want to lose touch with.

For a number of reasons – especially the fact that Cathy and I were taking part-time courses at Carleton University at the time – we hadn’t seen Tanja in a while, so this was a reunion of sorts. After a lot of interested small-talk – more than the just the usual hi-how-are-you-today kinda stuff – Dusty Owl came up, though I’m not sure exactly how. But after a good twenty or so minutes of discussion, Tanja suggested that Swizzles would make a good home for a revived Dusty Owl Reading Series.

At this time, Cathy, Kate, Nick, and some other friends of ours were meeting as an informal sort of writers group over breakfast at the erstwhile El Morocco diner near the corner of Bank and Lisgar streets in downtown Ottawa. I ran the idea of a revived Dusty Owl at the proposed venue by our ad-hoc group, and everyone enthusiastically agreed.

And so, on 26 March 2004, at 5pm on a mostly sunny afternoon (though we wouldn’t’ve known it as we were in a basement bar) the Dusty Owl Reading Series took flight again for the first time in five or so years with a good twenty-five or so people in attendance. It was, by the way, entirely open-mic, open to everyone who wanted to stand and be heard.

When Swizzles had to close down in late 2006 due to a fire, the Dusty Owl had to go to other venues, yet you kept on holding your events. Why didn’t you just cancel and wait until later? It must have been difficult finding venues.

Actually, it was remarkably easy to find alternate venues. All the places I approached – Mother Tongue Books, SAW Gallery, The Lookout, the Ottawa International Writers Festival – agreed without almost any hesitation when I approached them about bringing the Owl to their venues.

And it was Craig Poirier who actually approached us about coming to the now-defunct Electric Gallery when he’d heard about our difficulties. I like to think that our success during Swizzles’s closure was due to our good reputation – but I think it really speaks to the degree to which Ottawa supports independent culture. Even now, a year and a half later, I feel such a debt of gratitude to the people who helped us out in our hour of need.

I should also say that there were some real reasons we went from venue to venue to host Dusty Owl when we were without Swizzles. The main one was that it was our opportunity to reach out and move around a little in the community, but it was also a chance to recognize our friends and supporters outside of Swizzles. But we also didn’t want to cultivate a sense of loyalty to any one place apart from Swizzles; it would have ended up being really awkward for us – and unfair to some “other” place – to make the choice between them and Swizzles when it did reopen. Keep in mind that Swizzles was supposed to be closed for repairs for only a couple weeks, maybe a month; instead, it was out of business for nearly half a year. And Dusty Owl was part of the Swizzles community who rolled up our sleeves to help rebuild the bar.

But there was no way we were going to can the Owl while Swizzles was closed. No way at all. We had learned our lesson at Café Wim, where our hiatus was only supposed to last a few months, but went on for more than five years. And we were reluctant to break our commitments to our writers and musicians – especially in light of how the Swizzles shutdown dragged on. At some points, it seemed as if we wouldn’t even have a Swizzles to return to, which would have meant scrubbing the whole thing and starting over again at whatever venue would’ve had us.

It was kinda like being the Rebel Alliance at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. We were on the run, but not without roots or purpose. And there was no waiting for some saviour – the saviour was us.

What’s the role of Dog & Pony Sound and how did they end up taking part in Dusty Owl?

Christopher Doyle – the ‘Dog’ of Dog & Pony Sound – has become an essential part of the Dusty Owl experience at Swizzles. Most obviously, he is our sound engineer. But he is also our public-speaking coach, a community booster, a confidante, and – above all else – a good friend. He has the know-how to take the right liberties with the soundboard when somebody’s at the mike, to make them sound good – Max Middle here comes to mind, who comes out to Owl readings from time to time just to listen but finds Chris press-ganging him into reading so they can collaborate. Dog even came out to help to help us during our time away from Swizzles. In fact, he was a big part of rebuilding Swizzles after the fire in 2006. And he’s a poet in his own right – he often takes part in Dusty Owl’s open set and our Object of Desire… he always shines.

Dog is the finest example of the serendipity that somehow sustains Dusty Owl. Turns out he’d been running the Dog & Pony karaoke show at Swizzles for a few years before Tanja took over there. He showed up at the bar with his equipment something like halfway through our first reading there in March 2004, expecting to easily get set-up for his 8:30 karaoke show – this was when we still got things kicked off at 5pm, instead of the 2pm start-time we took up a few months ago – and he sat back to take in what was going on. Then he showed up even earlier for our next reading, so he could set up before we got started, so he wouldn’t have to rush his setup between our wrap-up and his start-time; this also meant that he could contribute to our open set.

Soon after that he began running the soundboard for us at our readings; even when we stepped up our schedule a couple years ago he’s never missed a chance to help us out, except maybe when he once was sick. I really can’t imagine Dusty Owl without him; it could never be as professional or as much fun.

What was the most unusual performance you remember at either incarnation of Dusty Owl?

I’m going to say just for the record that our most unusual performance would have been the Max Middle Sound Project a couple years back. But I say that only because sound poets are a relatively small circle in Ottawa, and because we had a number of Dusty Owl regulars who seemed utterly overwhelmed by the performance (I saw one whose mouth literally dropped further open over the course of the performance).

Then there was our previous Christmastime Chocolate House fundraiser for the Ottawa Food Bank, when we let our headliner, guitar instrumentalist Dave Lauzon, just jam out on stage for something like an hour and a half to make it worth people’s trouble to come out to the show – this was the day last December when something like two feet of snow fell on Ottawa over a twenty-four-hour period – and Cathy served everyone there a ham and squash soup dinner. And there’s also the reading we hosted by Robert Fontaine, the movie reviewer for CBC Radio’s local drive-home show All In A Day, who was promoting his book Movies Ate My Brain.

But that’s really a tough question to answer for three reasons. First, I’m really hard-pressed to recall a Dusty Owl reading that is “usual” in any sense because we try to keep our programming as diverse and divergent as possible. Secondly, we’ve had some really remarkable performances during our open sets and Object of Desire sessions over the years. Finally, there’s all the tertiary stuff, like my experiments with Diet Coke and Mentos in the parking lot during set breaks, or the whole poetry goggles thing, or the time we served cookies and milk, or all the times Chris the Dog has had some fun with the audioboard when a Dusty Owl open-set regular or I were at the mike. Even when we don’t set out to find it, fun weirdness will find us.

If someone were to start a literary reading series in Ottawa, what advice would you give to help them out?

Don’t! Just kidding, heh-heh. Well, maybe not.

Like I said, I never consciously set out to start the Dusty Owl Reading Series. It just happened as thing after thing fell into place, until one day I found myself on the stage at Swizzles introducing George Elliott Clarke. Nor am I in any way trying to discount all the help and faith given me over the years by so many good friends and neighbours. But the whole Dusty Owl thing has been remarkably organic, with few points in time when I found myself saying I wanted to do this thing or that thing.

Here, though, I have an anecdote I should share. When Dusty Owl first started up at Café Wim in 1996, there was this kid of maybe seventeen or eighteen who showed up as a regular for the open set – I’m gonna call him ‘John’. Now, a few months later, the Rideau Street Chapters opened on the next block, complete with their Starbucks. I’m not going to comment here on Chapters’s and Starbucks’s predatory-marketing mechanisms, but a couple months after the Rideau Street outlet opened, ‘John’ got up on our stage at Café Wim and announced the launch of the new monthly Spout Reading Series at Chapters with the generous support of Starbucks, chortling “I’m gonna kick your ass” at me when he got off our stage. Caught in Chapters’s undertow, a children’s bookstore a couple doors down from the café withered and died a year or so later, throwing a friend of ours out of work. Spout did quite well, usually drawing something like fifty people to each reading – and its success actually helped us, I think, alerting people to what Dusty Owl was up to in that cramped café on the next block. So our readings thrived for another year and a half, until our own busy lives forced us to bank it for a little while. Spout, however, was shelved by Chapters a couple months after we closed up shop with no explanation, despite the fact its audiences were topping a hundred or so. I have no idea whatever happened to ‘John’ – he had a chapbook in Crosstown Traffic eight or nine years ago, but I’ve seen no trace of him since then.

The lessons here? A good reading series is almost always a local and independent collaboration, so learn to trust yourself and your neighbours. Avoid being unnecessarily competitive – and avoid backbiting and vendettas – especially in a small community such as Ottawa; a bit of friendly competition can prod things along, but too much can also turn out to be self-defeating in the longer run, especially if you piss off friends and potential allies.

On that note, get to know the people in your neighbourhood. Drop in on the longer-standing readings around your town; watch closely how they do things, note who they host, and don’t be afraid to ask the organizers questions. Your new reading series may be able to meet a need that no one in your community has found yet (creative nonfiction and sound poetry readings are relatively new and exciting fields, as examples) or maybe you can augment the existing scene by relieving scheduling pressures on the established series. Play your cards right and you may find them passing prospective readers on to you – a sign that your local community takes you seriously. And watch the open sets around town closely, as these tend to be the proving-grounds for up-and-comers who may actually be better known than you are aware, or who might be about to publish a new chapbook that needs promoting. Watch the posters around your neighbourhood for new names, and be sure to check out the small-press and indie-culture fairs in your city. Do what you can to build community – share information, meet new friends – if you don’t, who will?

Be inclusive. Dusty Owl has been in a basement gay bar for the past four or so years, which has cut out homophobes (okay, we don’t want to see their kind there anyway), people with an aversion to alcohol for religious or personal reasons, and the mobility-impaired. You can do better, especially on the last couple points. Sean Miller, for one, has been good enough to kvetch at me about Dusty Owl being not very wheelchair-friendly, which is why we are trying to organize more events outside Swizzles.

Finally, have fun. You don’t have to be as whimsical or anarchic as we are, but your readings should nonetheless be enjoyable and enformative experiences.

Ottawa poet rob mclennan has said that the Dusty Owl Reading Series is one of the most fun. What do you think makes the Owl such a fun reading series?

First, let me clarify what rob said, which I’ve committed to memory because I’ve heard him say it so many times over the years: “Dusty Owl isn’t the best reading series in town, but it is the most fun.”

I actually take this as high praise, and not just because rob himself is a good friend and is a lot of fun to be with and is generally very good-humoured. I mentioned earlier our mantras “Intellectual Hooliganism” and “Serious Whimsy” – well, we don’t have any sort of systematized philosophy, but if we did a central tenet would be that play is a necessary part of intellectual inquiry and the creative process, while a sense of whimsy and even drollery make art more accessible, no matter how serious it may be in its intent and content. I’m not advocating a dumbing-down of culture, but quite the opposite –making it a little sharper and perceptive. I should also say that when we set out nearly five years ago to re-launch Dusty Owl, we wanted to deconstruct the idea of the “reading series” and engage in a little play with it as a cultural for(u)m, seeing as I have attended (and hosted) far too many readings that were so cut-and-dry, the emphasis here being on dry. This approach has also gone a long way in determining how we have programmed the Dusty Owl schedule. Eclecticism is another essential part of the Dusty Owl Reading Series; we don’t run on any sort of agenda, except to bring together these different and divergent voices.

Another important element is the fact that I, as host of the reading series, am a bit of an extrovert – I don’t mind making a bit of a fool of myself when I’m on stage, so long as I succeed in putting our audience and guest reader at ease. This is where my shtick of shouting “Hi, I’m Steve!” at the audience comes from, and it’s why I’m not afraid to plunge a little deeper when I have already put my foot into something. The flip side of it is, of course, that I try to treat the audience, the featured reader, and the venue itself with the utmost respect and courtesy – I don’t always succeed, but I do try. I do my best to make sure everyone is comfortably seated, I give our features the time and space to prepare, I remind everyone to tip generously at the bar, I encourage people to stick around (or come back) for the Dog & Pony karaoke show there later on in the evening.

In the end, though, I’m always as serious as can be when I’m on stage, even if I am (to cite rob mclennan again) hitting myself on the head with a hot-water bottle. If the audience has been able to relate on any of many levels with our featured reader, if the open-set readers have been plentiful and diverse and (most important) confident, if the hat is full… well, then it’s when I believe we have succeeded. And, believe me, it’s hard work. But, damn, I’ve never had so much fun in my life.

Comment from Amanda– When I think of the Dusty Owl, one of its main differences to other reading series in town is that it is personal. You and your wife, Cathy MacDonald-Zytveld, tease and flirt with one another on stage, give everyone hugs, and make everyone feel welcome and wanted. I think it’s the warmth and friendliness that gives Dusty Owl its mojo. Thanks for all you do!

1 comment:

John W. MacDonald said...

What a pleasant and informative chat. Thanks for taking the time to post this.