Blue Metropolis: Montreal 1975 / 2015 discussion
BLUE METROPOLIS: MONTREAL 1975 / 2015, A different imaginary
A round-table discussion organized by Arcmtl for its Montreal Underground Origins project, held on April 24, 2015 at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal. The discussion explored two Montreals: the city that local writers wrote about in 1975 and the entirely new city in 2015. Featuring the authors Endre Farkas, Anna Leventhal and Ralph Elawani and moderated by Bryan Demchinsky.
BD: Bryan Demchinsky
EF: Endre Farkas
AL: Anna Leventhal
RE: Ralph Elawani
BD: We are going to do a literary then and now in Montreal. Imagine creating a story in this city as a writer in the mid seventies, in 1975, what was the city like? And then imagine again doing it today. How have things changed, how have things evolved in the literary landscape.
As for me, I just missed the seventies in Montreal. I moved here in 1982, and like so many people who came before and so many since, I felt in love with the place and decided this is where I would put down my roots.
I came here as a journalist, working at the Montreal Gazette. I wasn’t that familiar with the literary scene but a year after I got here, I was invited to a reception at Simon Dardick’s place, the publisher of Véhicule Press, and I suddenly found myself in the room with Louis Dudek, F.R. Scott and Irving Layton and – although I wasn’t that much into the literary scene, I did know that I was in the presence of greatness, and that this was a very special moment. Especially since, as it turned out, F.R. Scott died a few months later.
What was happening was that the literary scene in the city was undergoing a generational shift from people like that, the ones who were in that room and other iconic writers, some of whom were still in their prime, for example, Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen. I think that they were for various reasons moving away and the Montreal that they knew and in fact created in their literature was changing.
And so for example Leonard Cohen went off and became more known for his music, Richler went away to live in other parts of the country before coming back here. An indication of what this was is that in his 1970’s novel, he has one of his character say, from St. Urbain’s Horseman, “This is nowhere St. Urbain, we are nothing here. We are better to leave.”
I think that this is effectively what he did and what others did one way or the other, the exception is Irving Layton—of course, his ego was bigger than all of Montreal so it didn’t matter where he lived. (crowd laughs).
In part, the changes to Montreal were from the changes that were going on in Quebec at the time: post-Quiet revolution, post-FLQ crisis. Francophone writers like Michel Tremblay and Yves Beauchemin could write novels that fully realized Montreal in literature. Meanwhile, William Weintraub on the Anglo side, was writing The Underdogs, this dystopian novel in which he describes a shabby down at the heels Montreal that’s a shadow of its former self and is run by an authoritarian nationalist government.
But I think this mattered less to the younger people and boomer generation emerging from the underground, so that’s where I would like to begin with Endre to get some of his impressions on that era and what he saw.
EF: One just little point about authors leaving… the prose writers left, the poets stayed. I will talk about that a little bit later. I came in 1956, my parents escaped from Hungary and we settled on Park Avenue near Fairmount, what is now the trendy, hip place to be but we were there when it wasn’t that.
What I want to do is just read you a letter I wrote to Abraham Moses Klein, he was dead by that time but they had poets write to each other all the time. This is a letter in a sense from poet to poet from one generation to the other to maybe give you a sense of Montreal.
Dear Abraham, it is late but for us it is the right time to be awake, steal time from sleep and pensate upon the fate and faith involved in living in this place. I too, am an immigrant and like you, know what it is to be inside, outside. Much yet not much has changed since you as a child, held your father’s hand on the way to and from shul.
Every Sabbath as a young man, held your sweetheart’s hand on the way to and from the summer evenings stroll on the mountain. As father, held your children’s hands on the way to and from a walk across Fletcher’s Field. As a poet, hands in pockets, wandering about your ghetto streets, your exile land, your labyrinth.
Yes, there are still all those things to the newcomers, there are always newcomers. It says a lot about this world. But these greeners are buying up these absentee landlord dumps and are renovating them, painting them Greek blue, Portuguese green, gay pink and every other immigrant colour. Out of these ghetto streets, they are making a home. And your grandchildren whose parents travailled so hard to escape your St.Urbain, De Bullion, Hotel de Ville, Marie-Anne and Rachel Streets, are moving back, trying to buy back these roach-filled flats. But believe or not, they can’t afford them. Abraham, your ghetto has become très chic. The mountain is still there, though you risk life and limb to reach her.
And so is that monumental woman who’s tarnished coppered breasts you threw truant pebbles at. She’s still there, still receiving the kids’ pebbles attention, in the same stoic way. She’ll outlast us all. And on summer Sunday afternoons, the world’s fatigue, which is too much with us, is snorted away. And of course there are the lovers amongst the bushes, eager and clumsy on their prickly bed, and there are boys who would call girls, and girls who called brazen. The mountain is still inspiration, she is the female principal in this macho city. The way she touches, the way she comforts. I spent nights lost in her greenery, snuggled to her breasts. And though violated by high rises, her spirit is not broken. She’s still magic.
City elections are coming up. This is the only time that mayor crawls out of his luxurious hole, he does look like a mole, Jean Drapeau. Dreams of being king, but has become an aged queen who has given birth to deficit and deformities. C’est pas un cadeau. Bon Jean got elected on promise of making a honest woman out of Montreal. He seems to be succeeding. He, like a pimp has worked her hard, sucked her dry, make her ugly and sterile.
But we are fighting back and continue to map her sacred geography. We make love to her in unsuspected moments, after the metro has stopped, in forgotten alleys, rented rooms, bars and cafés, after legal hours, in all sorts of ways. And as for the province: the rocking chair, except for the antique dealers, is no longer the vehicle. There is very little time in this 21st century for sitting on balconies, though the unemployed do and their numbers are growing.
The Anglos of power are still in the Pentagons of Washington and the vaults of New York, their branch plan managers have perennial for sale signs growing on their lawns because the anciens canadiens of la Belle Province have become gens du pays. They find their provincial domaine too confining and do not want any more hand me downs. I wish them well. Yet well I know that if they succeed, I will be again in exile.
I tell you Abraham, for us there is only one nation: the imagination. And because of this, we will always be in exile. Oh, Abraham! Often late at night, strolling familiar streets, I look up lit windows and catch glimpses of figures praying in the true language to the spirit of this place. Write soon. (applause)
BD: Let me start with you, Endre – how do you think the changes that Montreal has seen in the past 40 years, both physical and social, have affected the literary culture in the city?
EF: Well, first of all, the seventies, when I first started to get involved in the literary scene, it was mainly a poets’ city. The prose writers left because they felt they couldn’t work here. The poets stayed perhaps because they couldn’t afford to move, so even the best collection of poems, except if you were maybe Leonard Cohen, weren’t going to buy you months in Greece or anywhere else. It was a cheap place, I’ve heard this over and over again how Montreal was a cheap place and that’s why artists tended to be here. So that was one thing.
When I first started in the scene, it was around the Véhicule Art gallery. It was opened by visual artists who were just graduating or had graduated, mainly from Concordia, and weren’t getting exhibited because their work was different.
There was a group of poets, Véhicule Poets, and I was one of them. We didn’t make up that name, other people called us that, it was a derogatory term. We were the ones who sort of reinvigorated the literary scene as Brian pointed out– Cohen had left, Irving Layton and Richler had also gone. The group that sort of followed after that, we called them Cohen clones, they were doing fairly conventional stuff which we weren’t interested in. We were trying different things. Montreal was a place that was free enough to try anything once. There was no trendy place to live; it was just a lot of cheap places. Cheap places to eat, cheap places to drink. People got together to talk not so much about politics, as the Francophones did—because that was one of the things that was very clear, the English-language writing community did not or could not talk about what was going on—the only ones who did are the Véhicule poets.
At the time Concordia was importing established names, some second-rate poets from the States for readings. George Bowering started to bring in good Canadian poets like David McFadden, Michael Ondaatje, then so did we at Véhicule. Simon Dardick asked those of us who were organizing readings at Véhicule Art if we would start a press. We said, sure why not. We did, and we started publishing people, and in a way we got other people pissed off at us so they started their own presses. Guernica was one, Delta Canada sort of woke up and put out some books, so it soon became a lively scene.
As far as the media was concerned, it was pretty bad. The Montreal Star had a critic who considered anything past the Middle Ages worthless. The books section wasn’t interested in local stuff until Tom Konyves started writing about it part-time. What I am saying is that the seventies were kind of the end of one period and beginning of the other, and I think the livelier scenes came later on.
BD: and it’s interesting to note that both Guernica and Véhicule are still around, Véhicule in Montreal and Guernica in Ontario. Ralph, could you describe your impressions of both of that period, because you studied it, and also what the evolution has been since then to today?
RE: Well one thing for sure is that, what I gathered from what you were mentioning about the city and the view of a lot of Anglophone poets and writers have had of Montreal, has always been very romanticized, a loving view of the city despite whatever tensions there have been.
BD: But throughout that period with people Montreal would be an object of…
BD: Fascination, yes, and consideration in people’s writing I think.
AL: Could I just interject? Could it not have been a question of two parallel cultures and two solitudes but equally vibrant and now what we see is much more an appreciation and maybe still two solitudes, but in a different way …
BD: I think that’s an important point and we are going to come back to that.
RE: It’s a good point and if you watch films from that era, if you think about Le Chat Dans le Sac and something like The Ernie Game for example, both films go on to describe different scenes but they’re both run parallel to each other, it’s a striking example of it. Even people like Robin Spry, who did a marvellous film on October 70; he was fascinated with that scene even though he was from a completely different background.
BD: Let me throw this out, it’s sort of a related question. Were there neighbourhoods then or are there neighbourhoods now that were more conducive, a better nesting area for writers?
AL: When we are talking about writers and neighbourhoods, sometimes I wonder if we are actually just talking about real estate and gentrification, sometimes it’s hard to distinguished between the two. You know, we talk about up and coming neighbourhoods that are affordable and then, these are often the neighbourhoods traditionally inhabited by working-class people and new immigrants and then they become hotbeds of artistry, and then they attract a certain demographic, and then they become gentrified and people are priced out of them. I think we could look at this phenomenon happening for any decade, pretty much.
BD: But I think Endre, you were saying it was less the case back in the day.
EF: Yeah. The 70’s, in the beginning there was The Word—The Word Bookstore on Milton in the McGill Ghetto. It was a cheap place where writers congregated, but they came from all over town to go there. I know a lot of the visual artists were on St-Laurent above the stores near Dorchester, well now it’s Rene-Levesque. I used to take a bus on Dorchester, now Rene-Levesque, that the bus driver would go along and he would say: Atwater, à l’eau! Guy, guy! YWCA, young women come again! He did this whole routine, bilingue. Montreal was all over the place.
Many artists did live in the ghetto; the McGill ghetto was pretty much the cheapest place. Esplanade at that time was still more immigrant, St-Urbain, Esplanade, Jeanne-Mance, all the Hasidic, the immigrants from the 50’s and the 40’s… At that time these places were big, so big families could live there.
And there weren’t that many writers living in Montreal, or artists, compared to now. It’s the artists who’ve now moved here for the music scene, the gamer scene that has sort of grown to the point where they can occupy a certain area and claim it as theirs.
Montreal at that time, at least those areas we knew, were what I could call authentic in the sense that it didn’t consider itself trendy because it wasn’t conscious of what it was. It just was there, and the artists were all over the place, they tended to congregate in cafés, the Café Prag was one of these places, the Yellow Door was another place for musicians and poets. So it wasn’t so much a neighbourhood as it was people and various specific places around town.
RE: At the same time it was very central, you hadn’t, I’m pretty sure nobody’s heard of the beat poetry scene from Baie D’Urfé or the Ahuntsic punk rock scene or whatever, those areas you mention – McGill Ghetto, St-Urbain, have been central and have been essentially the places where people have congregated for obvious reasons. I mean, they’re close to downtown, the housing was cheap back then, anyway (the writer- filmmaker) Emmanuel Cocke used to live in the McGill ghetto with guys like Louis Geoffroy, they mixed in– from what I understand – people like Claude Péloquin was a great admirer of Louis Dudek.
BD: You are giving a good segue to my next question which is: Do you think there is as much or more solidarity among francophone and Anglophone writers now then there was then? Or how much was there back then, Endre?
EF: I can speak from first-hand experience, in the 70’s when I was running the reading series at Véhicule. even though Véhicule had an accent-aigu on it, it was mainly Anglophone but it did attempt to reach out. In the visual arts there was more crisscrossing. The dance scene was very intermingled because you didn’t have to speak, you just had to move.
But I tried to get a reading series going where Francophones and Anglophones would read on the same bill. I remember having a conversation with Gaëtan Dostie, who was a very strong Québécois, in fact his first book of poetry had his mug shot on it from having been arrested in the 70’s and he said to me: Endre, je t’aime, mais pas politique comme ça. So that, if you want, you can give us the reading series and we’ll take it over but it’s got to be French only. And I said, sorry, not that kind of separation.
So, we tried, but later on, in the 80’s, along with Lucien Francoeur, we did a series of little magazines called Montreal Now, with half the books’ poems in English and the other half in French. Every time we would put them out, we would have a gathering and a reading somewhere. But after the reading, they went there, and we went over there. So there was still that separation. No animosities per se, but we realized that we were, I don’t know if it’s two solitudes but two different languages.
RE: It’s funny you mention Gaëtan Dostie because in 75 when Montreal hosted the Semaine de la Contre-Culture, it was the French scene that brought William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and these people from all over the States and some from Europe. It’s funny because Gaëtan was telling me that he had Burroughs and Ginsberg over at his place having turkey, I was just wondering why…
EF: They were Americans; they were quite willing to have good times with them. Michel Tremblay also very clearly said that he had no problem having his books translated and published in English outside of Quebec. And they had a link to the beat poets through Kerouac (who was originally from Quebec.)
RE: I mean even magazines like Logos; their first issues were bilingual. The roots of counterculture in Montreal are on the Anglo side and then it branched out to magazines like Mainmise and stuff like that later on, but the enemy wasn’t the language as much as it was either the government of the state or the powers that be that people felt were crushing them. Unfortunately, those powers that be had a language attached to them …
EF: Well the writers, except perhaps for Louis and Richler, were sympathetic to the aspirations of the Québécois. They weren’t particularly fond of the way it was being carried out, but they understood it. I think that’s partly why there was silence about that by the English writing community aside from. It was partly because English literary culture had no connection to the English business culture, whereas the francophone writers had very strong interconnected roots with their own people.
RE: By their own people, you mean Québécois or…?
EF: Yeah, Québécois. What Yvon Deschamps talked about and what Charlebois sang about and what Gaston Miron wrote about, they were connected at the root.
BD: Anna, I would like to hear your take as a newer arrival and whether you see this issue of solidarity how it appears in your eyes.
AL: Yeah, well I do have a sense of there being a pretty big split between the French and the English literary communities, but there are also people, translators like Mercury, running with messages back and forth between the two worlds and I think that’s something that is beginning to have more… well no, that’s not true, there has always been people working in translation so, I don’t know… I think it’s interesting to think about what generations of writers consider themselves to be writing against, or what they are kicking back at, especially when talking about the counterculture. And in that sense, I think that you could say that often the two language communities are united in some ways, like in the 70’s, post-October crisis, there is this sense of a militarized government that will arrest anyone at the drop of a hat. I think that both communities were mobilized by this, and that’s very similar now when you see the Printemps Érable and the anti-austerity student movement that is happening right now, those cross – I don’t know if I should call it two cultures – but cross the language divide and also of course, we are not really talking about people who are not of English or French language cultures here, allophones. So there is now really a third language culture, and I think that the Charter of Values was a major issue that mobilized a lot of writers, generated a lot of critiques, and that is going to be appearing in the writing of young Montrealers for the next little while, I think.
BD: What are the challenges now, as compared to what they were before, for writers who are either starting out or perhaps even mid-career writers, given the enormous changes we’ve seen in the last decade or two. We’ll start with the past, because I am sure that there were challenges, namely that the Canadian literary scene wasn’t as well established as it later became.
EF: I remember working on mimeograph machines and typewriters. When we got electric typewriters we thought: wow! This is high-tech! So our means of reaching out to an audience was, you’d mimeograph 50-60 posters, and you walked around town and stapled them up, and left them at The Word, at Paragraphe or Argo, one of these bookstores, and word would get out and people would show up.
I think that now in Montreal… I don’t think artists see being here a kind of limitation or a barrier to being anywhere else, because they can send out their stuff around the world, whereas before, local scenes grew to reach out to regional scenes. You had the B.C. scene, the Prairies scene, the Ontario scene that everybody hated (crowd laughs), and you had Quebec and then the Maritimes that no one knew existed. But there were occasions where one travelled, like occasionally you would have a Canada Council grant and somebody invited you to go somewhere, and you went, and that’s how the news spread like an oral tradition. They’d ask, what is going on in Montreal, what’s going on in Toronto, who’s doing what… Then you ended up bringing somebody back here, and that’s how the communication was, the development of the language of what people were writing and influenced by. When I look at it now, it was a turtle’s pace, but perhaps it gave regions a sense of identity that they don’t have now. It’s more like a global village as opposed to a local village.
AL: I would say that actually gives people more of a sense of place. People spend so much time on this sort of no-place of the internet, which I think makes people really hungry for work that gives a strong sense of place, whether it’s a familiar place or not. At least that’s my experience.
BD: I will add just one thing to that, something in fact that Louis said that we were discussing for this event: Oh yeah, the writing scene here is better than ever with all the things going on, it’s just that there is not as much upward mobility anymore. I think that’s a fair assessment because of the difficulties of getting published and finding a national publisher and so on and so forth.
ED: I was recently in Slovenia and spent a night listening to the bitching of the writers there saying they can’t get any grant, any money, can’t get any attention and they can’t get translated so they can’t reach an audience of English speakers. The poets talking about having printing 100 copies and having to do it themselves, and I said to them, well that’s an honourable tradition!