There’s a new reading series on the scene — Speakeasy, brought to you by Ayelet Tsabari and Eufemia Fantetti of the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Guelph.
Hosted by the Magpie Tavern at 831 Dundas Street West in Toronto, Speakeasy is a monthly event in which MFA students, instructors and alumni alike can showcase their work. It’s a hot place for agents, editors, publishers and all manner of language aficionados to get a healthy dose of literary talent of both the established and up-and-coming variety.
Some of the writers who have read at Speakeasy include Catherine Bush, Russell Smith, Michael Winter, Meaghan Strimas, Paul Vermeersch and Nancy Jo Cullen, along with numerous other students and graduates of the program. I recently spoke with Ayelet and Eufemia about the series, its inception and where it can go from here.
Ayelet explained how the series began:
When I started the MFA Program at Guelph, I was new in town and hungry for a writing community, On my first week in the program I shared a ride with a few students and I said, "We should have a reading series," to which everyone replied, "Yeah! Totally!" — but then nothing really happened. The thought stayed with me for the next few months. I knew that a reading series would not only allow us to share our writing and practice our reading skills, but it would also be an opportunity to mingle with alumni and faculty in a social setting and ultimately help build a stronger community. I decided that at the end of the year I would approach Catherine Bush, the program coordinator, and ask how to go about it. Meanwhile, Eufemia was accepted into the program as well, and one of the first things she said to me when we spoke on the phone was, "Does the program have a reading series? Let’s start one!" Eufemia had experience hosting a reading series in Vancouver and like me, was new in town. Everything just seemed to fall perfectly into place.
Speakeasy launched on October 3rd 2010, and attendance has been steadily increasing with each event. You don’t have to be involved in the University of Guelph’s MFA program to attend: the series is open to anyone, from prospective students to those interested in hearing some of Toronto’s best writers read their work aloud. At the inaugural Speakeasy, Catherine Bush treated the audience to a sneak-preview of her soon-to-be-published novel The Thief — a nice surprise for anyone who’d happened to pop into the Magpie for a Sunday pint. I asked Ayelet and Eufemia how they decided on a venue.
“We wanted a location that was unassuming and comfortable,” they said. “The type of place you could imagine a group of writers pounding their fists on the tables while debating the merits of semicolons. We had attended book launches there and found it had the perfect blend of location and atmosphere. Although Speakeasy takes place in an intimate setting, we try to create a space that is welcoming and open to everybody.”
In February, however, the series experienced a near-case of writer’s block — literally — when it was discovered, a mere three hours before the scheduled reading time, that the Magpie had been double-booked. Ayelet and Eufemia recounted the scramble that ensued.
It was a misunderstanding. We found ourselves without a space three hours before the event was supposed to start. During that time we were blown away by the immediate response from alumni and students trying to help; it was community building at work. Ayelet’s office became "Command central." Many people called, skyped and texted, making suggestions, offering to speak to other venues on our behalf. At the end, after being dragged from one possible venue to another, we ended up in the basement of a bar across the street with about 45 people in attendance and only 20 minutes late. It was extraordinary and really proved to us that Speakeasy was here to stay.
The misunderstanding has since been resolved, and the next Speakeasy event is set to take place on Thursday March 31st at 7:30pm — at the Magpie! Good thing, too, because the series and venue are a great match linguistically: one of the slang definitions of a "magpie" is "an incessantly talkative person, or chatterbox," otherwise known as an "easy speaker." The best part is, the chatter you get to hear at a Speakeasy event is always of the highest literary quality!
Scheduled readers for the March event are Karen Connelly, student Matthew Henderson, and alumni Sheniz Janmohamed and Tanis Rideout. It’s sure to be a chattery, fist-pounding, pint-guzzling good time — even if they have to move the event to a giant bird’s nest on the roof.
Stacey Madden lives and writes in Toronto. His first novel, Poison Shy, was released by ECW Press in 2013.