In March 2020, open mics and various in-person poetry events were cancelled due to necessary restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. With the cancellation of open mics and few opportunities for spoken word poetry performers to make their living, the lives of students and poets have been changed.
“I’ve been affected in a lot of ways,” says Kaitlyn Tolch, a former english & professional writing student, now in her third year at OCAD University studying creative writing. “The main point has been the loss of community. I didn’t realize how many of my friends I only saw during events.” As a performance artist, Tolch relies on open mics and poetry events as a source of income.
With cancellations, her livelihood has been affected.
“One of the many consequences of living through a pandemic has to be the inability to attend spoken word/poetry nights,” says Anisa Ali, a soon-to-be English alumna. “It’s one thing to read poetry, but it is a whole different experience to be amongst a crowd of poets and poetry lovers. Its contingency lies in its oral history.”
During open mic nights and/or poetry slams, there is a communal sense of validation formed between poet and audience through the recognition of a collective devoted to listening to each other — something that is rarely experienced in day-to-day life. A performer can be heard and a poetry lover can be seen, moved, and entertained.
“Poetry communities are a network of support,” says David Goldstein, a professor in the creative writing program. “The pausing of open mics, readings, book launches, and other types of poetry gatherings have had a negative effect on people being able to nurture their own and each other’s commitment to the local poetry scene, and to their own sense of purpose as writers,” Goldstein says.
This concept rings especially true for Ali, who felt her own identity as a poet start to fade with little access to a poetry community during the lockdowns.
With all the lost opportunities and missed community that the cancellations have had on poetry communities, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, new poetry communities have managed to grow.
One example of a poetry community that has grown, in part because of the turn-towards-virtual world the pandemic has forced on us, is The Soap Box Press — a local small press located here in Toronto, who have actually expanded their programing since the pandemic.
“Virtual events have allowed us to connect with creatives outside of the GTA, which likely wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” says Tali Voron, founder of The Soap Box Press.
“We’ve loved being able to offer virtual panel discussions, workshops, conferences, and open mics throughout the pandemic, and we hope to continue expanding into this more accessible programming going forward.”
While the arts scene and poetry communities of York and Toronto have been affected by the cancelation of open mics, many people have suffered due to loss of income and togetherness. Fortunately, there are still growing communities of poets and poetry lovers devoted to maintaining that sense of community.
Whether it be through meeting together in Zoom rooms to read poetry together or participating in online open mics, “poetry,” as Goldstein says, “like other forms of art, is necessary always — especially during a time of crisis.”For interested parties, you can find information about The Soap Box Press open mic nights on their website or Instagram.