Literary Salons: made in Italy, here in Toronto

The literary salon is un altro cultural institution for which we can thank the Italians. About the same time Italians created the newspaper (after they invented ballet and long before they organized the first film festival), educated and well-to-do sixteenth century Italian women began hosting these indoor conversational gatherings. Attendance was by invitation only so the women played gatekeeper as well as host and were often expected to direct and  moderate conversations about the arts and socio-political events of the day.

These salons (from the Italian salone, “large hall”) spread to France and grew in popularity with the chatting classes. Their effect on French history and the Enlightenment has been noted by scholars. The organized salon spread throughout continental Europe, England (e.g., the Blue Stockings Society) and Latin America; to read its history is to understand how women influenced the politics and culture of the day, despite, or perhaps because of, the sharp divide between the public and private spheres.

My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.

~ Jane Austen

More recently, in 1930s and ’40s North America, Gertrude Stein hosted some of the great artistic minds of her time, including Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mildred Aldrich, Élisabeth de Gramont, Ezra Pound and Henri Matisse in what became known as the Stein Salon. Fast forward eighty years and it’s easy to see why the literary salon in particular is no longer the event it once was. So much of our so-called public conversation about the arts now happens online which is, and is not, an actual place. Like our homes are, and are no longer, part of the private sphere.

And yet — still we gather. In each other’s kitchens, living rooms, the local pub, a favourite restaurant. The cleverest blog post, or carefully worded comment, lacks the incantatory power of in-person conversation, the back-and-forth, interrupted, built-upon, rebuffed, ridiculed and sometimes alarmingly incisive ideas of others. Always often entertaining.

Writer and Descant volunteer Trevor Abes, production editor for our now-sold-out comics issue, Cartooning Degree Zero, attended the first in a new pop-up literary salon series in Toronto last week. I asked if he’d let us know how it went. It’s a pop-up in that the location is only published the day of the event and the venue will change each time. It’s pricey, at $30 a ticket, so if you’re interested in attending the next one, you’ve got a few months to save. But if your work is chosen for the event, your talent is your ticket.

Here’s Trevor to tell you about his experience.


Hear, Hear for Hear Here, Toronto’s Newest Arts Salon

by Trevor Abes

Hear, hear for Hear Here, a quarterly series of salons, each held at a secret venue revealed only on the day of. The series features poets, novelists, visual artists, singers and musicians both handpicked and curated through submissions. Its creator, Toronto businessman Alfonso Licata, wants to contribute to Toronto’s arts community by putting the revered in the same room as burgeoning amateurs. He also set himself a synesthetic challenge in terms of the changing venues. Think of the name, Hear Here. It poses several questions: not only, how do we optimize the act of listening in a given space, but also, how do we listen to a space to ensure we make the most out of it?

Courtesy Gillian Foster, Gillian Foster Photography.

Courtesy Gillian Foster, Gillian Foster Photography.

The atmosphere at the first installment—held on November 20th in the airy lobby of Toronto’s Metro Centre, and delightfully hosted by standup comic and professional clown Anna Sapershteyn—was not what might be expected from an event in the touristy section of King Street West, where dinner and a live show will run you a few hundred bucks. What could have been a pretentious affair, with unapproachable cliques talking in corners, turned out to be an effective remedy for the nervousness we feel when introducing ourselves to strangers. There were multiple stages, areas for quiet thought, and room for aimless strolling and casual encounters. Attendees weren’t forced to listen to any reader or musician; rather, they were invited to and had the option to stand up close, sit on a nearby bench or hang back at the bar to chat out of earshot.

The visual art at Hear Here no doubt inspired spiritual commutes with Sara Mozafari’s “A Woman on the Subway,” self-discoveries behind Bryan Belanger’s Manufactured Masks exhibit, and unplanned romps through Dante Guthrie’s psychogeographies, to name only three.

Justin Lauzon, Literary Events coordinator for the Windup Bird Café, the caterers for the evening.

Justin Lauzon, Literary Events coordinator for the Windup Bird Cafe, the fabulous caterers for the evening. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

First up was Claudio Gaudio reading from his novel Texas (Quattro Books), about a U.S. diplomat kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists. The book’s stream-of-consciousness style— which crosses continents and centuries from one line to the next—was a proper intro to a diverse lineup including dub poet Lillian Allen, digital media artist Bryan Belanger, and the stunning vocalist Yvette Coleman.

Claudio Gaudio. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Claudio Gaudio, reading from his novel Texas (Quattro, 2012).  Read our review of Texas here. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Composer Jason Nett, armed with guitar and loop pedals, told us his career was about “taking the spontaneity of what I play in my living room and sharing it without too much refinement.” He made beats in real-time, layering riffs into the order he wanted, then soloed over them with all the flair of Slash mixed with Bill Frisell. He played with abandon, eyes closed, swaying back and forth as if lost and loving it. I felt lifted, as you do when the song you need happens to come on the radio.

Jason Nett. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Jason Nett. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

After Julie Joosten read from her Governor General’s Award-nominated poetry collection Light Light (BookThug), I spotted poet and novelist Barry Callaghan eating a slice of pizza with his wife Claire. If he were in a restaurant or on the street, I may not have approached him to say hello. But this was a salon, after all. We were here to meet fellow artists, mingle and make connections, spurred on and comforted by the knowledge that everyone was here for that same reason. I shook Mr. Callaghan’s hand and asked him how he was carrying on. He said, “All right, though I wish people would’ve been quieter so I could’ve heard the poetry.”

Barry Callaghan. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Barry Callaghan. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Novelist Richard Scarsbrook received the most laughs for his theatrical reading about the ontology of oral sex from The Indifference League (Dundurn). He began with one of his poems, and was the lone performer to call the crowd toward him saying, “I’m moving on to the prose now, you can come closer.”

Richard Scarsbrook. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Richard Scarsbrook. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

The surprise of the night was writer Emily Halliwell-MacDonald, a recent Master’s recipient from Queen’s University whose short fiction submission to event organizers earned her a headlining spot. She counts Hear Here as one of her first readings. Imagine that. Reading on the same night as Lillian Allen and Barry Callaghan, and not as an opening act, but in between them. And she didn’t break a sweat.

Emily Halliwell-MacDonald. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Emily Halliwell-MacDonald. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Hear Here returns February 2015 with a theme: revolution.

Submit your work here.


Trevor Abes is a writer with a penchant for hip hop and conceptual art. His work has been published in Torontoist, The Toronto Review of Books, Sequential: Canadian Comix News and Culture, and untethered magazine. Trevor was the production editor for Descant’s (sold out!) comics issue, Cartooning Degree Zero. Please visit and follow him on Twitter @TrevorAbes



4 Responses to Literary Salons: made in Italy, here in Toronto

  1. I am so glad I am an Italian woman. I never knew Italy was the birthplace of the Salone (saloni). Interesting, too, that this was the brainchild of Italian women and it seems women carried forward to France. And now we have book clubs, which are informal gatherings (mostly women) hosted in someone’s house, the hostess often taking on the role of directing the conversations. Love it!

  2. P. S. Good luck to Trevor Abes. I wish him much success in his new Art Salon. I will come when in Toronto.

  3. Can’t think of a better way to spend a Canadian winter night. Are you sure the idea came out of Italy?

  4. I’m not sure, but Wikipedia is!!

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