It’s was nearly eight in the evening on March 14th, 2020. In the main hall of Artscape in Toronto, a small collection of people mingled even as they kept their distance from one another, waiting to pool into the theatre seats of the Small World Music Centre, where a warm red carpet and a table with flowers and a pitcher of water are set against the deep purple backdrop of the stage.
It was a strange mood. Through the excitement and relief at seeing familiar faces, there was tension behind every smile. It was a moment in time of extreme uncertainty.
Though tickets for the night had been sold out, there would be empty seats. At the time, it felt strange to be at an event for Knife Fork Book with fewer people than usual. There were maybe twenty-five of us.
But Jeff Kirby, KFB’s owner and publisher, ground us all. He greets people, and laughs, and calls us all darling and ushers us into space, where he’ll thank us all for coming, and thank those who helped set up the night’s event, give a land acknowledgement, and thank author Alice Notley for coming, an. For reading, she was about to offer, as part of what had been planned as an international tour for her new book-length poem from Penguin Random House. Someone in the audience provides a gentle whoop and Kirby beams. “We’re here For the Ride, baby,” He said, and we laughed, and clapped at Kirby’s namedrop of the book’s title, and settled in.
The following hour was the last live reading in Toronto’s literary community before COVID-19, and the necessary but difficult policies of social distancing and self-isolating shut everything down. Some of these struggles are the obvious ones all businesses are facing, the closing of physical bookstores, the loss of access to both readers and writers. But though writing is a solitary act, the loss of gatherings is a huge blow.
Live reading series such as the ones held at Knife Fork Book, as well as the monthly Ephemera reading series held out of Glad day Bookshop, and the potential loss of literary festivals such as next September’s Word on the Street, or October’s annual International Festival of Authors, help Toronto’s literary citizens spiritually as well as financially. While Indie and local authors become lost in the mix on the homepages of major online retailers such as Amazon, when speaking from the microphone’s places like KFB provides, their voices suddenly ring out above the fray. It is how authors are able to pay attention to each other, and one of the primary ways in which these books find their way into the hands of readers. Now, in the light of COVID, Toronto’s literary community needs that attention more than ever, but how it can spotlight its authors and publishers has to change.
The next time Kirby called me darling, over a blurry FaceTime call where I kept losing our signal and having to apologize, he praised the bravery and the loyalty of those who helped put that last night together. “That was pure will that made that happen. Alice insisted, she said she came to read. We were the only space where she read in North America.”
He remembers being cautious about even hosting her that night, and how the news and policies in the days that followed flowed in with increasing speed and alarm. “At that time you couldn’t gather in groups of 500, it was a boom.”
Now, when Toronto has banned public gatherings of even five people or more, the idea of being around as many people as we were at the reading, as well as the reception and signing that followed, is nearly unimaginable. In the space of KFB, attendees took the time to discuss the reading with one another, to grapple with what had been read and give their own interpretations, and to buy copies for themselves. Now each step of that process has been lost and will remain so until whatever we call “normal” life is able to resume.
“I don’t always know what it’s gonna look like,” Kirby remarks, “I’m used to flying by the seat of my pants, and I’m okay with that. I like having an idea now and again, I’m not without ground.”
KFB has always existed in a state of frenetic change. In 2016, the whole of its existence was a pushcart full of books sitting inside Rick’s Cafe in Kensington Market, which isn’t there anymore. Later Kirby moved across the Street, adding a few more shelves to his space, which was shared with the belly dancing studio above the Bunner’s Bakery on Augusta Avenue, where patrons would slip off their shoes at the top of the stairs. Then in after three years in the neighbourhood, I and six others helped carry all the shelves out of that space, loading KFB’s entire catalogue of books into a few cars to be stored in Kirby’s apartment on Church Street. It would all remain there until everything could be moved into KFB’s new home at Artscape.
“Let me know if I’m moving too fast,” I said, heaving the largest of the shelves down the stairs in Kensington while Samual Strathman (Author of In Flocks of Three to Five from Anstruther Press) held the other end, moving backwards down the thin corridor.
“Darling, I’ve waited my whole life for a man to say that,” Kirby called from behind us. Everybody laughed. That moment in time, so different from this one, remain linked together by that sense of uncertainty, of this embrace of the need to push through, and to help one another, and to do it with a smile.
As the day ended, Kirby and I shared fizzy drinks on his balcony, and he gave me a chapbook he had published the year I was born to take home, which he recommended I read aloud. That human element is something Kirby has always carried from his home into the storefront and is part of what makes it so hard for any visitor to KFB to leave with a different tale. You walk through the front door, you speak with Kirby and the other patrons for a while, you leave with a book, knowing you might never have picked it up otherwise.
Beyond being a store and a publisher, Kirby thinks of KFB very much as “a poetry destination, a space where poets and poetry can do work and be celebrated.”
KFB has indeed become a place that binds both readers and writers of poetry in Toronto. When Speaking to Samuel Strathman about KFB’s move and growth over the years, he called it a “great coming together of poets,” in a tone reminiscent to me of how one speaks of a flock of birds, flying south for summer.
When Alice Notley took the stage in March, the American-born and Paris-based poet smiled a little bashfully, making small talk and outlining the strange and weaving roadmap of her set for the night; with poems from Eurynome’s Sandals, then diving into unpublished work kept in a binder of papers, then Certain Magical Acts, then finally a reading from For The Ride, and finally closing out the night with one more unpublished “thing.”
As she began with the poem When You Arrive, it was hard not to become lost in the hypnosis of her speech, in the dizzying acrobatics of moving from grounded narrative poems about immigration and life and loud neighbours to the heightened reality of experiments in language and form that defied convention and strained against the confines of our reality. It was hard to remember the state of uncertainty in which we had all arrived, and which we would depart back into when the night was over. We left wondering when we might be back, to a place that many of us consider a regular gathering place, somewhere that a month or even a week never goes by without a visit.
We left, and in many ways, walking out the doors of Artscape was the final step towards walking into the new era of COVID. At that point, we knew not to shake hands. There were many awkward elbow bumps and insistent Vulcan salutes between friends and colleagues and partners who were about to enter this long period of separation and isolation.
KFB’s emphasis on readings and community was never an accident. “There is something about sound and voice that is connective. It’s something I cherish deeply,” Kirby says, speaking of both Notley’s reading, and of the “bedtime poems” he has taken to reading aloud and recording, to post on social media during the lockdown, a trend that has grown tremendously in popularity in the past few weeks.
In this notion, Notley and Kirby clearly agree. In a poem, she declares that at some point, some cosmic decision was made, forcing everything to exist within a “prose universe, and I have been bored ever since.”
When it came time to cancel all of KFB’s events for the coming months ahead, Kirby admits it was “a lot to let go of. I thought maybe there will be a curveball, but no, this is our new reality.”
When speaking to Kirby and Toronto’s literary community in general, there is a sense of deep mourning, both for the terrible losses of life at home and around the world, and because we know that in this time of turmoil the book launches, readings, and public events that hold Toronto’s literary scene together has been lost. Spring should be an exciting time in publishing, not only for KFB but for all of the local Canadian publishers. Now is when spring catalogues are supposed to blossom, new titles released, and new authors to celebrate.
Kirby admitted to sharing in that grief, reflecting on the state of the world, and the effect it has had on our community. “Most of the time before you and I have spoken today, I went through some unbelievable grief. Loss is such an extraordinary… you can only lose so much, you know what I’m saying? Loss is huge, and we’ve lost some independence.”
Though the alternative to social distancing, the alternatives to this loss of independence, would be far worse, and result in a massive loss of life, it doesn’t invalidate the grief and pressures our communities face under this new reality. “It’s national poetry month for fuck’s sake!” Kirby said, his laughter a note of defiance. He, like and many others, have cycled through periods of this grief, and depression and loss, but not without important flashes of hope, recalling back that giddy optimism in the face of the unknown when leaving Kensington last September. “In the same day, I can feel this grief, hope, despair, inspiration. They all coexist. Some make their way to take away my ground now and then or give me support. And between all that I’m thinking I’m feeling ‘Oh you know what, darling, stick true, stick to your imagination. You don’t know what things are gonna look like, but you can always begin to shape what that’s gonna look like.’”
After Notley’s reading, all present gathered back in the physical space of KFB down the hall from the theatre, forming a long line clutching paperback copies as listeners became customers and readers. That, more than anything, is the bread and butter of Toronto’s literary circuit.
Many of Toronto’s literary haunts aside from KFB, such as the GLAD Day Bookshop on Church Street, primarily exist as spaces, and their losses are being felt. But in our new virtual reality, supporting our indie-lit community is still worthwhile, and the contributions matter. In this uncertainty, Kirby is optimistic, determined that Toronto won’t simply lose these voices and spaces in the virtual realm. “Quarantine is limiting. I don’t think that necessarily means feeling limited,” he says, determined to find ways of carrying on.
With the sudden loss of these spaces, everyone is handling as best they can. Independent Bookstores like Queen Books, Type Books, and Bakka Phoenix have put their entire catalogues online for order, as well as publishers like Coach House Books, Book*Hug, and Wolsak and Wynn doing their best to both work with these stores, and get the word out that titles can be purchased directly from their websites as well. Local authors whose book launches have been stolen have done their best to cope through online launches, which consist mostly of live streams and online readings, with KFB among them, still doing their best to give their new Orange Collection its due. But these transitions are not a simple fix for a literary community so grounded in tangibility.
Authors and publishers have been doing their best to recapture that sense of community through timed, online events. Readers all log on at once to purchase a new title in the place of a live book launch, and live stream readings have taken the place of live readings, everyone sitting in and turning on their webcams and sending ❤ emojis in the place of applause. Authors such as Jon Nyman hosted the release of his new book The Devil (one of KFB’s new titles) via Facebook and Twitter discussion forums.
Kirby himself participated in this new existence of live streaming, throwing an online party to celebrate the one-year anniversary of publishing his most recent collection of poems: This Is Where I Get Off. Publishers have been doing their best to coordinate these efforts on behalf of their authors, as well as some, including Coach House Books, offering exclusive discounts via their website in an attempt to help readers steer clear of the corrosive black hole that is Amazon.
The literary community is, in essence, begging us all to keep reading. But if, when the pandemic is over, and we can all exit our homes once more to bump elbows and pack onto streetcars, we want the bookstores and establishments of culture to still be waiting for us, we cannot fall into the easy trap of ordering off of Amazon. We have to keep these pillars of our community going, even when we can’t be under their roofs.
Our bookstores and publishers and authors are going to be suffering in the coming months no matter what, and the authors who might feel like the newly published books they’ve spent years working for are now lost to the void are suffering right there with them. We are in it for the long haul, I said, in answer to how long I think social distancing in Canada is going to last. “But so is KFB,” Kirby replied. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
The mood at the end of Notley’s reading was not the same as at the beginning. When she began to read from Certain Magical Acts, she paused, for a glass of water, and apologized to the room for a clumsiness none of us could see, but she swore was there. Then she took a shining golden theatre mask, and hid her face behind it, securing it in place with long red ribbons that lay over her silver hair. In the blue and purple lighting, and the soft heat of the room, and under her commanding direction, we were no longer on planet Earth. I’m embarrassed to say I’m not even sure what poem she read next. You can go onto KFB’s website, and if you become a contributor to the Patreon, you can download the full fifty-two-minute recording of her reading as audio, though there is no accompanying visual image to show when she puts on the mask, and the strange parallel it created to the masks many of us now wear every time we venture out of our homes.
When Kirby and I spoke about surviving in the current crisis, we often talked of ground, of feeling grounded, of finding ground, of searching for the ground to stand on. Right now, a month after Notley’s reading, the ground can be a hard thing to find, and I have heard some people say that poetry and art, both the reading and making of, aren’t what’s important right now. We are constantly inundated by the news, by statistics and reports and cries for help and support, and I think in all of this we can now, more than ever, feel the constraints of being ground in the prose universe that Notley seeks to escape.
Sitting in that room with the community and familiar faces being lost in the voice of the poet, I found a way to come unground from prose, and though the harsh reality we now face didn’t disappear from my thoughts, the anxiety and fear and panic that it produces momentarily lost their domination over me.
When asked why KFB was solely a space for poetry, Kirby’s answer reached towards that feeling of transformation and transmutation that poets like Notley can sometimes achieve. “Poetry is not like worried disorganized thoughts that just challenge us. It’s something where I get to deal with structure, it’s something that challenges us, that perhaps transforms or transports me to a different place.”
When Notley removed her mask again, traces of that poetic universe that KFB and Kirby have helped to foster remain with me, and they will remain, so long as we continue to find new ways of reminding ourselves that we are in a community, even as we cannot gather. Notley’s reading was the last reading held at Knife Fork Book this spring, and the last reading held in Toronto this spring. But it will not be our final reading.
In the face of crisis, to support the spaces and publishers like KFB is not only an act of community but an act of preservation for ourselves as well. Though we are apart, in our readings, we are still together, even if it is over webcam. And though we are all stuck in this pandemic for the long haul, we might take moments of solace by escaping into that poetic universe, where sense might become senseless, and our worries might momentarily dissolve to make way for something better.