Authors and audience experience unique opportunity to connect and share

As the author of two critically-acclaimed books, Marcello di Cintio has read in front of audiences both large and small and he admits that some readings aren’t well attended.

“It’s humbling,” di Cintio said.

At his most recent reading, di Cintio read an excerpt from his upcoming book in front of a small audience of about 20 people. This time, however, the audience was small by design. Three other authors joined di Cintio at a literary salon — a twist to traditional public readings.

Rather than a public venue such as a bookstore or library, Di Cintio, along with Jeramy Dodds, Richard Harrison, and Rosemary Nixon — read in the living room of a private home in northwest Calgary.

The audience, who was instructed to come prepared with a pair of slippers and a coffee mug, sat among the authors and enjoyed the cozy and informal atmosphere that marked the evening.

Cassy Welburn was among the audience members. She said she attended the salon primarily because she knows some of the authors, but the reading’s unique setting also proved to be a big draw.

“I just like the relaxed atmosphere of being in somebody’s home. It’s interesting. It’s kind of like a house concert,” Welburn said.

Historical tradition of salons

The concept of a salon — a gathering of like-minded people who wish to share their ideas — has deep historical roots.

Susan Toy, owner of Alberta Books Canada, came up with the idea of holding literary salons in Calgary.

“I had heard of the popularity and success of house parties being held for musicians and thought, ‘Why couldn’t we organize something like this for authors?’”
“I had heard of the popularity and success of house parties being held for musicians and thought, ‘Why couldn’t we organize something like this for authors?’”
—Susan Toy
Alberta Books Canada

She said there is “a long historical tradition of literary salons being held in private houses.”

Like Welburn, Toy finds comparisons between literary salons and house concerts.

The success of local house concerts, where which musicians play for smaller audiences in private homes, provided Toy with inspiration while she was looking to set up a new series of readings involving Alberta authors.

“I had heard of the popularity and success of house parties being held for musicians and thought, ‘Why couldn’t we organize something like this for authors?’” she said.

Toy said literary salons provide a unique opportunity for authors to interact with their readers.

“While authors are accustomed to reading from their work in order to promote a new publication, it’s not often that they’re asked to read to a private group or audience.”

Themed salons Jeramy Dodds, the current Calgary Distinguished Writers Program writer-in-residence, has had his poetry translated into several different languages.
Photo by: Karry Taylor

Each salon organized by Toy is based on a particular theme that “brings authors together,” Toy said.

She said this provides readers with the opportunity to be introduced to the work of authors who may be unfamiliar to them.

“This way it’s hoped that audience members will be attracted by one name on the list, but will discover other authors who are new to them and whose books they’ll want to buy and read,” she said.

The January salon that was held at a northwest Calgary home celebrated the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program — an initiative of the University of Calgary that is designed to advance the careers of up-and-coming Canadian authors, as well as enrich the Calgary writing community.

Terry Rahbek-Nielsen, manager of the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, said that each year a promising, published Canadian author is chosen to be the annual writer-in-residence.

During a 10-month term, the writer-in-residence is provided with a salary, an office, and support staff to book appointments and readings.

Another important aspect of the program, said Rahbek-Nielsen, is that the writer-in-residence “gives back to the community.”

“Part of the responsibility is to hold consultations with writers who are just starting out and possibly working on their first book, play, or collection of poems.”

Dodds is the program’s current writer-in-residence. Harrison, Nixon, and di Cintio are three former writers-in-residence who now live in Calgary.

Small Audience: Intimate Setting

Harrison, who served as the program’s third writer-in-residence during 1995 and 1996, says the unique atmosphere of the salon versus a larger venue is akin to the comparison to owning a house in the city versus one in the country.

“The big audience, like a city, allows for a kind of anonymity and alone-ness for both writers and readers, and particularly with poetry, that’s what some people really want; they want the silence to remain unfilled after the reading.

“As the reader, you need to understand that and let people step away from you or further conversation, even though you are quite close to them physically,” Harrison said.

“The house in the country permits the kind of intimacy in which people can open up with their own connections to your work and share their own memories, sometimes memories they haven’t thought about until they found a resonance in the poems. As a reader, you need to forget about your role as the poet and just listen.”

The salons also provide the opportunity for the authors to connect not only with the audience, but also with each other. (From left) Rosemary Nixon, Richard Harrison, Jeramy Dodds, Marcello di Cintio participated in a literary salon celebrating the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program.
Photo by: Karry Taylor

“The thought that came to mind at the time was that, even though we had never read together before — Marcello, Rosemary, Jeramy and I — the night felt like we were getting the band back together.

“I liked that,” he said.

Di Cintio — the program’s writer-in-residence during 2009 and 2010 — said that while he has been invited to speak to book clubs held in private homes, the literary salon was an entirely new experience for him.

He said he thinks the salons are “a great idea.”

“With a small group like this, I think everybody is going to be engaged. Everybody is here to listen to the writer. At some of the larger readings, people might be there for something else.”

Opportunities for future salons

Toy said interest in the literary salon series has been building. “I now have authors contacting me asking if they may take part in a future salon,” she said.

Although there are no dates set yet, Toy said there will be at least three more events in the Alberta Books Canada Literary Salon Series to be held later this spring. Future themes include one designed around literary couples, one for authors of children’s books and another that will present authors who have recently published new work — including, according to Toy, a work that has been published in e-book format.

The success of the first three salons speaks to the depth of talent to be found in the Alberta literary scene.

“There is no end to the great writing and authors we have in this province,” Toy said.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca