When poet and professor Bänoo Zan moved from Iran to Canada at age forty, she discovered that her new literary community lacked diversity. There were many communities of writers, but they remained mostly segregated. So, like any smart artist, she created what she knew to be missing. In 2012 she founded Shab-e She’r, a monthly reading series featuring two diverse authors and a robust line-up of open-mic readers and musicians. Shab-e She’r stands today as Toronto’s most diverse literary gathering. In a town where just about every night three different literary events take place, that’s no small accomplishment.
LHTR: What was the literary community like in Babol, Iran? How does this differ from Toronto’s literary community?
Babol is a small agricultural city, with a small exclusivist literary community. It is not at all comparable to the cosmopolitan megacity that Toronto is. Maybe my inspiration for Shab-e She’r came from my frustration with what I experienced there.
LHTR: When you were starting Shab-e She’r, what are some ideas, features, qualities, structural guidelines, or rules that you picked up from other literary events you enjoyed?
Before I stated Shab-e She’r, I explored Toronto’s poetry and literary scene for about two years. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say I had attended hundreds of events before I started my own. And I picked ideas from many of them. I was particularly impressed by the welcoming nature of some of the events. If participants feel comfortable in the space and feel that their presence matters, they will make it their own. I was also drawn to the inclusivity and diversity of some events. I believe that we can’t just give space to a specific group and ignore others in the name of “literary excellence.” This is not even good art—it is narcissistic, ivory-tower literature that masturbates with language. When we do this, we are actually marginalizing communities with excellent, strong voices.
One important feature of some literary events in Toronto is the open mic. To me, this last feature is one of the essentials for promoting freedom of speech and exercising courage. In a world where we all live in our own bubbles, we need the open mic to bring unforeseen perspectives and provide new chances for connection.
LHTR: What makes a literary event successful? Are there any qualitative or quantitative measures you use to gauge success?
I am skeptical of measuring success in the art world. I believe it is the future that can judge our impact. Those who are involved in arts and culture need to have a futuristic attitude towards our activities. If we listen to our network of friends and supporters, sometimes we may form a delusional picture that exaggerates the little impact we have made in our immediate community for a short period of time. I will let the future decide if I have succeeded. Right now, I am too busy running the event to even care about success. I did not start the series to gain success, I started it to bring people together.
LHTR: This series began in 2012. Can you talk about a change you had to make early on?
In the first year, I featured one poet at each event. I soon noticed that my goal of introducing communities [to each other] would be better achieved by featuring two poets from two different communities and circles, and preferably those who do not know each other. This way, Shab-e She’r could be a meeting place of two very different groups, if not more. I noticed a positive change in the energy level of the events after that.
LHTR: What’s something you didn’t expect to happen at a Shab-e She’r reading.
Poetry itself is unexpected. The fact that we do not expect unexpectedness at a poetry event shows how poetry has betrayed itself in small homogenous groups, has become too tame, too safe, too apolitical, too irrelevant. I hope every single event of ours proves unexpected to our audience and features alike.
Once, a featured poet who had lost her father recently was pleasantly surprised to hear an open mic reader’s tribute to her father. Given that she is an immigrant to Canada, the chances of someone attending her reading who knows her family back home was very slim. She told me later that she had done a lot of readings, but her Shab-e She’r feature was memorable among all of them.
LHTR: What techniques for promotion have worked for you?
The one technique that I have found results in larger audiences is going to other events, getting on the open mic (if there is one) and talking about my series and sharing a short poem. This gives poets and poetry lovers a glimpse of me, both as a poet and as an organizer. I have found out that on months I attend more events, more people show up at mine.
LHTR: What are some common features of literary readings that make them seem intimidating or uninviting to attendees? How have you targeted these obstacles with your series?
Reading series with no open mic feel unwelcoming to new writers and poets, as they have no way of having their voices. These series establish a hierarchy of literary arts, expecting the new and marginalized voices to be the consumers and not the producers of art. We consistently have featured poets from diverse ethnicities, nationalities, religions (or lack thereof), ages, genders, sexual orientations, and poetic styles.
One huge divide that we have been trying to bridge is the one between the literary poets and spoken word artists. Our open mic is also a reflection of our targeted demographic: all of Toronto, which means people from all over the world. Our events are non-hierarchical and democratic. I find that at our events everyone listens more carefully, as they know they are invited to join the conversation.
LHTR: As a host of a reading series myself, I feel nervous about the idea of having to ask someone to leave. Have you ever had to ask someone (an audience member or a reader) to leave the event?
I haven’t. This, in itself, is an achievement.
In terms of limits to what people can share, I am a firm believer in freedom of speech. Limitations to free speech are far more damaging to imagination, to peace and stability than an occasional person sharing something unpalatable on the open mic. I believe the answer to a poem is another poem. If the audience feels what someone shares is politically wrong, they are welcome to sign up and share their truth. Shutting down the dialogue sometimes happens in the name of safety. But if you feel safe only in spaces where people share your views, and if you require validation for every word you say, you are not an artist: you are a narcissist. Art, by its very nature, is controversial and risky. Artists with great minds and universal visions are often censored in the name of all the higher values that we progressives are supposed to be sharing. We need to exercise tolerance and openness in our arts community to foster innovation.
Having said that, I also need to tell you that the founders, organizers and team members set the tone for every series or event they create. I am proud of my team members who are serious poets with a lot of experience in organising events and dealing with people. I have no doubt that, should any disruption happen at any event, we have people on the ground to handle the issue, whether among our team or members or the audience, many of whom are social justice activists and promoters of equity in arts and culture.
Bänoo Zan is a poet, translator, teacher, editor and poetry curator, with more than 120 published poems and poetry-related pieces as well as three books. Song of Phoenix: Life and Works of Sylvia Plath, was reprinted in Iran in 2008. Songs of Exile, her first poetry collection, was released in 2016 in Canada by Guernica Editions. Letters to My Father, her second poetry book, was published in 2017 by Piquant Press in Canada. She is the founder of Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night), Toronto’s most diverse poetry reading and open mic series. It is a brave space that bridges the gap between communities of poets from different ethnicities, nationalities, religions (or lack thereof), ages, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, poetic styles, voices and visions. Facebook and LinkedIn: Bänoo Zan. Twitter: @BanooZan