How to Start a Poetry Scene in Your Backyard

Elisha May Rubacha & Justin Million launch bird, buried press

It’s a sultry Friday night in July. Jess Rowland squeezes her accordion beside a shelf of her poetry books in the carport entrance to an unassuming back yard on London Street, welcoming us in. A card table is set up with a small jade plant and more handmade, limited editions of poetry to commemorate this event. In the shade of the yard are a few folding chairs to sit on. It’s the first anniversary of the Show and Tell Poetry Series (STPS).

A concrete pad serves as an erstwhile stage. By the bbq is a bucket of beers and the gurgle pot—a sort of mascot in the form of a yellow ceramic fish-shaped jug that makes a satisfying sound after a glass of water is poured. It’s a tender prelude of sonic poetry.

Our hosts, Justin Million and Elisha May Rubacha, two equally fine poets, were both trying to make inroads into our minimal literary scene, when they happened to fall in love through some serendipitous curatorial matchmaking. But this is so much more than a sappy rom-com. Maybe poetry is a dish best served in community. Maybe it takes a village to launch a small press.

Elisha May Rubacha reading at a Show and Tell Poetry Series meeting at Curated

Elisha May Rubacha reading at a Show and Tell Poetry Series meeting at Curated

Poem backstories are shared. Pages fall to the ground as Million takes us on an urban journey with one of his “guzzles,” a genre derived from Persian Ghazal poetry. Rubacha’s verse is crisp, deep and unexpected. Questions ensue. Upcoming events are announced. Books are sold. Everybody is invited to stay after for a late dinner in our hosts’ apartment.

Eminently likeable, smart, eager, and open, Rubacha and Million are on a mission. In distinct but complementary orbits, they aim to generate a sorely lacking Peterborough literary scene, as well as to launch their own small press. Though the Peterborough Spoken Word Collective holds regular ‘slam poetry’ events, this is ‘page poetry,’ distinguished from its more performance-driven cousin. Theirs is a fertile, open-ended, and inclusive enterprise. The couple wants to host fresh literary events like the Show and Tell Series, unusual literary mash-ups and happenings, guerilla publishing, a limited edition print subscription series. They dream of starting a city poet laureate or writer in residence program. “You could argue the downtown core exists because of the arts,” remarks Million.

Their idea for a membership-based poetry storefront reminds me of Janette Platana’s engaging Write on the Street project for Artsweek in 2015. They want to infiltrate classrooms and seniors’ centres, and build much-needed bridges between Trent and the rich downtown art scene. “A lot of people at Trent don’t realize that downtown Peterborough is a thing.” says Rubacha.

“We can do whatever we want here,” Million says, “the slate is clean, let’s do something big.”

The title of their bird, buried press intrigues me. “Let’s just say there’s a bird actually buried in Jackson Park somewhere,” says Million, “that has one of Justin’s poems buried with it,” continues Rubacha. But it also refers to the sad fact that once a poem is published it dies, since few publications will accept previously published works.

bird buried pressIn an era of closing bookstores there is a surprising resurgence of small presses, book arts fairs, and a renewed valuation of the book as object. Working closely with authors, bird, buried press strives to finesse every aspect of their publications—from the paper to the typeface. Their first chapbook by Peter Gibbon will launch on October 1.

Ebullience and frustration trip over each other in Million’s voice as he reels off novel ways to bring poetry to the people. His recent Keyboards! performance involved a piano he can’t really play and a manual typewriter, and is now a monthly feature at the Garnet. He can “riff off the room” with NYC-style energy. The Garnet’s booker, Sean Conway, calls it ”weird and sophisticated art.” An MA from Carleton and former editor of its In/Words Magazine, Million is one of those wordsmiths who can write on command and is “author of more chapbooks than there are observable galaxies in our universe” according to fellow poet J.M. Francheteau.

A graduate of English Lit, Philosophy, and Linguistics at Trent, Rubacha possesses a crackerjack intellect and a knack for graphic design. Her Linen Threads zine series is as much visual art as text, with poems layered to the point of dematerializing, yet the poetry holds its own. She is drawn to “inundations of information…that move around in your brain and ferment into something else.” She has the unsticky groundedness of a soul that has searched itself shamelessly for truth, can hold space for imperfect things, and genuinely gives a crap about others.

It’s hard to believe that there could be an art form more precarious than painting or music, but poetry takes the extreme hardscrabble arts award. Million describes a reading in Ottawa where 63 poets participated, including some from out of town, and not one was paid; yet a shout out for a poetry reading would easily draw an audience of 60.

Justin Million - Villain OG

Justin Million’s Villain OG

This shared enterprise has risks and they admit it hasn’t always been easy, but they have worked out divisions of labour, and a collaborative vision.

I recall my first STPS event on a Sunday afternoon in winter at Curated’s old location in the Charlotte Mews. The cool, beat, finger-snapping vibe wrapped me up like a favourite flannel shirt. There were kids. There were cookies. There were handmade books. And an excellent reading by Peterborough-born visiting poet Mark Sokolowski.

Though Rubacha and Million say it hasn’t worked as they hoped, their events are illuminated by remnants of the STPS invention of interactive stations: a re-creation of the poet’s writing desk, their notes and drafts, a visual element that inspires, their favourite food and drink, and a short interview.

Rubacha says they want to showcase “the writer as a whole person…we want to look at their life from as many perspectives as possible … animate spaces that were of particular importance or interest to the writer.”

As I ride my bike into the night, I have an image of Million and Rubacha as butterfly hunters, looking for rare, elusive poems and equally elusive poetry lovers. I start thinking about poetry and imagining all the places that could be animated by poetry readings—the walkway off Hunter Street, a boat in Little Lake, Jackson Creek Park, a city bus, the London Street Bridge, the Simcoe/Bethune basketball court. Maybe that’s what happens when you find yourself inhaling the essence of the newborn heart of a poetry community.


Cover photo by Jenn Huzera, used with permission.

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Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.