After attending Shab-e She’r for the first time, I met with Bänoo Zan at the Green Beanery, a popular tea shop at Bathurst and Bloor, to discuss the event that, she claims, is the most diverse poetry reading series in Toronto. It was immediately clear that this soft-spoken woman, though quick to laugh, is careful with her words. She drinks her tea slowly and speaks openly about how she came to start this unique reading series.
“Life is all about what you do when you’re deprived.” Since leaving her home in Iran five years ago, Zan says that she has written more and more passionately. “I devoted myself to writing—one reason being that I didn’t have a job for two and a half years. But the other reason being that I had left something behind that was very precious to me—my country.”
She went on to say that she needed to take care of herself here more than she would have if she were back home, surrounded by loved ones. So, to connect with her passion, she explored Toronto’s writing scene as much as she could.
In doing so, she came across one of the community’s often unaddressed warts. “When I started on my journey of exploring the art and poetry scene, what I discovered was a lot of segregation and marginalization.”
One of the major issues confronting the publishing industry is the shocking lack of diversity, both among those who are published and those who work as publishers. In 2015, a study by Lee & Low Books indicated that 79% of the publishing industry identifies as White/Caucasian, 78% as cisgender women, and 88% as heterosexual.
As a response, some groups have emerged that focus solely on marginalized voices, providing space for perspectives that are not often published. But these initiatives are also problematic, says Zan. “When these groups target a certain ethnic group, or a certain minority, or a certain type of sexual orientation, what happens is that basically the members of the group are just talking to other members. No outsider will hear it.” And this, in turn, pulls away from the diversity that Zan is trying to encourage at Shab-e She’r.
“My window to any culture is through its literature.”
And it’s not just racial or gender diversity that Zan is concerned about. Programming diversity is also affected by other limitations that aren’t often discussed, Zan says. “If an event looks more homogenous, it’s because they focus on other limitations—like some of them feature only spoken word people, some feature only published people—which limits the pool.”
To foster an environment that allows for the most diversity possible, Zan started Shab-e She’r—meaning poetry night in Persian—in November 2012. Each night has two featured readers and opens up an ample amount of time to open mic participants. In fact, this portion of the evening often lasts two-thirds of the entire event time—an unheard of amount of time to dedicate to those who only have to sign up. But all people are welcome and encouraged, and poetry is loosely defined.
For an event that dedicates so much time to the open mic, the quality of the readings is surprisingly high. One regular open mic reader is a musician named Tom, who, without much restraint, puts on a mini concert of direct, biting political songs at the end of the night. Zan claims to have the best open mic in the world. Even George Elliott Clarke, our Parliamentary Poet, reads at Shab-e She’r on occasion.
“I see that a lot of poets would rather spend money on drinks than on the admission fee that goes to other poets.”
“Someone said to me that ‘It seems like you’re featuring the open mic reader.’ Yes, I want to send a message to say you’re all poets and all equal. A lot of the time the best recommendation for a poet, if they want to recommend themselves as a feature, is to come and read at our open mic several times, to show their voice.”
With so many voices gathered together for one cause, it’s important to maintain a space that feels safe for anyone who wants to share their work. Events are most commonly held in public spaces such as bars or restaurants, but that environment isn’t ideal for poetry readings, especially one that is predominantly advertised as a safe space, says Zan. Shab-e She’r is currently hosted at St Stephen-in-the-Fields Church near College and Spadina. “There are speculations about how we can create a safe space. Most people, of course, are fine, but I think a dimly lit space with drinks available increases the risk of harassment, improper behaviour—people who are prone to that.”
And more than that, bars and restaurants are first and foremost looking to make money from the attendees. The drink and food sales are a large consideration for the establishments opening up their spaces to these events. Although it seems like an obvious choice, especially considering the frequency that readings are held at these public spaces, according to Zan, holding literary readings in bars feeds into an unspoken lack of support for the writing industry. “I see that a lot of poets would rather spend money on drinks than on the admission fee that goes to other poets.”
“If my event is only running because I get grants without getting enough support from the community, I don’t want to do it.”
Shab-e She’r asks for a five-dollar admission fee, but won’t refuse anyone who can’t pay. Some nights, Zan says, they are able to pay their featured readers close to or the same as the League of Canadian Poets. And since the series has operated without grants for five years, this level of compensation is an accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked. “This much emphasis on being dependent on granting bodies cannot really be good. If my event is only running because I get grants without getting enough support from the community, I don’t want to do it.”
Zan’s worldview centres around an intense focus on community. Given the dangerous political situation in the US right now, I asked her how she felt, being an Iranian poet, about the recent travel bans ordered by the White House. She told me it makes sense that people, especially those who agree with Trump’s orders, will feel threatened by very qualified immigrants.
“Because of certain political factors in Iran, the majority of Iranians who immigrate are highly educated, highly sophisticated people. We don’t immigrate because we don’t have enough to eat. It’s because we don’t have social freedoms. Like in my country I had the best job; I can never hope to get that job here. I was a university professor and I taught what I loved, English literature. So that isn’t what drove me away. I left everything for the freedom of choice, freedom of expression. And this is true for most Iranians.”
As she describes the circumstances of her life over the past ten years and more, there is a slight hesitation in the way she tells her story, each pause filled with hardship, and, more importantly, with a sense of self-assurance. Her gaze remains wide even as she finishes her last drops of tea. I ask her what the plans are for Shab-e She’r, and she says that she hopes to continue reaching out to new communities, getting more voices on stage, and to continue learning.
“I have been growing a lot in the past six years. I’m happy with the new person, better than I was with the old one, but still I see there is a lot of room for growth. And for me, because I’m an immigrant, wherever I go I’m an outsider. My window to any culture is through its literature.”
Shab-e She’r’s next event is on March 21st at St. Stephen-in-the-fields Church on College St. This next event is a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, as well as poetry, and diversity.