Essay

Toronto Specials

A BBQ signboard becomes an unlikely booster for poetry.
Image of the Smoke Signals BBQ signboard and listed performing poets.

The interior of Toronto’s Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q is sleek and modernly stylized, like so many of the contemporary barbecue spots that have popped up lately in cities outside the American South. But unlike any other restaurant, the dining room signboard contains no cutesy puns, just two advertisements: for the upcoming crawfish boil Smoke Signals is hosting and a poetry event, Call It Home, at the Underground in Toronto’s Drake Hotel.

Soon two of the poets set to read, Danez Smith and Nabila Lovelace, arrive at the restaurant, as does Paul Keodprom, the event’s primary organizer and the man behind what everyone has taken to calling the “poetry board”—two illuminated signs that once housed dinner specials but now feature poems by trans and queer poets and poets of color. “Mostly I want to be letters—not / their sounds, but their shapes on a page,” he posted one day from Kaveh Akbar’s “Rimrock.” And from Tracy K. Smith: “Go for a while into your life, / But meet me come dusk.” (From “Willed in Autumn”) Over the course of a few months, the board has gone from a local oddity to a social media phenomenon, its Instagram page boasting more than 4,000 followers.

Poetry on a specials board at a barbecue restaurant in Toronto—an unexpected combination, to say the least—is what has drawn a multitude of people, in person and online, to Smoke Signals, but a sincere core holds the many unusual elements of the story together. Keodprom is the former general manager at the restaurant, which he cofounded as a catering company in 2014 and helped open with owners Nick Chen-Yin and Diego Bergia in October 2016. A month later, Keodprom, finding himself riled by the US presidential inauguration and variously misogynistic and offensive signboards that had appeared at other venues around Toronto, was impelled to do something. “It was kind of a gut reaction to the climate of the times,” he says. “Seeing that I had this big venue to say something different, more positive, more fun than the typical restaurant.”

Exterior of Toronto’s Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q restaurant.
Exterior of Toronto’s Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q restaurant. Photo by Kyla Marshell.

 

Originally from Brantford, an hour’s drive south of Toronto, Keodprom, 40, studied creative writing in college but never pursued a career as a writer, choosing instead to keep his poems and other work for himself. “Reading, even more than writing, has always been a big part of my life,” he says. “I feel like I’m more of a professional reader than anything.” That’s how, despite not otherwise being active in a poetry community, he had so much to draw from when he began the board. Once he knew that he was serious about mounting a poem each day, he expanded his reading palate even more.

Keodprom began on January 31, 2017, with an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and a caption, “Somedays I don’t feel like jokes.” On February 1, in honor of Black History Month, he began sharing work by black women writers, starting with lines from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and progressing to writers as wide-ranging as Mari Evans, Zora Neale Hurston, Ladan Osman, and Elizabeth Acevedo.

Initial responses were mixed. “The reaction I noticed most was just people being confused,” Keodprom says. “I don’t think a lot of people are specifically expecting to be challenged when they go out to eat.” Much of the work he selected by black women writers was clearly and unabashedly such: Upile Chisala’s untitled poem from February 17 reads “You say I was made from a / borrowed rib. That means I am thriving / on a spare part.” Imagine going out to eat “simple food” and encountering “The Giving Tree,” by Aja Monet: “Our music / our customs / our beliefs // our faith / our protest / our song.”

But in addition to confusion, there was also delight from patrons. Soon people came to the restaurant just to see the board. And Keodprom’s coworkers, though no more aware of what he was doing than the patrons asking them about it, got a kick out of it too. “It’s been nice to come in and see what’s on the board each day,” says Cassie Davidson, the manager, who identifies as a poetry reader and writer.

In the eight months he’s been doing the board, Keodprom has the system down to a science: he stacks all the letters and punctuation marks together, alphabetically; then he puts each letter of each word in his hands in order and stands on a bench to snap them onto the sign. “More than once I’ve asked a customer to move so I could finish putting it up,” he says.

Image of Paul Keodprom.
Paul Keodprom, the event’s primary organizer and the man behind what everyone has taken to calling the “poetry board.” Photo by Kyla Marshell.

 

On social media, the response was even larger and overwhelmingly positive. Initially unclear of what the project was, Keodprom didn’t tag any of the featured poets on Instagram when he posted their work. Instead, word of the board spread organically. After someone tagged US-based poet Safia Elhillo in the post featuring her poem, she spread the word via her own social profiles.

When Danez heard about the board, they messaged Keodprom on Instagram, jokingly suggesting that they visit Toronto to see it and eat at Smoke Signals. Shortly thereafter, Smith posed an open invitation via their Facebook page: who wants to go to Toronto, read poetry, and eat barbecue?

The original plan was to gather poets at the restaurant for a meal and an informal reading. But as knowledge of the board gathered on social media (there were a few high-profile reposts, including one by poet Nayyirah Waheed, who has well over 300,000 followers), Keodprom realized that he could fill a room, that he had an audience—more than an audience; he had a community.

Keodprom, who is Thai Canadian, has lived in Toronto for 12 years and on or near West Dundas Street, where Smoke Signals is located, for nearly ten. That’s why, when walking down the street with him, two things happen: people wave, and at random, he disappears, stopped by a friend to chat. More than once someone tells me, “Paul is the mayor of West Dundas Street.” Keodprom doesn’t have the boisterous presence of a political mayor, but having worked in bars and restaurants for an extended spell, he has become friends with many of the people who own the establishments in the neighborhood. Those connections helped him book the space at the Underground; someone less tied to the restaurant industry might have had to go through more traditional channels.

Via the board, Keodprom has also found footing within the poetry community. He’s never met Sunday night’s readers, but it’s hard to tell that at first glance. At the Saturday dinner at Smoke Signals, he and Smith discuss their epic daylong hang from the day before, which ended just as the sun was rising. The group—which includes Lovelace; Sydney Allen-Ash, the event’s producer and host; featured poet Julian Randall; and Mona Mousa, a Toronto-based spoken word artist—quickly decides to do karaoke after dinner. On Sunday, before the event, there are the Smoke Signals crawfish boil and a Chinese and Jamaican food–themed day party to attend. The line ends up being endless; Keodprom uses one of his many connections to get us in.

Canadians are stereotyped for their niceness, but that’s not a sufficient explanation for how these people have found themselves here, of their own volition and primarily through their own funding. More clearly at work are a love of poetry and a commitment to community. Smith agrees. “There’s no big magic to it. It was just poets seeing that somebody loves poetry and just connecting on that similar love for the work.”

The format and venue, of course, were also sources of curiosity for the poets showcased on the board. On multiple occasions, Keodprom gleaned a tone of surprise when they reached out to thank him for showing their work. “Maybe it’s just the way that it’s presented that’s visually shocking. You’re putting their work in lights, literally. I think that was jarring for some people. Like, ‘someone is doing something with something I wrote.’” The surprise, he says, also seemed to be that anyone had read their work at all. Considering how many emerging poets he’s featured—another important element of the board’s popularity—the poets’ surprise is understandable. For example, both Lovelace and Randall are currently enrolled in MFA programs.

The biggest surprise is that a reading is happening at all. Other than his work as a caterer, Keodprom has no prior experience in event planning. He enlisted Allen-Ash to help him execute—though as with the featured poets, he didn’t know her well before their event Call It Home came to be; they were only acquaintances. Now he calls her “a great friend.”

The venue they chose, the Underground at the Drake hotel, is swankier than your typical poetry reading locale and, with DJ AXMC and experimental musician OBUXUM performing, also lacks the typical, quiet energy of a reading. Smith, Lovelace, and Randall arrive early to check sound—and to dance. As the audience filters in, something sparks in the room: a big day, finally arrived.

Though the room is not packed, every seat is filled, and others linger by the bar. Allen-Ash, who is mixed race, keeps her introductions short and sweet: this is “an amazing opportunity to raise up black and queer poets,” she tells me later, such that she and Keodprom decided against featuring any white poets.

The opening acts, from Mousa’s Feather & Anchor management agency—including Mousa herself, Yes The Poet, and Nasra Adem, the youth poet laureate of Edmonton—reinforce the motivating principle behind the board: to amplify the voices that are heard less.

Randall, who recently won the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, reads from his forthcoming collection Refuse; Lovelace reads a poem about the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, among others; and Smith closes out the night with a few spoken word pieces and a few poems from the forthcoming collection, Don’t Call Us Dead. I found myself reading too, at Keodprom’s invitation, the audience reacting in the best way, with laughs, hums, and shouts throughout each performance.

The need for poets to be heard, in and outside their communities, was made most evident to me by a young woman I saw in the bathroom, nearly hyperventilating, before the event started. When I asked if she was OK, she said yes but to “just ignore me” and returned to staring at the floor. Later, I learned the source of her anxiety: she is a huge fan of Smith, and as she told them soon after, “I never thought I’d get to hear you read.”

The morning after the reading, I meet Keodprom at Smoke Signals so he can once again mount a poem on the board. He chose Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” “A good way to cap everything off,” he says.

Little black boy
on the bus with a toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless

                        his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.

Keodprom stepped down from his general manager post at Smoke Signals in June but continues to manage its catering business. Spending less time in the restaurant means less time to do the board, however. Instead of every day, he now posts once a week. “I’m going to stick with it as long as I can,” he says. “At some point, [the owner’s] going to want to put ‘beef ribs, $30 a pound’ up there because it is still a business, and I respect that.” He and Allen-Ash have talked about other formats the board might take, perhaps a coffee table book or an annual reading.

Part of what’s next for Keodprom is curating more poetry events “Because apparently, that’s what I do now,” he jokes. The small press Button Poetry asked him to help promote Sabrina Benaim’s book launch in August (the press also sent him the entire catalog, hoping he’d showcase more of its authors).

Though it’s new territory for him, Keodprom is grateful for the unexpected opportunity to further incorporate his love of literature into his life—and for the relationships he’s built through it. “That’s kind of the amazing thing of it all to me—that this community has come together to have events and break bread all off a little signboard in a restaurant. If it accomplishes nothing more, then after today, I’m happy. It’s already more than I expected it to become.”

Originally Published: November 27th, 2017

Kyla Marshell is a writer whose poems and other work have appeared in BlackbirdCalyxGawker, the Guardian, SPOOK magazine, Vinyl Poetry, and elsewhere. Her work earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships and an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. A Spelman College graduate, she is the the former development/marketing...