"Where It Belongs" The Word on the Street's Rebecca Diem on Community, Homecoming, and What You Can't Miss This Year
An event long treasured by book lovers, publishing professionals, families, and aspiring and emerging writers, The Word on the Street is the anchor event of the Toronto literary calendar, and this year it's making some big changes.
First, the festival has shifted from its traditional September time slot to the spring, taking place this weekend, June 11 and 12. Second, and very excitingly for many WOTS fans, the festival will be returning to its previous Queen's Park location after a stint of several years at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. And finally, festival events will take place in-person (along with hybrid virtual programming) for the first time since 2019.
With a spectacular line up that includes the likes of Heather O'Neill, Catherine Hernandez, Farzana Doctor, Jesse Wente, and Marissa Stapley, as well as dozens of other speakers and writers putting together readings, panel discussions, workshops, book signings, and more, it's shaping up to be a literary bash to remember.
We're excited to speak with The Word on the Street's Digital Strategy & Communications Manager, Rebecca Diem, about this year's festival, all the changes in the air (from a new podcast exploring CanLit history to year-round programming), and what you can't miss at WOTS 2022.
This is The Word on the Street’s first year back at Queen’s Park in a while. Can you tell us a bit about the move and what people can expect this year?
Rebecca Diem for The Word on the Street:
Aside from the WOTStreet’s Back puns we get to use constantly now?
We’re really excited to be back on the street this June, and we’re taking over the north end of Queen’s Park Crescent, from Bloor St. to Wellesley St. for TWO full days. Admission is free, and there’s books and activities for the whole family! You can enjoy programming on five stages (plus the Kids’ Activity Zone) all weekend long, and browse our open-air marketplace for books, magazines, comics and more by Canadian and Indigenous authors. This year we’ll have a seated food court, and we added a beer garden as well. Our info booths will be located on the North, West, and East branches of the festival where you can pick up a map, purchase a limited-edition WOTS tote bag or other festival merch that helps support our year-round programming, and explore Canada’s largest open-air book and magazine festival.
The Queen’s Park setting is a unique, and quintessentially Toronto, one. What is special about getting to hold the festival there again?
When we began exploring bringing the festival back to the streets for an in-person event, Queen’s Park was high on our list of potential spaces. It’s such an iconic Toronto neighbourhood, with great transit and bike lane access, close to landmarks like the ROM and U of T’s historic campus.
Especially important this year was ensuring there was enough space for people to spread out and enjoy themselves while reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. We’ve designed this year’s festival layout with our community’s safety in mind, with flexible seating, ventilation, and lots of room for browsing.
Plus, we were feeling nostalgic! We surveyed our community and stakeholders over the past two years, and the overwhelming response was that the Queen’s Park years were their favourite years. Now that the park renovation is complete, we’re delighted to bring the festival back to the city’s streets where it belongs.
Can you tell us about your approach to programming this year? How do you decide how to shape a line up for such a large festival and with so many great writers to choose from?
Our programming team, Maya Baumann and Sienna Tristen, begin creating a wish list at the start of the year, meeting with publishers who pitch us their catalogues. This year, we also formalized a process for independent authors—either self-published or without a publicist—to pitch themselves directly! Next, we begin shaping a mix of solo readings, interesting pairings and panels, virtual workshops, and programming for kids. We continue to benefit from the insights of our Programming Advisory Committee: Nancy Cooper, Phoebe Wang, and Andrea Gunraj. Then comes the fun part of sending out invitations, crossing our fingers, and putting together the schedule (and editing it a few times to accommodate everyone). In terms of the decision-making process, we work as a team to ensure there’s a good mix of genres, publishers, and established and debut authors.
With The Word on the Street having expanded to a year-round presence, there’s a lot going on outside of festival weekend. What else is happening with WOTS that readers would want to know about?
We’ve been busy! The past few years have been a real opportunity to rethink how we can best support our community. The Word On The Street was originally designed as a transformation of a neighbourhood into a celebration of the written word, and was part of Toronto’s commemoration of International Literacy Year in 1990. We’ve moved our big annual festival to June, which aligns better with the school year and contemporary publishing timelines, but we’re also planning smaller community pop-ups throughout the year. Our first will be on Sunday September 25th at Evergreen Brick Works, our traditional weekend, and will be focused on nature and the environment with author-led forest walks and a mini-WOTS marketplace. We’re excited to bring these pop-ups into more neighbourhoods across the city!
Our virtual series will continue as well! In addition to live-streaming two of our stages at the annual festival in June, online viewers can expect to see more great conversations in The City Imagines. Our monthly(ish) panels about books that shape cities will resume after a brief hiatus while our team takes a well-deserved break this summer. But future plans for the series include hybrid events and a multi-city tour! These virtual or hybrid events really give us the flexibility to feature authors across Canada and make our programming more accessible. I highly recommend checking out past episodes online.
Our other big news is that we made a podcast! Read The North is a five-episode miniseries giving listeners a behind-the-scenes look into Canada’s publishing scene, featuring interviews with celebrated authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, historians, arts leaders, and professional bookworms. It’s a history of CanLit, as told by your friendly, neighbourhood book festival. And I’m really proud of it! We developed the series in partnership with Quinton Bradshaw, CJRU’s Community Projects Coordinator, and the idea was to look at what WOTS is and how it came to be. But while researching the festival lore, we quickly discovered a much bigger story about how all the pieces of our industry fit together. My favourite parts are visiting the Coach House printing press and the Merril Collection archives in the third and fourth episodes, but the best anecdote we heard is definitely Alice Munro partying at the Lord Elgin Hotel during the founding of The Writer’s Union of Canada. I’m an even bigger fan of hers now.
The full schedule for The Word on the Street 2022 is packed with great appearances, but can you tell us about one or two virtual events you’re especially excited about in this year’s festival?
It’s so hard to choose! I think Storming the Stage is a must-watch, honouring the legacy of the late Lee Maracle and celebrating her impact as a mentor. I’m also particularly excited for Jesse Wente’s Unreconciled—when I spoke with him for the Read The North podcast, I was totally awe-struck by his insights and vision for the future of the arts in Canada. One that I’m very curious about is Love In The Air, a romance panel moderated by Uzma Jalaluddin. I’m getting married this summer so I’m feeling very sentimental about love stories and happy-ever-afters. And of course, Rollie Pemberton’s Bedroom Rapper is on my list. Rollie (a.k.a. Cadence Weapon) was a guest for our City Imagines series last year to talk about the Toronto-based narratives in his now Polaris Award-winning album Parallel Worlds, and I have been waiting for this book ever since! Okay, and not virtual, but I have to mention Kate Heartfield’s The Embroidered Book. She’s a genuine Canadian spec fic superstar!
I am excited for so many panels, for so many great and very specific reasons that I could go on forever. I’d encourage readers to check out the full schedule on our website to discover the events they’re most excited about.
The Word On The Street is a national celebration of reading, writing, and literacy. Each September, they host hundreds of author readings for visitors of all ages and a vibrant marketplace featuring the best selection of books and magazines in Canada. Join them (for free!) as they share vital stories about where we live.