No lack of ink has been spilled in and about Montreal, a city whose writers waver between English, French and some singular mix of the two. Over time, almost all of its quartiers have been memorialized on the page, from Westmount and the Plateau to the poor St.-Henri district of Gabrielle Roy's classic book Bonheur d'Occasion. In the 1920s and '30s, modernist poetry, as penned by the so-called McGill Group, came of age in Montreal; in the late '90s, the town became host to the world's first multilingual literary fest. From April 18 to 23, this year's Blue Metropolis Festival will offer 156 mostly free events, including readings, roundtables and onstage author interviews. It's set to showcase Cuban and crime writing and commemorate the centenary of Canadian poet Irving Layton's birth. But if that still doesn't satisfy, then get a load of Montreal's other writerly attractions.
1 Divan Orange
Montreal's leading venue for free and formal verse is suitably located on Boulevard St.-Laurent, or "the Main," the cultural artery that divides the city's east and west. The cavernous Divan Orange (divanorange.org), a resto-bar made warm by terra-cotta walls and wood floors, isn't only a bastion for up-and-coming musicians, it also puts on the Throw Poetry Collective's frequent bilingual slams. Anyone, amateur or seasoned rhymester, student or sightseer, is welcome to take the small front stage for three minutes with an independent work, and even the judges are randomly selected among attendant beer drinkers. Last season's grand winners competed at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Toronto. Catch this year's finals on April 29.
2 Le Cagibi and the Yellow Door Coffeehouse
There is almost always a writer or two keystroking furiously or wrestling with wordlessness at Le Cagibi (lecagibi.ca), a bright and delightfully cluttered vegetarian café. Shelves are packed with leafy plants, domed cake stands, ceramic cats and, in one corner, a public-access collection of over 100 mostly homemade zines. In evening hours, the backroom becomes an event space that often showcases the spoken word, with storytelling soirées held on the last Monday of every month. A Distroboto machine, devised by the man behind the irregularly published Montreal magazine Fish Piss, dispenses locally crafted minicomics, flip-books and other ephemera for $2 a pop.
A more old-school spot is the Yellow Door (yellowdoor.org), Canada's longest-lived coffeehouse, well known for its basement reading series. In the heart of the collegiate neighborhood known as the McGill Ghetto, the quasi community center has hosted the likes of Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen.
3 Mordecai Richler's Mile End
The Mile End is now a place primarily of craft-loving hipsters, but in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when combative Canadian author Mordecai Richler was maturing there, the district housed tens of thousands of working-class Jews. The city's prodigious Jewish Public Library (jewishpubliclibrary.org) can point you toward guides who give walking tours of the area on request. Expect to stop at sites that Richler regularly patronized and then immortalized in his novels, like Wilensky's lunch counter and the former Baron Byng High School (both inhabit The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). Or visit Schwartz's for smoked-meat sandwiches described in Barney's Version as "a maddening aphrodisiac" and which the writer himself often had delivered by taxi to his bar table.
4 Drawn & Quarterly
It may have begun as a magazine anthology in late-'80s Montreal, but Drawn & Quarterly (drawnandquarterly.com) has grown into an internationally renowned indie publishing house and come to define the literary-comics genre. Down the street from headquarters, a small and exquisitely curated flagship shop deals in D&Q titles and other finely printed matter. The crowds go for launches, live readings and workshops in addition to the best in design. Just in is Goliath, a graphic novel that draws a gentler giant from British cartoonist Tom Gauld, who visits the store on May 2. The first English translation of Shigeru Mizuki's well-loved manga and memoir NonNonBa, on his childhood forays into the spirit world, also arrives next month.
5 National Library and Archives
The colossus that is the National Library and Archives of Quebec (banq.qc.ca/accueil) preserves this province's documentary treasures. Its cache includes perusable manuscripts by 19th century poet Emile Nelligan, whom American critic Edmund Wilson called "the only first-rate Canadian poet, French or English." About 4 million works have been moved to the newish Grande Bibliothèque, where two spectacular rooms of yellow-birch wood were inspired by novelist Anne Hébert's book Les Chambres de Bois. A habitual home to literary conferences, the glass-shingled structure was opened in 2005, a year in which Montreal held the honorary UNESCO title of World Book Capital.