Trois-Rivières, QB

Trois-Rivières Festival Takes Considerable Poetic License

A poet declaims in a pub during the Trois-Rivières annual Festival International de la Poésie

Belgian poet Aurélien Dony declaims to patrons at L’Embuscade Café Galerie during a Sunday afternoon “Scotch et poésie” event, part of Trois-Rivières’ annual Festival International de la Poésie.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

SO, I’M PART WAY through my scotch one night in this scruffy basement bar, the Zénob, when a guy next to the battered piano gets to his feet and starts reciting poetry:

when every man jack lit up no-one expected worse

he shouts,

a shortness of puff

dry hoarst

fingers stained lino brown

A hush falls over the room. But it’s not the hush of patrons readying themselves to clock the speaker and end this nonsense. Most, in fact, have come for the nonsense.

This is one of more than 300 events at the 10-day Festival International de la Poésie, among the largest—and certainly most unusual—annual poetry festivals in the world. A hundred poets from two dozen countries will rise, three or four times a day, in bars, cafés, restaurants and bakeries and declaim, just as Scotland’s Brian Johnstone is doing now at 11:30 p.m. in the Café Bar Zénob.

The Zénob is half-a-block from the home and law office of Maurice Duplessis, Trois-Rivières’ most famous citizen. Quebec’s premier in the 1950s, he was a man known for his iron will, not his poetic spirit. In fact, there’s precious little anywhere in the pulp-and-paper, blue-collar past of Trois-Rivières—on the St. Lawrence River halfway between Montreal and Quebec City—to suggest it has artsy credentials.

What it does have, though, is Gaston Bellemare. The writer, teacher and editor started the festival in 1985 and, at 72, was still running it on its 30th anniversary in 2014 with his wife, Maryse Baribeau. The 2016 edition takes place 30 September-9 October.

Bellemare wanted to return poetry to the realm of popular culture. So, while there are poetry seminars and a handful of events in classrooms and theatres, the vast majority take place in more than a dozen eating and drinking establishments within walking distance of each other in downtown Trois-Rivières. You can have breakfast, lunch, dinner and a nightcap with poets. Each poet—another singular feature of this festival—may speak only for three minutes at a time, no more.

It’s an odd, but successful, formula. Depending on the year, between 25,000 and 40,000 people will attend events. The festival kiosk will sell more than $25,000 worth of poetry books. In 2006 Québecor, the province’s huge media company, joined as a sponsor, and contributes $500,000 in goods and services. “We never asked,” says Bellemare proudly. “They came to us.”

All invitees get the same deal, so it’s rare to see stars. “Are there bad poets here? No,” says Montreal poet Denise Desautels, a member of the Order of Canada and a Governor-General’s Award winner. “But there are many kinds.”

The festival has become international, yet still shows its parochial roots. All poems are recited in French as well as in their original tongue. And while there will be poets from places like Italy, Uruguay, Sweden and Ukraine, more than half each year are from Quebec. It helps, then, to have some knowledge of the language of Molière—or perhaps just an appreciation of the transcendence of poetry.



For more information on the Festival International de la Poésie de Trois-Rivières visit its website at

For information on travel in Quebec visit the Tourisme Québec website at