Learning to love Ottawa and its literary scene: Welcome to Local Tourist Kathryn Hunt

Kathryn Hunt  is a displaced Maritimer who first arrived in Ottawa 15 years ago. A published poet and freelance writer, Kate blogs, performs and talks the city’s budding literary scene at every opportunity! She also enjoys cycling and rock-climbing in her spare time.

I’ve been living in Ottawa, off and on, for over a decade, having moved here from New Brunswick to go to Carleton University. At the time, a friend who was living off Somerset, in the heart of Chinatown, told me that people either come to Ottawa temporarily or they fall, often unexpectedly, in love with it and stay. She said she hoped I’d turn out, like her, to be in the latter group.

Much, much later, I suppose I have. But it wasn’t until I chose to leave Ottawa, and then chose to return, that I really started to get involved in this city. After university, I moved out of Ottawa to spend a couple of years teaching English in Japan. And when I came back, I came back on the ground floor of a grass-roots literary and arts scene that was just about to blaze into life.

Poetry reading series were starting to make a resurgence; there were independent publishers and zine distribution groups cropping up; I started seeing what was going on in the arts beyond the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery. I found small galleries, small theatres, cafes hosting open mike nights and poetry readings, guerilla sound poetry performances, indie craft and zine fairs, and storytellers gathering in tea houses to trade tales. I started to get to know the people making the photocopied posters that go up all over downtown.

There’s a whole arts world going on that it feels like the rest of Ottawa is just beginning to get to know – but for the people involved in it, it’s bursting with action.

After the first Canadian Spoken WordLympics (now known as the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word) were held here in 2004, the literary scene – which was already rich with established reading series like Tree, Sasquatch, Plan 99 and the Dusty Owl, as well as one of the country’s oldest and biggest literary festivals, the Ottawa International Writers Festival exploded with young, urban, ambitious, passionate poets.

Capital Slam was founded, the first poetry slam series; it’s since been followed by a host of other slams, spoken word and reading series. The Storytellers’ Festival was reimagined and reborn last fall. And this winter the city’s first Storytelling Slam started up in the basement of the Mercury Lounge and has already needed to move upstairs, where there’s more space for its growing audience.

As the national capital, it’s sometimes seemed to me that Ottawa is of two minds about the arts. There are the international stars and events at the NAC and the National Gallery, the stadium concerts and big-ticket festivals, and then there is a local scene, which is creative, tight-knit, thriving, and beginning to get noticed. I’m really happy to participate in that local scene, as a performer, as a writer, and as an audience member: I blog on words in performance at freerangeprint.blogspot.com, perform with the Kymeras, a poetry/storytelling group, co-host CKCU’s Literary Landscape radio program, and hope to keep celebrating this town’s creativity and spirit.

Kate will be spending her free time this week taking in VERSefest, a new, annual poetry festival running until Sunday at the Arts Court.  Check back soon to here her thoughts on this sure-to-be-amazing celebration of spoken word.