Bridging page vs. stage: VERSeFest brings poetry communities together
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.
The closing night party might have summed up VERSeFest almost entirely.
VERSe Ottawa, a new coalition of poetry fans, reading series and slams across the city, just wrapped up its first annual festival, VERSeFest, running from March 8 to 13, and the feeling in the room at Arts Court was celebratory. Actually, it was better than that, it felt like something new, necessary, and long-awaited, had happened.
Poetry is a strange beast. It’s hard to define, and within the blanket term “poetry” you find a wide variety of styles and artistic opinions. It’s as though you lumped all “music” into one category and then had to compare Lady Gaga to Tuvan throat-singing, Noh opera to Haydn. The term “poetry” takes in everything from hip hop lyrics to sound poetry (which, in turn, crosses over into performance art and experimental music). And at VERSeFest, for the first time, one festival took in the same wide range.
Sooner or later, you get the impression that poetry is split into two camps. The big divide recently has been “page” versus “stage.” At a broad sweep, “stage” poetry might be characterized as appealing to a younger, louder, “hipper” demographic. Its content is often political, and its style is often influenced by the traditions of hip hop and jazz poetry. “Page” poetry, in contrast, is often stereotyped as being academic, quiet, sometimes difficult to understand at first reading or hearing, It can be very experimental in its use of language and sentence structure, or very formal in meter and structure. Or both. “Page” poets will probably be hawking their latest chapbook, rather than a CD of their work, at the end of their readings.
I am, personally, a poetry omnivore, with a foot in either side. I volunteer regularly at Capital Slam, the city’s oldest competitive spoken word series, and I also used to help with the Dusty Owl Reading Series, which is fairly “page.” My own poetry is page-oriented and I just don’t get up to compete on slam stages. However, I’ve also memorized and performed my work, and the performance group I belong to contains two storytellers, a spoken word artist and me, the page poet.
Which is why the closing party for VERSeFest was so much fun for me. There used to be a sense of “never the twain shall meet” about the two domains, which was blown away as the room was treated to everything from haiku, to love poems, to rhythmic slam poems, to soft, stark, stripped-away and syntax-busting poems, to a dose of sound poetry. (It involved the audience participating by making “tockatockatocka” sounds for about ten seconds at one point in the poem, interrupted by a building roar/scream from the poet and a few people placed in the audience: a strange stereo experience for those of us sitting in the middle of it.)
It was fun for me — throughout VERSeFest — to watch members of the audience from the “stage” side of things snapping their fingers (a spoken-word tradition) for good lines from the “page” poets. To hear the festival organizer getting choked up as he talked about the new friends he’d made among the “stage” community and the new kinds of poetry he’d discovered. And to start seeing the continuity between the different styles — to hear some of the same tricks of repetition, word play, and imagery happening in much of the poetry being read.
If you thought poetry readings were staid and stodgy, you’d have been astonished at the audiences that sold out the Arts Court Theatre until they were sitting in the aisles for the Urban Legends Slam, rocking the room with cheers for the performers. You’d have been shocked by the burlesque routine that wrapped up the Voices of Venus erotic poetry show, surprised by the audience that rose to their feet after an open mike poet read her impassioned description of the hardships of a homeless shelter, and puzzled at the music floating from the room at the Songwriters’ Circle. And you might also have been mesmerized by long, lyrical pieces, found yourself laughing out loud more than a few times, strained to hear through more than one voice performing simultaneously, and learned to listen very, very carefully as unexpected images rose from the reader’s voice.
The thing is, poetry has a long tradition of being performed aloud for a reason. People come out to poetry readings for a reason — because it’s enjoyable. Poetry and music are akin, and the sound of the language is most of the point of any form of poetry. This inaugural VERSeFest illustrated that handily; I can’t wait to see what they bring to the stage next year.
VERSeFest’s participating reading series, organizations and slams where you can check out local poetry: Urban Legends Slam, The AB Series, In/Words, blUe mOnday, Dusty Owl, Sasquatch Writers Performance Series, Voices of Venus, Tree Reading Series, Plan 99, KaDo Haiku Ottawa, Factory Reading Series, and Capital Slam.
And if it’s literary, and taking place in Ottawa, it’s probably on the bywords.ca events calendar.