Following up on the success of its inaugural launch last year, VerseFest is back with another festival that celebrates all things poetry. Organizers Kevin Matthews and Dave O’Meara got things rolling with a welcome message, with Dave receiving great applause with, “We said last year we were going to be an annual event and we weren’t lying.”
Running from February 28th until March 4, VerseFest 2012 has more than 15 events at 4 locations, 30+ readers showcasing multiple styles of poetry, from slam, dub and spoken word performances to the print launch of In/Words 11.1 as well as “Oral: the audio album,” workshops and more.
Dennis Lee at the opening night of VerseFest 2012, reading the titular poem “Melvis and Elvis” which will be published in 2013. http://www.charlesearl.com/
Hosted by CBC Radio’s Alan Neal, VerseFest kicked off last night (Tuesday, February 28, 2012) at the Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Avenue) with Suzanne Buffam, Paul Tyler and Dennis Lee at 7pm, followed by Shauntay Grant and Afua Cooper at 9 pm.
Buffam, who came up from Chicago to read, thought VerseFest is fantastic, adding, “It’s nice to see a festival that’s not about networking, it’s just about poetry.”
Capital Slam presents Taqralik Partridge and Ursula Rucker on Saturday night (March 3).
The festival has its roots in Ottawa’s diverse poetry communities, some of which gather around various reading series, each presenting their own literary fare. VERSe Ottawa came together in 2010, as a collective of some of these groups, both traditional, written, and spoken word. The idea was to pool resources and create new opportunities to showcase local poetry, culminating in VerseFest 2011, with different groups hosting events under the festival umbrella.
One of the many different groups making up VERSe Ottawa is Voices of Venus, hosting an event on Wednesday (February 29) at 7pm that features top poets from January’s Women Slam Championships. Following that is the In/Words event, launching the latest edition of their journal along with four readers at 9pm (Helen Humphreys, Rachael Simpson, Christian McPherson, Gregory Scofield).
Dave Currie (In/Words) welcomes the opportunity that VerseFest present, allowing, “…us to escape the insular experience of running one reading series and to integrate it into the wider poetry community of Ottawa.” On a scheduling note, In/Words is co-hosting the event with Moose and Pussy magazine, who will be launching “Oral: the audio album.”
In attendance once again is Amanda Earl, poet and managing editor of Bywords.ca. Earl enjoyed the variety of local poetry on offer with VerseFest 2011 and is, “…grateful for the opportunity to hear great poetry and to meet some of my poetic heroes in person.”
The Dusty Owl Series has teamed up with the AB Series to present on Friday night (Pearl Pirie, Susan McMaster, Bruce Taylor), while Tree and Plan 99 will host Saturday afternoon (Tim Bowling, Shane Rhodes).
at the National Arts Centre (Sunday, March 04).
One feature of pooling resources has allowed VerseFest to work with the Ottawa International Writers Festival and the embassies of both the United States and Mexico to present The Summit Reading. The reading features three of North America’s top notch poets: Pura López-Colomé, Phil Hal and Philip Levine, Sunday March 04 at the National Arts Centre. David O’Meara says of the event: “It’s historic enough to have Philip Levine read here, a great American poet, who has only recently been appointed the Poet Laureate for the States. And I don’t think this kind of thing has ever been done before, having prominent poets from all three North American countries read together at one event. It’s going to be really exciting.”
VerseFest 2012 runs from Tuesday February 28th until Sunday March 04. For full event details, event locations and ticket prices, visit http://www.versefest.ca/
Brendan McNally is an Ottawa based writer who runs the House Band Reading Series, which features performance word alongside a DJ score, adding special guests to round out the evening. And beer.
VERSeFest is bringing O-Town’s wide-ranging poetry communities together with a festival full of readings, performances, slam, spoken word, workshops for kids, discussions and much, much more. If you want it, and it’s connected to poetry, then VERSeFest has it. And they also have some big plans for the future.
Running at the Arts Court (2 Daly Avenue) from Tuesday, March 8th until Sunday, March 11th (with pre-festival shows starting today and tomorrow, March 5th and 6th), VERSeFest has 20 events, each sponsored by one of the 14 groups that make up VERSe Ottawa.
The festival kicks off at 7 pm, Tuesday, March 8th with World Slam Champion Ian Keteku, David McGimpsey, Brad Morden, and recent Ottawa Book Award (English) winner Craig Poile.
“Ottawa is a poetry town,” says organizer Rod Pederson. “We put the numbers together and realized that somewhere between 600 to 1000 people attend poetry events here every month. And we have a line-up for our first year that is a bounty of diversity and talent, including the current winners of the Governor General Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize. (Richard Greeen and Karen Solie, Tree Reading, Saturday, March 12.)
Formed in 2010, VERSe Ottawa came together when, “A number of poets and organizers felt the need for our poetry community to have a common voice,” says VO’s Jessica Ruanno. “And VERSe Ottawa works to better promote Ottawa’s wide-ranging poetry community, to act as an effective voice and to provide support to those involved. And what better way to promote the community than with VERSeFest.”
One of the many different groups that makes up VERSeFest is In/Words (Tuesday, March 8, 9 pm). For Justin Million, “VERSeFest is an opportunity for us to come together, with Moose and Pussy and Apt. 9 Press, to promote local poets. Michael Dennis and Ben Ladouceur were chosen to read because I feel they may be two of the finest poets in the city who do not receive enough attention for their incredible bodies of work. The festival lets us introduce them to new audiences.”
Apt. 9 Press publishes limited edition, hand stitched, poetry and fiction chapbooks and will be unveiling their first broadsides that night. Says Cameron Anstee, press founder, “I’m thrilled to work with Michael and Ben and it means the world to me that they trust me with their work.”
Wednesday night starts with Voices of Venus, a reading series which celebrates women writers who focus on poetry and spoken word. They are organizing an all-erotica performance with Beth Anne Fischer and a line-up of women writers.
Christine McNair and Sandra Ridley will follow at 9 pm (with blUe mOnday, and they are both reading as part of the AB Series pre-festival event). Says Christine, “I’m looking forward to seeing the other events and readings at VERSeFest. There seems to be a wide-range of participants and I’m all for eclectic diversity. And possibly balloons.”
Ditto for Sandra, “By virtue of the fact that two different events are being highlighted each night, at the same venue, there will be an overlap of audiences. And I’m looking forward to reading to different audiences who I might not usually get to see. And to see other readers, of course.”
And on it goes for the whole week, though it’s not just about readings, page, stage or otherwise.
For rob mclennan (Factory Reading Series, Friday, March 11, 7pm, featuring Marcus McCann and Monty Reid), VERSeFest is a chance to do something different. “I’ve been wanting to run a lecture series for a decade now, &, through VERSeFest, finally have the opportunity to begin. With so much of the festival featuring performances, I thought it would be an interesting mix to ask some local and locally-known writers to discuss writing, to allow the audience some deeper and/or different perspectives into how they (Marcus and Monty) might approach the craft itself.”
Monty Reid and Marcus McCann
Likewise for Dave O’Meara (Plan 99 Reading Series, Saturday, March 12, 5pm), who will be hosting a discussion on words and music (with guests Jim Bryson, Mike Dubue and Megan Jerome). “Lyrics are a form of poetry, and I wanted to get some songwriters together to ask them how they write their songs, but from a word angle rather than a music angle.”
Adds Dave, in his role as a festival organizer, “We hope that our festival of poetry, by emphasizing original thought, bold oration, startling imagery, fresh, innovative language and artful phrasing, will represent another articulate part of the extensive culture of music, dance, theatre, visual arts and literature here in our city.”
If that’s not ambitious enough for six months of hard work, the future holds more. “Our intention,” says Rod Pederson, “is to become an international festival, drawing on the strength of page and stage poets from across the world, while still focusing on Canada and showcasing the Ottawa region.”
For a full schedule of events and ticket information, check out the VERSeFest site.
2010 Capital Slam Team,
Capital Slam: Saturday, March 12, 9 pm
The pre-festival fun begins today (March 5, at 7pm) and tomorrow, with the AB Series Reading Series, featuring reading and “playback, a poetry reading” which will see seven different poets reading, reconfiguring and responding to Michelle Provost’s new work: playlist.
And if that’s not ekphrasis to the nth degree, then I no longer have a hat.
[CORRECTION: A previous version mistakenly identified KP, the fourth member of the Halifax team, as the poet IZrEAL, who was not in attendance at the Festival. This was based on information in the CFSW Program, which had not been corrected at the time the article was written. We apologise for any consequent confusion. -Ed.]
In the Laurier Room tucked in the basement of the Courtyard by Marriott in Ottawa’s Byward Market, four slam poetry teams once again faced a packed, enthusiastic audience to present the best in spoken word.
I had staked out a position on the right side in the third row with Ebony Griffin of the Charlatan. Soon after we took out our notebooks, we were approached by the Bout Manager (Tanya, from Toronto), who was carrying a stack of whiteboards. I immediately thought of Kris Joseph. I shook my head, and raised my camera and pen as a feeble sort of shield.
“Media,” I said, “Conflict of interest. And my hands are full.” Ms. Griffin did likewise. There were enough other potential judges in the room.
The evening opened with Sacrificial Poet Sean McGarrigle of Vancouver, who performed a timely and powerful poem contrasting Mario Lemieux and Omar Khadr, two Canadians whose lives took very different turns each at the age of fifteen.
Zeviathan (Halifax) led the first round with a poem about still photographs as mementos of the dead, and the horror and sacrifice of war. Lochlin Broatch (Winnipeg) followed with a piece skewering the hypocrisy of an “eco-friendly” drunk driver. Next was the first of four team offerings from Burlington; Yogi and Truth Is… presenting a poem denouncing the mental enslavement of cultures by insurgents, invaders, and colonialism. Open Secret (Ottawa-Capital Slam) rounded out the set with his proxy confession of Marc Lépine, not only one of his best pieces, but one of his best and most dynamic performances of it.
From Winnipeg, Dylan Mowatt’s second-round opener was an exhortation to live one’s dreams, follow ambition, and hear the constant knocking of opportunity. Winona Linn (Halifax) drew the audience into the world of the silence of depression and the struggle of stigmatized mental illness. The next performance was a team effort by Ottawa Capital Slam’s PrufRock and Chris Tse, transforming I’ve Been Working on the Railroad into a condemnation and exposure of the mistreatment of Chinese and black workers in the quest to build the railroad that stretches across our country. They were followed by the Burlington team, all four members (Yogi, Made Wade, Tomy Bewick, and Truth Is…) setting the alphabet to the Carol of the Bells, championing knowledge and literacy as the keys to liberty.
John Akpata’s (Ottawa-CS) powerful message against tacit sanction of child abuse started off the third round. He was followed by another Burlington team performance, this time Tomy Bewick and Truth Is… enacting the inner dialogue of an alcoholic that was the highest-scored single performance of the evening, and deserving of every point. Steve Holbrow (Winnipeg) held his own in its wake, however, with a caution to build a world of safety and security for our children through good examples. As the last performance of the third round, JPhat (Halifax) highlighted the hidden and violent discrimination that still marginalizes LGBT members of our society.
In the fourth round, things got heavy.
Another Burlington team effort pitted Made Wade and Truth Is… against each other in an intricate dance of the writing and performance sides of spoken word poetry that transfixed the audience. Chris Tse (Ottawa-CS) followed with a local audience favourite, his lighthearted look at what he appreciates about the opposite sex.
Then came the Halifax team.
There are five members of the Halifax team listed in the CFSW program, but only four approached the stage. As I did not know which was the alternate, and I had only seen three perform that evening, having no prior knowledge of the team, I was about to make a note to follow up in order to credit them properly.
As it turns out, there was no need.
The four members of the Halifax team stood, each at their microphones, raised their right fist in the air, and said, in unison, “This is where El Jones would speak.”
Their silence was echoed by the audience, where it turned into murmurs of approval, the snapping of fingers, and a sustained wave of applause, audience members rising to their feet as JPhat, KP, Winona Linn, and Zeviathan held their ground for three minutes and ten seconds, then stood down to a renewed burst of applause and cheering.
After a moment, the scores were called for: 10, 9.0, 10.0, 9.0, and 5.0. In this case, there was surprisingly no audience discussion or dispute of the scores.
As the last performance before the second bout, the members of the Winnipeg team followed that unprecedentedly poignant demonstration of solidarity admirably, promoting Man one rank at a time from twentieth to first on the list (made by the American Film Institute) of history’s greatest villains.
A fellow audience member and I approached the Halifax team after the bout to express our appreciation for their moving display. Luckily he asked the question I was reluctant to: why was El Jones not performing as part of the festival? The team exchanged glances and said only that they were not permitted to say, but that it would be addressed at the Annual General Meeting the following morning.
Whatever the reason behind it, their gesture—the image of those four poets standing solid and silent—will forever remain etched in my mind.
“Are you a poet?”
Missie P., of Victoria BC clutched a stack of whiteboards and leaned over a couple in the second row, asking to determine whether they were disqualified from being judges. Looking around at the audience, it was difficult to spot anyone that looked like they could give the honest answer “no”.
In this first of two bouts of the evening at this venue, the four teams competing were from Burlington, Edmonton, Toronto (Up From The Roots), and the Wild Card team chosen by competition earlier this week.
Festival Director Nathanaël Larochette turned the show over to the host for the evening, Toronto’s Moe Clark.
Danielle Grégoire left her post at the merchandise table for a few moments to take her place as the Sacrificial Poet for the bout, delivering a piece on the theme of youth and changing identity.
The first round started with Made Wade (Burlington) and his rap-influenced, melody-infused journey through a difficult childhood aided by words. Next, Ahmed Ali (Edmonton) chilled the audience with his depiction of an encounter with an child in Somalia wielding an AK-47. Festrell (Wild Card) followed with a comedic, but proud, call to embrace diversity in the form of the Q-pocalypse. From Memo Keisha Monique (Toronto-UFTR) came a stark picture of the erosion of the dream of Martin Luther King in black neighbourhoods, which she likened to the cycle of a self-cleaning oven.
Titilope Sonuga (Edmonton) began the second round with an indictment of several prominent musicians (the “Brown boys”) for domestic abuse. She was followed by the one team performance of the evening: Truth Is…, Tomy Bewick, and Yogi (Burlington) speaking as the last ones standing on behalf of innocent victims, as poets have been tasked to do since history began. Dwayne Morgan (Toronto-UFTR) dissected the tragedy of a brilliant student’s descent into promiscuity as a substitute for affection. To bring the second round to a close, Sean O’Gorman (Wild Card) performed his piece on the different and deeper significances of laughter.
With a subversive (and controversial) twist, Patrick De Belen (Toronto-UFTR) asked not what if life were like cartoons, but what if cartoons were like life. The third round continued with Brad Morden (Wild Card) sharing his own deeply personal thoughts and feelings as a child given up for adoption. Next up was Mary Pinkoski (Edmonton), who examined two parallel stories of love told through the eyes of a student. Tomy Bewick (Burlington) returned to the stage with an acronym-laden protest against labels and the pharmaceutical subjugation of the population.
In the fourth and final round, Steve Miller (Wild Card) tackled marginalization through the metaphor of a crazy spoon. LEVIATHAN (Toronto-UFTR) painted a picture of the continuing mass-entertainment exploitation of harmful black stereotypes that was simultaneously informative and moving. Yogi (Burlington) remembered a victim of breast cancer who had taught him a powerful lesson about enjoying life to its fullest. The last introduction could not have been more fitting and beautiful if it had been planned: Moe Clark stumbled over her name, and Ify Chiwetelu (Edmonton) proceeded to tell the history of her name, and why its correct pronounciation holds such profound importance.
As Moe Clark read the final scores for the bout, the applause was so enthusiastic that I required Jessica Ruano’s help to waylay Missy P. to get the correct numbers.
It is almost impossible to come out of a slam poetry competition without a mixture of shame, pride, and a fierce desire to write poetry that tells the stories and tackles the emotions that rock us to our core as human beings. It’s a wonder there are any people left that aren’t poets, really.
Andrew Snowdon is Theatre Editor for OttawaTonite.com, and believes that words were meant to be heard.
In the dim light of the Academic Hall theatre, an impossibly tall man in a dark suit and tie locked eyes with me and leaned across the front row. His penetrating gaze froze me to my seat.
Ever since I started masquerading as a theatre journalist, I knew this day would come.
“Are you aware of the Communist threat here in Ottawa?”
Of course, it was only Sterling Lynch of G-Men Defectives, stack of promo cards in hand.
See, this is why I love the Fringe: everyone’s already in character, and it’s still over two weeks away.
The 14th annual Ottawa Fringe Festival is playing host to 60 production companies, at an unprecedented 16 venues (most within about 20 minutes’ walking distance from each other) over ten days. It works out to just under 400 events, if you count the parties. That’s a lot of theatre.
Ottawa Fringe Festival Executive Producer Natalie Joy-Quesnel took the podium to kick things off with an explanation of this year’s theme: food. The “Fringe Feast” advertisements are up everywhere around the city and online; like the best hotel buffet, the Ottawa Fringe Festival “always has something for everyone.” Indeed, this year’s offerings span the spectrum from puppet shows to phone sex, from poetry to dance, from intimate vignettes centred on Ottawa to surreal comedy from Japan.
Yes, Japan. We’re on the cultural map, folks: start building hotels.
Competition for spots in the Fringe was particularly fierce this year; the expansion from five to eleven Bring Your Own Venues outside of the main five venues is a result of this, and even then the Fringe had to turn away some applicants. Margo MacDonald’s Shadows only made the program at the last minute, as a spot opened up.
Ottawa festivals are usually a stretch for parents, especially on the weekends; this year the Orleans Young Players Theatre School will be running Mini-Fringers—an afternoon-long drama camp—in the Courtyard on both Saturdays. Drop your kids (aged four to thirteen) off, see some shows less than five minutes away, and return to be treated to a performance at the end of the afternoon.
This also marks the first year that the Fringe is a registered charity. As always, 100% of box-office sales go to the production companies—the Fringe makes no money from ticket sales. This year, the Fringe has teamed up with three charities to form the Fringe It Forward fundraising campaign; donation boxes will be at each venue, with the proceeds being split half between the Fringe, and the other half to partners Hopewell, Jer’s Vision / Day of Pink, and Big Brothers Big Sisters Ottawa.
If you’re looking for a souvenir of the Fringe (which you should), there will be more merchandise options available than ever before: bracelets (that I’ve been repeatedly assured are fabulous, but have yet to see), T-shirts (for the first time T-shirts will be available for purchase; previously you either had to be a volunteer or staff, or plead really hard with cash in hand to get one), and even Fringe beer steins that you can have labelled with your name and store in the beer tent, in the name of convenience and waste reduction.
We were treated to a video preview of some of the local Ottawa shows, including Deliver’d from Nowhere, Mixing Boal: Kitchen of the Oppressed, and The Initial Reaction. Of course, there were performers, playwrights, directors, and producers on-hand in the audience including, but not limited to, Wayne Current and Nadine Thornhill (Prisoner’s Dilemma), Jessica Ruano (Capital Poetry Rocks the Fringe), and Emma Zabloski (Six: At Home).
Pat Gauthier, Community Manager, took the stage to mention the Fringe’s Facebook and Twitter presence, as well as FullyFringed, a combined initiative of Apt. 613 and the Wellington Oracle (with help from OttawaTonite, via yours truly) to review every single Fringe show—a phenomenal undertaking, beyond the scope of any one website, and another first for this year.
We think about the Ottawa Fringe Festival as being a local event; it’s easy to forget that it showcases acts from across the country. Emily Pearlman previewed a selection of the 20 shows from across Canada that will be a part of this year’s Fringe, including nine from Toronto. Of particular note are It’s Raining in Barcelona, a Saskatoon production translated from the original Catalan, and The Duck Wife, in which a dance troupe brings an ancient Inuit folk tale to life accompanied by live band Grub Animal.
Not that we’re not doing amazing things here at home: Heather-Marie Scheerschmidt, for one, will be presenting the Lunchtime Artist Series. These five sessions are pay-what-you-can, each showcasing a different aspect of the theatre art through interviews and discussions with playwrights and performers. (Her indescribable video interview with herself was also the most hilarious thing I’ve seen on a screen in some time.)
Did I mention Japan? Pierre Brault gave a taste of the international flavour that the Fringe has to offer. Productions from Boston, Glasgow, Melbourne, and all over the globe will be visiting Ottawa. I’m particularly interested in seeing David Gaines of Arlington, Virginia, in his one-man show 7 (x1) Samurai, in which he plays 47 different characters, as well as Breaking Down in America, from Burbank, California, chronicling a cross-country roadtrip taken in a $500 car. And it would be rude of me not to see A Day in the Life of Miss Hiccup, seeing as how Infinity Live Productions is coming all the way from Japan to perform.
After the presentation, as I was siphoning fruit juice over at the well-appointed refreshments table I spoke with Louisa and Julie, the Fringe’s Volunteer Co-ordinators. Good news: they have received a lot of interest from people ready and willing to volunteer. Better news: they still need more—it’s not too late for you to sign up! Best news: I agreed to take at least one volunteer shift this year…
The variety of different shows—and different styles of shows—that this year’s Ottawa Fringe Festival has to offer staggers the imagination. To help you navigate all of your Fringe options, stay tuned to OttawaTonite for insight into the backstory and the artists behind some of these productions, the Ottawa Fringe Festival official website for previews and updates, and visit FullyFringed for independent reviews.
Andrew Snowdon is a theatregoer, concert attendee, writer, and proud returning Ottawa Fringe Festival volunteer living in Lowertown, Ottawa, sandwiched between a MacBook and a typewriter, with a cup of coffee.
A poet slowly approaches the microphone on an empty stage.
On the count of three, the audience throws their clenched fists in the air, shouting “Raise it!”
This is not your average coffee-shop turtleneck-wearing finger-snapping poetry reading.
This is slam poetry.
If you’re not familiar with slam poetry, it’s a competitive form of spoken word that started in Chicago in 1984, and quickly spread to other parts of the world. As a reaction against the sedate academic tradition of poetry reading, slam poetry is a more visceral, outspoken performance style, the content often political or intensely personal. Most people are rendered speechless after seeing slam poetry live for the first time; the emotional intensity and skill of the performers is unlike anything they’ve experienced before. Ottawa boasts Canada’s second-longest-running slam poetry series, Capital Slam.
The way a slam poetry competition works is simple: poets present a spoken word piece that must be three minutes or less in length. They are judged by five audience members on the basis of content and performance, on a scale from 0 to 10 (much like you see in Olympic figure skating, for example). To calculate the score for a performance, the highest and lowest of the five scores are removed, and the remaining three scores are added together to give a score out of 30. The poet is penalized if they run over their allotted time.
The release on the Capital Slam website promised performances by Open Secret, Truth Is…, Chris Tse, D-Lightful, Brad Morden, Loh El, Thomas, Prufrock, Brandon Wint, Greg “Ritallin” Frankson, John Akpata, and Sean O’Gorman. (Like musicians, spoken word performers often choose a stage name.) Also slated to perform in a non-competitive capacity was Rusty Priske, who had been a Capital Slam finalist for the previous three years.
Like our theatre community, Ottawa’s spoken word community is very tight; the same people crop up at every event. Handing money to Danielle K.L. Grégoire in exchange for live poetry performances is becoming somewhat of a monthly ritual; there she was at the door taking our ticket money and stamping wrists once again.
The sight of Rusty Priske moving through the audience looking for volunteer judges was familiar. A year ago, when I first attended a Capital Slam event, I too was given a whiteboard and a marker and the daunting task of rating the performers. It’s a bit stressful, because the audience will heartily boo what it considers unjustified low scores, as I quickly learned—the hard way. One of the judges selected this evening was local entrepreneur Jen Butson, who I had invited to attend; she didn’t know exactly what to expect going in, but you can read about her experience on her personal blog.
Nathanaël Larochette, director of Capital Slam, opened the sixth annual Capital Slam semi-finals by explaining how the evening would proceed; each of the twelve poets, in random order, would perform one piece, there would be a short intermission, then they would perform in reverse order. The scores would be averaged, and the top eight would advance to the finals.
It’s traditional to start a poetry slam with a “sacrifical poet”—a first performer who is not actually competing, but is still scored by the judges, to “calibrate” them. Before inviting arRay of Words to the stage, Nathanaël explained another slam poetry tradition: to welcome each performer to the stage, to encourage them, and to provide a sense of unity, each audience member is supposed to make a fist. On the count of three, they are to throw their fist into the air, shouting “Raise it!”
Yes, it feels silly the first time you do it. After the first couple of times, it comes naturally. Twelve poets later, you feel like a Black Panther.
Sacrificial poet arRay of Words stepped to the microphone with a single sheet of paper in his hand, and began to read his piece. About a minute in, he crumpled his paper, threw it to the stage behind him, and confronted the microphone with renewed vigor and threw his whole body into the performance.
The audience was hooked. The judges gave him scores of 8.7, 8.0, 8.7, 7.5, and 7.9, for a final score of 24.6 (don’t worry about doing the math; all the final scores for the evening are at the bottom of this article).
Chris Tse, a young Asian man with a thick, bushy head of hair, was the first poet to compete, presenting an optimistic piece about his identity and hopes for the future. He was followed by the nonchalant, casual Sean O’Gorman, whose poem about laughter was well-received by the audience, but not as well by the judges. Greg “Ritallin” Frankson followed with his highly metrical, hip-hop style poetry. It seemed to me that the performers were exceptionally nervous; I guess that’s to be expected given the unprecedented size of the audience, and the importance of the semi-finals.
Next up was Brad Morden, in a pale, crumpled fedora. His piece about searching for his birth mother was delivered perfectly, and won a long round of applause. Truth Is… took the stage with her soulful, musical voice and varied tempo. Open Secret took the microphone and broke into a fast-paced, thoughtful political piece. His performance was met by a standing ovation from half of the audience, prompting Nathanaël to comment “this ain’t no hush-hush live library poetry reading” before introducing the next performer, John Akpata.
John stated “this poem contains words by Rusty Priske” before launching into a powerful piece decrying child abuse, echoing the sentiments and words of Rusty’s A Conspiracy of Shame. “You’re going to die” were the grim opening words of Prufrock’s first piece of the evening, a poem about losing sight of the basics of survival as human beings in our current society. D-Lightful attacked the microphone with a passionate exposition of the conflict of love.
A cry of “Ezra Pound Lives!” from the audience welcomed Loh El to the stage, where his very personal poem about white privilege seemed entirely at odds with his outwardly sunny disposition. Crowd favourite Brandon Wint melted more than a few hearts with a poem about love, truth, and illusion. To close off the first round, Thomas McKinley took the stage; an older gentleman with clear diction, he presented a piece that was as thought-provoking as it was humorous.
Nathanaël called for a “thirteen minute intermission”, during which I bought the Capital Slam 2009 CD from Danielle at the merchandise table.
The second round opened with a second sacrificial poet, Hyfidellik, whose passionate poem describing an uncle being killed for political reasons, with its haunting refrain “There’s a war in me” drew scores of 9.2, 9.1, 8.9, 8.0, and 9.6 from the judges, for a total score of 27.2.
Starting with Thomas, the poets performed their second pieces; Loh El’s poem about his infant son garnered applause from the audience and a personal congratulation from John Akpata. The clear crowd favourite was Open Secret’s poem commemorating the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre. Chris Tse ended the second round with a lighthearted, fast-paced piece about girls, ending with his phone number to a wave of laughter and applause.
For the last performance of the evening, Nathanaël called Rusty Priske to the stage. Rusty took a moment to mention that Ottawa would be host to the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in October; “so I don’t have to follow the rules.” He beckoned, and Danielle K. L. Grégoire walked onstage. She looked up at the audience.
“There’s a lot of people here,” she said.
“You took our money!” joked a voice from the crowd.
Together, Rusty and Danielle performed a piece that was grafted together from two poems they had written on the same subject; the terror felt by someone walking alone at night who thinks they are being followed. These were two poignant pieces to start with, together they present the same situation from two different perspectives, in a telling commentary on how society has changed the way we live and interact, from two of the region’s most experienced poetic performers.
After Rusty and Danielle’s performance, Nathanaël took the microphone again to announce the eight poets who would be moving on to the final round: Loh El, Brandon Wint, Brad Morden, Prufrock, John Akpata, Truth Is…, Chris Tse, and Open Secret.
The eight finalists will face off against each other on June 5th, at the Alumni Auditorium; doors open at 6:30 pm. Arrive early.
And get your fist ready.
Photography by Jes Lacasse.
Open Secret: Round 1: 9.7 / 9.9 / 9.2 / 9.7 / 9.9 | 29.3 Round 2: 9.6 / 9.2 / 9.1 / 9.8 / 9.9 | 28.6 Final: 28.95
Chris Tse: Round 1: 9.2 / 9.7 / 8.3 / 9.4 / 9.8 | 28.3 Round 2: 9.7 / 9.9 / 8.9 / 9.4 / 9.8 | 28.9 Final: 28.60
Truth Is…: Round 1: 9.3 / 9.2 / 9.2 / 9.5 / 9.7 | 28.0 Round 2: 9.6 / 9.0 / 8.9 / 8.8 / 9.5 | 27.4 Final: 27.70
John Akpata: Round 1: 8.9 / 9.0 / 9.5 / 9.3 / 8.2 | 27.2 Round 2: 9.5 / 9.2 / 9.4 / 9.3 / 8.7 | 27.9 Final: 27.55
Prufrock: Round 1: 8.4 / 9.3 / 9.6 / 9.1 / 8.7 | 27.1 Round 2: 9.3 / 8.9 / 9.4 / 9.2 / 9.7 | 27.9 Final: 27.50
Brad Morden: Round 1: 8.9 / 8.9 / 9.5 / 8.5 / 9.4 | 27.2 Round 2: 9.7 / 8.5 / 8.7 / 9.3 / 9.2 | 27.2 Final: 27.20
Brandon Wint: Round 1: 8.8 / 8.7 / 9.0 / 9.3 / 9.7 | 27.1 Round 2: 9.7 / 8.8 / 8.2 / 8.5 / 9.8 | 27.0 Final: 27.05
Loh El: Round 1: 8.8 / 9.2 / 9.2 / 8.9 / 8.9 | 27.0 Round 2: 9.5 / 9.5 / 8.6 / 8.8 /8.9 | 26.7 Final: 26.85
D-lightful: Round 1: 9.6 / 9.8 / 8.9 / 9.1 / 8.9 | 27.1 Round 2: 8.7 / 8.7 / 8.8 / 8.9 / 9.3 | 26.4 Final: 26.75
Greg “Ritallin” Frankson: Round 1: 8.0 / 8.4 / 8.2 / 9.0 / 8.5 | 25.1 Round 2: 9.4 / 8.9 / 8.7 / 9.3 / 9.0 | 27.2 Final: 26.15
Thomas McKinley: Round 1: 8.8 / 9.5 / 8.7 / 8.6 / 8.8 | 26.3 Round 2: 8.6 / 9.0 / 8.3 / 8.2 / 8.3 | 25.2 Final: 25.75
Sean O’Gorman: Round 1: 8.5 / 8.2 / 8.8 / 8.2 / 8.3 | 25.0 Round 2: 9.2 / 8.7 / 8.7 / 8.9 / 8.9 | 26.0 Final: 25.50
The “Loeb” scene (video below) was presented at the May edition of the House Band Reading Series, which featured the launch of Chapter 2.
“I never thought we’d celebrate the tenth anniversary,” says David O’Meara of Plan 99, the Ottawa “gold standard” reading series he co-founded with Chris Swail in 1999. “I’m just saying so,” Dave adds, “because at the beginning we weren’t sure we knew what we were doing.” Dave points to the name of the series itself as an example of this. “The name came partly from the year we started, and partly as a play on the name of the sci-fi movie Planet 9 from Outer Space.”
But figure things out and celebrate they did, marking the milestone this past October with a special reading hosted by the Ottawa International Writer’s Fest.
When Dave isn’t pulling pints at the Manx Pub, he’s busy writing poems that have established himself “as one of the best contemporary poets in Canada” according to Canadian Notes & Queries. He’s also organizing guests for his timeslot on CKCU-FM’s Literary Landscapes, and he’s planning Plan 99. “I carry my notebook with me, pencil ready.” Dave says, recently returned from a reading tour of festivals across Canada to promote his most recent collection, Noble Gas, Penny Black. Doing out of town readings is a great way to keep my ear to the ground. Like when I pencilled Karen Solie in after she told me she had a new collection coming out.”
Unlike others reading series around Ottawa, Dave and Chris decided to focus only on out of town authors to begin with. This was so Plan 99 wouldn’t just repeat the success or format of other series. Modestly, Dave tells me, “We wanted to add something new to Ottawa’s literary scene.”
But saying that Plan 99 has added something new is an understatement. Over the past decade the series has brought celebrated Canadian poets, novelists and authors down the steps to the cozy atmosphere of the Manx Pub on Elgin Street. It’s one thing to pack a bar on a busy Friday night, quite something else to jam it packed on a quiet Saturday afternoon, when readings are usually held. There is nothing like being in a small bar with sixty other people, all quietly listening to the eloquence of Robyn Sarah, the insights of Carmine Starnino, the raw power of Ken Babstock or the drama of Lisa Moore.
“The nature of reading is that our stories, our narratives, are read, in private. It’s a very solitary thing,” Chris tells me when we have time to chat, after he’s finished helping his kids with their homework. “And what I’ve always liked about Plan 99 is that it’s one of those rare occasions where people can publicly acknowledge, validate and personally thank the writers who have greatly influenced who we are, and how we think about being Canadian. It really is an honour and a privilege to be able to help present that.”
Dave and Chris didn’t just choose the Manx as the location for Plan 99 because they work there. “Though it helps,” Dave laughs on a quiet afternoon in the pub. “But really, it’s the perfect space. Not to big, not to small. Aside from the financial support of the Pub, which is very important, the staff is very culturally engaged, so they give a huge amount of moral support to Plan 99.”
Plan 99 is also supported by Canada Council for the Arts. Which means Dave has to organize the readings up to six months in advance, making sure he’s got all the proper forms filled out for the funding to help him welcome the cream of Canada’s literary crop to the Manx.
On the day of the readings Dave is busy organizing the incidental things, hooking up the microphone, coordinating with the kitchen, which closes for the reading. The Manx doesn’t play piped in music, or have televisions sets, which is a great feature for people who want to have quiet conversations. So another job Dave has is to gently inform those patrons there is a reading coming up, inviting them to stay, but pointing out the sign that says, “Shhhhhh….reading in progress.”
As far as a personal motivation, Dave has, “always had a deep and abiding interest in literature so I’ve enjoyed hosting the series and it’s been a great ten years.”
Another understatement, because it’s been way more than great.
The Plan 99 Reading Series continues, hosting two more excellent readings before Christmas at The Manx Pub, 370 Elgin Street.
This Saturday, November 28th, Kingston writer Mark Sinnett reads,
followed by Toronto based Karen Solie next Saturday, December 5th.
Both readings are at 5pm.
Thanks to the Manx and the Canada Council, readings are free.
For more information on the series, email Chris Swail at email@example.com
David O’Meara’s next reading in Ottawa is at the House Band Reading Series, Thursday December 17th, 9-11pm, at Raw Sugar Café, 692 Somerset Street West. $5.00, or pay what you can.
Brendan McNally is a graduate of the Humber College School for Writers, Creative Writing Mentorship Program. He also runs the House Band Reading Series.