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Spoken word beyond the slam

Victoria Spoken Word Festival helps artists Develop skills while audience watches
Vancouver's Johnny MacRae performs as part of the ensemble of last year's Victoria Spoken Word Festival (Feb. 21-26). MacRae is part of the ensemble again this year.



Thirteen of Canada’s up-and-coming spoken word artists are converging this week for the second-annual Victoria Spoken Word Festival, Feb. 21 -26.

A not-for-profit festival produced by Missie Peters and Carol-lynne Michaels of Not your Grandma’s Poetry, VSWF features an ensemble of 12 distinctive poets in three diverse performances and a workshop with “Poet of Honour” Chris Masson— all open to the public on a first come, first served basis.

But as Peters will tell you, this festival is more for the performers than for the audience. “There are two types of festivals …  and I’d have to say that this one is more focused on the artists, but we made it so the audience can see what they’re working on during the week.”

And they’ll be doing a lot.

“Opportunities for artists to engage with each other, to create, experiment and perform together is essential for the advancement of the artform. Until a few years ago, there really wasn’t much opportunity for spoken word to grow outside of open mics and a few poetry slams. Now there’s this festival, a program at Banff Centre for the Arts, and university courses here and there. I learned and grew a lot as an artist after the Banff program, and I’m sure that the artists in the ensemble in Victoria will experience the same thing,” says Masson.

“The work that the ensemble presents at the end of the festival will be so fresh, so buzzing and bubbling with nervous creative energy that it will make for an electric show. I wouldn’t miss it.”

The focus for Peters and Not your Grandma’s Poetry is to provide a venue for spoken word artists to hone their craft — to help bridge that gap between performing at open mics and becoming a touring artist — and to do so not as individuals, but as a team, or ensemble.

This year’s ensemble includes Winnipeg’s Aaron Simm (2011 Winnipeg Poetry Slam grand champion), Edmonton’s Colin Matty (member of 2011 CFSW slam poetry national champs Team Edmonton), Vancouver’s Johnny MacRae (inaugural Underground Individual Poetry Slam Champion of Canada), Toronto’s David Delisca, Saskatoon’s Simon Wourms, Guelph’s Kay’la Fraser, Toronto’s Shoolie Sales (Up From the Roots Slam Team), Vancouver’s Sonya Littlejohn (Poetry House and the Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective), Calgary’s Erin Dingle (Single Onion Poetry Group ad Ink Spot Collective), Montreal’s Anne Petitclerc, and Justin McGrail and Jacob Arts from Victoria.

“Poets don’t get the chance to collaborate often because it’s so individually based. So I chose people who I thought would work best together rather than just on their individual merits,” says Peters, the festival’s artistic director.

“And I’m proud we have representatives from six of the ten provinces. There’s no one from the Maritimes, but it’s expensive to get here.”

The festival’s participants pay their own way here, are billeted with local poets and have their meals covered by local restaurant sponsors. The rest of the festival’s financing comes from the audience.

“We don’t exist on government grants,” says Peters. An Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign covered the $1,000 needed for administrative and production costs. Cover at the door will help pay for venues while the participants’ $100 entrance fee helps cover the cost of instructors. Because even though it’s called the Victoria Spoken Word Festival, the instruction will focus more on other subjects altogether.

Dave Morris is teaching improv, Bisia Belina is teaching vocal work, they’ll learn clowning from Ingrid Hansen and beatboxing from Mike Sheehan, and finally a character workshop with “Poet of Honour” Chris Masson.

“We wanted to introduce the poets to new disciplines and skill sets so we can find out what more they can bring to spoken word,” says Peters.

They’ll also write a complete show with Theatre SKAM’s Matthew Payne, which will be performed Saturday, Feb. 25 at Intrepid Theatre Club (1609 Blanshard, 8 p.m.).

“The creative fires at the Victoria Spoken Word Festival threaten to singe your nostrils, burn your eyebrows, and purge your head of anything resembling hair,” says Johnny MacRae, who attended the innaugural festival and is back in the ensemble again this year. “At the beginning most of our ensemble were strangers; in the end we were holding each other, jumping up and down, and chanting, ‘YES! LOVE!’”

The public can also catch the Tongues of Fire Instant Slam, Thursday, Feb. 23 at Solstice Café (529 Pandora, 7:30 p.m.), where poets will be given a phrase and 30 minutes to write a poem before performing it in the show’s second half. The first 30 minutes will be an open mic.

Friday’s show is the “Awesome Shit Showcase” at the Intrepid Theatre Club (8 p.m.) where poets will perform the best of their best.

Sunday’s workshop with Masson is from 1 to 4 p.m. at Intrepid Theatre. Register at ($25). For more information about the Victoria Spoken Word Festival visit M