I started writing poems in my teens and I was one of the few who didn’t stop. I started doing spoken word in my late twenties.
In between those times a lot of things about the Canadian poetry scene put me off my food: I couldn’t find one poet who had anything good to say about any other poet. It was weird … this ferocious competition and backbiting for what seemed like so few places at the pinnacle of Canadian poetry, and for what? What was at the pinnacle? Were there even readers? Was there any reward so worth it that poets would rip each other’s throats out to get it?
The answer is a simple no, there wasn’t. The infighting was awful because the rewards were paid in that worst of currencies, perceived prestige. No one read poetry. The year I started doing spoken word the person who won our Governor General’s award for poetry had sold three hundred copies of her book.
That statistic made it clear that if somebody didn’t do something, poetry would become a dead art.
So in Montreal we started playing poems on the radio station CKUT 90.3 in the same way DJs played songs. Poets started appearing in the top 40, then in the top 10, and finally, less than three months into this project we called Wired on Words, a poet usurped the musicians and hit number one on college radio.
Then along came this roar from the US of A: the poetry slam. Teams of poets from cities all around the US were competing onstage for the title of best performance poet of the year. Vince Tinguely wrote a column on spoken word for the Mirror weekly, and you could find poets working beside musicians in clubs around the city. The CBC ran nationwide spoken word contests.
And the scene now? Straddling the end of March and the beginning of April this year we put on the 3rd annual Mile End Poets’ Festival, a five day festival featuring spoken word, music and dance by performers from across Canada. On the same weekend Kalmunity, a music ensemble that regularly features poets onstage, was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its performances in the city. The show I host and curate, the QWF’s Words and Music Show, has presented poets, musicians and performers every third Sunday of the month for over twelve years at Casa del Popolo.
Lately, you can also catch the Throw Poetry Collective’s monthly slam down the street at Divan Orange.
This fall twenty-four teams of five poets each from cities throughout Canada will be landing on our streets as Montreal hosts the annual Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in November.
But the most unbelievable cross-cultural impact is on YouTube, where Shane Koyczan’s most recent poem To This Day has over eight million views. Tanya Davis, who performs at our Casa show, has another poem, How to Be Alone, that’s been seen and listened to over five million times.
I got into spoken word because I saw it as a way to sidestep all the infighting over definitions of what’s poetry, and instead, to help create a bigger scene for poets.
To a large extent this has happened. Fans of poetry are no longer just specialists in esoteric literature. (I love these specialists deeply. I love anyone who has a shelf full of poetry at home. You can invite me for dinner anytime.)
And the poets themselves have found a much larger arena. One performed at the Olympic opening ceremonies in Vancouver. It’s just something we do here.
Ian Ferrier is a Montreal poet and performer. He is the founder of Wired on Words, a spoken word record label, of the Mile End Poets’ Festival and of the online performance review litlive.ca. His most recent CD, with the band Pharmakon MTL, is entitled To Call Out in the Night. You can hear it at CBC Music. You can watch him perform on YouTube or in Montreal’s One Man Band Festival on May 26th.