The Verses Festival of Words has grown into the largest event of its kind in Western Canada, encompassing 45-and-counting performances, workshops, and other events when it hits East Van from April 21 to May 1.
But the fest has never forgotten where it came from, growing out of the slam community that has thrived on Commercial Drive.
“The area has such a concentration of artists and such a legacy of artists and street performance,” says artistic director and spoken-word poet Jillian Christmas in a phone interview. “All the businesses of the Drive have been so supportive—even of the sidewalk performances.…It will be our mandate to stay in this community and bring people to flood the streets to help the businesses that have supported us.”
While the main location has not changed—this year’s wordplay takes place mostly at venues in the home ’hood, like slam central Café Deux Soleils, the Rio Theatre, the York Theatre, and SPACE on Clark Drive—the art form being showcased has. The event started as the Vancouver International Poetry Festival in 2011, but a year later changed its title to the broader Verses in recognition of how many of its artists are integrating music, storytelling, and other forms into their performances. It bills itself as an “alternative literary festival”.
“We started to realize so many artists in the community were doing so many other things. They had so many other skills,” Christmas explains. “It really made sense to give them the space to honour those crafts and open it as much as possible to everybody. That’s the direction I see the fest moving in, always with a thought to the political climate.”
Verses recognizes its roots with key slam events—including the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam finals. And, with a nod to the almost all-female crew that organized the fest, there is a special We Believe You Showcase and Open Mic devoted to female survivors of trauma (April 25 at the Cultch), plus a Femcees event at Café Deux Soleils on April 28 and 29.
There are also all kinds of mixed programs with an open attitude to almost any performance that celebrates the art of wordsmithing.
Sara Bynoe has organized an edition of her tongue-in-cheek Teen Angst Poetry nights (at the Storm Crow Tavern on April 26), where performers read some of their most embarrassing poetry, essays, and journal writings from their high-school years. Ivan Coyote joins the There Be Monsters program with Kai Cheng Thom, Amber Dawn, and some local musicians for an evening of music and myth. Big names like Vancouver’s poet laureate Rachel Rose, Outer Harbour author Wade Compton, activist-emcee Kim "K!mmortal" Villagante, and Ojibwa First Nation author Richard Wagamese mix in other programs with diverse styles. (See the Verses Festival website.)
And that sharing and mixing is one of Christmas’s favourite things about Verses. “All of our stages are sort of like that: they like to ask artists to mingle with other artists in different ways, and there’s no greater joy for me,” Christmas says.
A huge part of Verses is still its youth component, found in the many Hullabaloo team bouts and other events at the fest. “It’s so important bringing the youth up through and meshing with the adults. But it’s also to have the adults inspired by them,” Christmas says.
That driving passion for inclusivity may be pushing poetry performance beyond strict definitions, but as Christmas points out, the fest’s mandate stems strongly from spoken-word itself: “It’s a populist art form, and one of the great things is you don’t need to have a degree to stand on the stage. All you need are the words and the strength to get up there.”
The Verses Festival of Words happens around Commercial Drive and at the Vancouver Public Library downtown from next Thursday (April 21) to May 1.