The Verses Festival of Words is at least nominally about poetry, primarily in its more performative incarnations: spoken word, rap, words-and-music collaborations, and slam. But at its heart it’s really about transformation: about the power of poetic speech to change the self in ways that can then result in social change.
“They say that before you can fix something you have to name it,” says the 11-day event’s artistic director, Jillian Christmas, in a telephone interview from her East Van home. “Being able to vocalize what an issue is is the first way that we start to imagine a solution for it.”
That’s why, she continues, this year’s Verses roster is full of poets who are also activists, like Sonya Renee Taylor, the Oakland, California, writer whose poem “The Body Is Not an Apology” helped spark a popular website—and an international movement—devoted to cultivating radical self-love. Beginning with the idea that internalized self-loathing—in people of colour, in the LGBT community, and in those who don’t fit society’s unrealistic body norms—is one of the most powerful forms of oppression, Taylor has made it her life’s work to liberate herself and others from the paralysis of shame.
“I think of radical self-love as our inherent state,” Taylor explains, on the line from California. “What we’re battling is the layered calcification of messages that are not in our best interest, right? So, really, it’s about ‘How do we get back to who we inherently are?’ And for me, poetry allowed me to ask uncomfortable questions—of my own life, of the way that I was navigating the world, and of the world itself.”
Language, she adds, has the ability to either create or destroy, and she’s chosen to use her linguistic powers in an affirmative fashion, employing the oratorical cadences she absorbed growing up in the African-American church to deliver a plainspoken yet transformative message of self-empowerment.
“Part of what drew me, as a child, to the black church—beyond my grandma saying ‘Get up and go to church’—was this sort of magical storytelling that enslaved Africans brought here to the U.S.,” Taylor notes. “There’s something just magical about weaving a tale that has all of the realities of your material world, and then all of these possibilities of the supernatural world, all connected.”
Magic is no stranger to Calgary’s Sheri-D Wilson, another Verses Festival poet. A formative influence on Canada’s spoken-word scene, she’s long maintained an interest in what she calls “the arcane”, which can range from the consciousness of trees to the surreal possibilities that hover at the edge of everyday life. But her most recent writings, as collected on her new words-and-music CD Dragon Rouge, stem from a shift in her own artistic method, triggered by a visit to her teacher and muse, beat-generation legend Diane di Prima.
“I just got reamed out,” she says in a phone call from Alberta. “Reamed! Basically, she was saying, ‘You’re not focusing on the deeper issues, and in order to focus on the deeper issues, you must face your own shadow fearlessly.’ And she was right. I kind of came home with my tail between my legs, and I decided to go deeper, and to go harder, and to go darker.”
But, Wilson adds, there’s light in that darkness. “I’m trying to do it in a way that isn’t supporting the negative tone,” she says. “I’m changing the tone of things so that I’m not supporting, you know, Mordor.”
The magic seems to be working: a series of coincidences led to meetings with producer Steve Berlin, of Los Lobos fame, and with guitarist Barry Reynolds, Marianne Faithfull’s long-time bandleader. Both contribute to Dragon Rouge, and Reynolds will helm the band that will back Wilson at Verses.
“I go with the idea that every poem is a political act,” she says. “And to transform the world, you must transform yourself first.”
Sonya Renee Taylor reads at the Cultch on Wednesday (April 26). Sheri-D Wilson performs at the WISE Hall next Thursday (April 27). For a full Verses Festival schedule, visit its website.