March was a hard month, with the passing of Prof. Pius Adesanmi. This followed the news of Prof. Marc Hewson’s passing in January, which left much of March with me thinking about the influence professors have and how it’s easy to take what they share with us for granted.
But with the end of March came Versefest, Ottawa’s biggest poetry festival. Versefest brings together poets from across Canada, as well as on an international scale. This year, attending readings, lectures, and talks, as well as meeting literary friends and poets, offered me a chance to think about mentorship and influence.
Living two streets away from the Knox Presbyterian Church (where Versefest takes place) means that my attendance for the poetry festival has greatly increased. I’d like to share some of my festival highlights and recommendations, and maybe convince you to attend next year.
Day 1: Opening Night
Billy-Ray Belcourt read a lot of poems from his forthcoming book, NDN COPING MECHANISMS: Notes from the Field, coming out in September 2019. One thing to say is that September 2019 has something great to look forward to. Belcourt read a line, “poets pledge allegiance to a country I don’t believe in” that stuck with me throughout the night.
While I was already familiar with the work of Billy-Ray Belcourt (thanks to Professor Brenda Vellino’s course on Indigenous Literatures, and the well-deserved success of This Wound is a World), I was also exposed to the brilliant work of t’ai freedom ford. ford read from her books, how to get over and & more black/black-ass sonnets. Her final poem had the audience mesmerized with lines like “the new is skin / the skin is news / the news is brown / the brown is noose / the noose is red.”
Day 2: Sawdust Reading Series
After missing hearing Gillian Sze last April at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, I had the pleasure of hearing her read her chapbook, Fricatives. The last lines of the chapbook were, “and I am surprised to know that something so large can still wander,” and these stuck with me as I settled into bed that night. As a bonus, I was also able to get my own copy of Fricatives at the book table on Day 3.
Day 3: Arc Poetry Magazine’s Reading
What a lineup for Arc’s event at Versefest: David O’Meara, Stephanie Roberts, Jenny Haysom, and Doyali Islam. Here are some of the highlights of lines from poems.
O’Meara, Arc’s poet-in-residence, read a line, “We might have slept for years, extras in each other’s grief.”
Haysom structured her reading around the theme of homes, from the home she lived in for seventeen years at Hopewell Avenue to Van Gogh’s home in Arles. She read, “Hints of nicotine and yesteryear lingered in the fire.”
The reading closed with Islam reading from her just-released book, heft, which Islam described as being largely about fathers. Her poem, “anise tea” has the lines, “When these histories have steeped enough, his right hand bears the weight.”
Day 4: The Ottawa International Writers Festival & the Versefest Invitational Slam
Friday was the first day I attended both the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows. The first event was hosted by the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Renee Sarojini Saklikar read from her books, Children of Air India and Listening to the Bees. Out of all the readings at the festival, her voice (next to Gillian Sze’s) was the nicest to hear. One of the lines she read was, “come spring we braid strands, pulp fibres, wind whispers.”
Dennis Lee, a poet and children’s writer, closed the Writers Festival event. One of my favourite parts from his reading was of “The Notapotamus”, which read like “I thought I saw a potamus, / Asleep upon a cotamus,” and it had the whole audience laughing.
And then was the part I was simultaneously anticipating and dreading: Versefest’s Invitational Slam. This competition, always held at 9 p.m. on the Friday of Versefest, draws the largest crowd. This year, I was invited to participate. It was my first time being part of a slam. As I expected, it was terrifying but also a great experience. It wasn’t being scored that had me at the edge of my seat, as I had expected, but rather it was not knowing when my name was going to be pulled out of the hat to go up and read. I did make it through my reading, and had the chance to share the stage with some amazing poets, including Infinite Mind, Rhube Knox, Shawn K, Shery Alexander Heinis, and Danielle K. L. Gregoire.
Day 5: The Factory Lecture Series, What the Poets Are Doing, & Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
The Saturday shows at Versefest strayed away from poetry readings, which was a nice break from the four consecutive days of poetry.
The Factory Lecture Series, featuring Sennah Yee and Klara du Plessis, was organized by rob mclennan. Yee and du Plessis had space to talk about their work, inspirations, and current projects. Yee focused her lecture on her background in film studies, often citing critic and scholar Laura Mulvey. Having studied Mulvey’s work in several classes, it was interesting hearing Yee’s talk about Mulvey’s observations of how women are depicted as objects to be looked at in film. Yee’s book, How do I look? looks at these depictions of women and racialized bodies in pop culture.
Du Plessis talked about her practice of “deep curation,” in which she compares a literary curator to a curator for a gallery. The literary curator invites readers to perform, but does not usually have a say in what the reader performs. The art curator considers how work is in conversation with other work, and has a comprehensive view of the tone of the exhibition. Du Plessis’s concept of deep curation takes cues from the practice of art curation. She says, “The process of reading and selecting becomes writing.”
After a quick lunch break, I was back at Versefest for a launch of What the poets are doing: Canadian poets in conversation. The book consists of twelve pairs of Canadian poets talking about poetry. The editor of this book, Rob Taylor, described the process as being like “a cat café, except the people who work there are also cats.” Speakers at this event included Armand Ruffo, Linda Besner, and Phoebe Wang. Each read parts of their own conversation, parts of others’ conversations, and poetry from their conversation partners.
Leanne Simpson performed with her band at the 9 p.m. show, and it was wonderful. Simpson performed songs that I had first been introduced to in Indigenous Literatures, such as “How to Steal a Canoe.” She also gave her bandmates, Ansley Simpson and Cris Derkson, space to perform solo. The band closed the night with the song, “This Accident of Being Lost,” which shares a title with Simpson’s book. I have also listened to this song every day since first hearing it.
Day 6: In/Words Magazine & Blue Mondays
The last day of Versefest arrived, and I was hosting an event for In/Words Magazine with UOttawa’s reading series, Blue Mondays. I find something fun about two “rival” universities hosting a literary event together each year. I was also excited to introduce Tess Liem and Ren Iwamoto. Liem’s debut poetry book, Obits, is a phenomenal look at death, obituaries, and mourning. One of the lines she read was, “I write zero to describe grief and to me it means I had more than a pen to begin with.”
Iwamoto’s first chapbook, Travelling Trauma Museum, was the first chapbook I had worked on as an editor with In/Words. Introducing them, as well as hearing new work, was wonderful. They read from a series of poems about Medusa, with one of the lines being, “Helen’s face launched 10,000 ships but yours could have sunk them in a minute.”
Six days of a variety of poetry later, I feel satiated, and also ready to sleep. Versefest is always great for introducing me to new poets, such as from t’ai freedom ford, Stephanie Roberts and Linda Besner, or giving me a chance to meet poets I admire in real life, such as Sennah Yee and Tess Liem.