Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

ARC Poetry Spoken Word Celebration

The ARC Poetry Spoken Word Celebration launched the magazine’s special issue bringing spoken word to print, and it was clear in the words delivered that this was a labor of love. If writing a book is like birthing a baby, the launch must be that moment when the baby crowns and bursts forth with its own voice raised. That sense of expectancy, the hush in the room, the excitement of beginning, the rhythm of breath, that was the feel of the night at Maxwell’s on Elgin.


The drama was in four acts, led by poets Kevin Matthews, Cat Kidd, Ian Keteku, and Tanya Evanson, who also guest edited the issue, and hosted by Rhonda Douglas of ARC Poetry. For those who know spoken word poetry, it will come as no surprise that some poems were political and dramatic in their delivery, seeking to promote change in the hearts of their listeners. These presented varied narratives, from Cat Kidd’s Hyena Subpoena, a raging meditation on the misunderstood and villainized, to Ian Keteku’s rant at the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Between all the charged ideas and the stories, though, an undercurrent pulsed. Though spoken word poets deliver performances that can seem fringe, with polarizing content, the truth is they seek meaning through the fleeting connections between their words and the audience. Many of the poems performed were as universal in theme as any art: life and death, love and loss, beginnings and endings, and dreams of a new world. This was a night about the rhythm of existence, and the meaning we find in it, fitting for the commemoration of printing work that normally is only expressed ephemerally. But it was fun, thanks to the personalities and variety of techniques employed by the poets. These four are very comfortable in their medium and the audience was set at ease; yet their mastery of words and sound kept us on the edge of our seats, alternately laughing and rapt with attention, eager to hear what would come next.


Kevin Matthews opened the evening with a poem about poetry, a masterpiece of breath and voice that resonated with those in the crowd to immediately open the evening to the right tone. The room was accepting, receiving the words and giving back laughter, applause, murmurs of agreement—this is why a spoken word poem is performed and not in print. His rhythmic the love song of Roy G Biv playfully opened the way for the rest of the night’s poetry. When Cat Kidd delivered her vulnerable Sea Peach, which examines the stripping down of fears necessary to let love win in your life, it was moving and profound. She travelled all over the space, using music and almost singing at times while using props and movement to accentuate the cadence of the lines. Ian Keteku burst out third, throwing his entertaining and scathing poems out first, but he changed pace before he left to deliver some slow and low thoughts on mortality in his poem Chalk. The room held its breath while Keteku spoke instructions for his body after death: give it to the ocean and let plankton feed on it, and when they turn to limestone, use the limestone that was my body to write my name for my children, and teach them that writing was my life’s meaning. It was a stilling moment.


The pause was followed by Tanya Evanson, whose status as the guest editor of ARC Poetry’s Spoken Word Issue made her the lady of the hour. She strode up with dignity and spoke with a presence seen in orators, but with expression marking her voice as her own. She spoke poems about her father, incorporating idiomatic snippets of dialogue and rhythm to underscore the diction. Her final poem of the evening, ostensibly about garbage, delved back into thoughts of mortality and the evanescence of human life. It is a preoccupation of these poets whose work lives only while they do, but what they do with the subject matter is not depressing; to a one, the poets bring us back to the moment of creation and show us that it is for that creation we have come, and for it we will celebrate. There is something quite beautiful in pausing to observe that which cannot last, because our lives and our memories are made up of these mere transient moments. “Happy full moon,” said Tanya Evanson, and the room cheered, “Happy hunter’s moon,” and everyone erupted. So it was—a night of celebration, and since ARC Poetry has promised an ongoing commitment to continue to feature spoken word, there will perhaps be more birthdays to come.