„Hi, I’m A, and I use they/them pronouns.“ They wave to the group of people sitting on wooden cinema chairs in the backroom of Havana Café. The person beside them continues. “I’m B, hello. She/her.” She looks to her right. “C. They/them.” The round continues until the about twenty participants have introduced themselves.
The Arts & Activism talk during Verses Festival of Words 2017 puts a concept into action which I’ve mostly encountered in academia up until now – intersectionality. Vancouver’s ten-day spoken word festival features the Hullabaloo youth slams, two literary magazine launches, workshops, talks, performances, and, last but not least, the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam championships. On April 28, facilitators, performers, and curious visitors gathered together in East Van in one of the two slam performance spaces on Commercial Drive to discuss the Canadian poetry slam scene and put the concerns of marginalized members at the center.
Arts and Activism go hand in hand
The event is one of many organizational efforts to make the festival as inclusive as possible: The performance spaces are wheelchair-accessible and scent-reduced, and simultaneous sign language translation is provided. In every introduction, the organizers point out that they are currently on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, a practice acknowledging the fact that settlers took the land on which the city is built from the indigenous population illegally. Two “active listeners” at each event lend anyone an ear who was triggered at the festival; if needed, they are equipped with resources for further help. Privacy is also taken seriously – no one’s name or identity are disclosed without their permission, which led to my decision to feature neither names nor photos in this article.
Many of the concepts and approaches also exist in Germany: Intersectionality is widely known in academic circles and often applied in university settings; active listeners are a part of most environmental activism camps; accessibility is an important issue for public services and education. However, I have never been to an art space in Germany that combined all of them in the way Verses does. This may be because I live in a smallish university town in the south of Germany, and it will take a while until the wave of innovation reaches us from cities like Berlin; but perhaps it’s because the close connection between arts and activism is particularly strong in North America.
Diversity: Who performs for whom?
I have to admit, too, that I haven’t been to poetry slams in Germany regularly for quite a while. Four or five years ago, when the scene was at the peak of its popularity, the slams I visited were usually cheer-based. So I am a little startled when someone approaches me with a score board before a preliminary bout at Café Deux Soleils. “It helps us break ties”, the organizer says, “Could you and your friend give scores?”
Since most of the other audience members are poets themselves, we spend the next hour judging the participants’ performance within the few seconds afterwards. Although each session is opened by a “calibration poet” on whom to base the scores, judging people with numbers without any further explanation or acknowledgement of their skills makes me feel uncomfortable just like grading students in the year I spent working in a school. I’m happy to be relieved of my duty after the evening’s first round.
Of course, being judged this way is much harder on the poets. One of the issues discussed during the talk is the problem that many performers internalize their scores. This is amplified by imbalance between the performers and the audience in numbers and matters of diversity: While the poets come from all kinds of different backgrounds and hold various marginalized identities, the audience is often predominantly white. Especially when performing poetry that criticizes white supremacy, poets fear to be judged negatively, precautionarily silencing themselves. There is also the fear to be exploited or to self-exploit on account of their identities to appeal to a white audience exotifying the performers.
Politics and Butterflies: Spoken Word and Fiction
Most of the performances during Verses focus on current events, criticism of power structures, or personal struggles with marginalization. And while it is amazing that there is room to tell these stories, the people at the Arts & Activism talk wonder about the ramifications of this approach: How do I write about joy? Am I even allowed to write about joy if the world is so shitty? Would writing a joyful poem about, say, butterflies, compromise my ideals? To this string of questions for which we couldn’t find satisfying answers I would like to add a few more: How does today’s spoken word relate to storytelling traditions? What is the role of fiction in the genre of spoken word? Is there room for completely made-up stories at poetry slams or should a joyful, third-person poem about butterflies be performed at an entirely different type of event?
All these things set aside, I experienced excellent poetry at this festival. At the finals on April 29, I am sitting on the edge of my seat at the Rio Theatre, amazed and often on the verge of tears while the crème de la crème of the Canadian poetry slam scene perform stories rooted in personal experience that are vibrant, moving, and often extremely political. In Germany, I stopped attending poetry slams because the poetry’s content was either heartbreak (performed by women), hilarious anecdotes (performed by men), or a crossover between the two (mostly heartbreak performed by men). If German slams were as thought-provoking as the ones at Verses, I would start going again. And I would take all my friends with me.
Since I couldn’t get in touch with the festival organizers or participants, this article is about my personal impressions of Verses 2017. For more information, visit the festival’s website or the interviews here and here.