A Lyric Essay
From Poetry to Poverty
by Sheri-D Wilson
Walking past the AGO gift shop,
an Ai Weiwei sound-bite printed on a T-shirt
catches my eye—
Everything is art. Everything is politics.
I stop. Buy the T-shirt. Wear it thin.
The irony doesn’t escape me, nor the message. Sometimes I wear that Ai Weiwei T-shirt to allow its words to speak for me. And maybe that notion—Everything is art— Everything is politics—is the altruistic imperative behind poetry as social action. Talk is talk—slogans are slogans. However, the walk is the walk and Spoken Word Poets/Activists ask themselves: What is my action? How does my work further what I stand for? And then, how do I extend my work to include the voice of the community?
Spoken Word is a grass-roots social movement, which is non-hierarchical and therefore circular and inclusive in nature. It is about giving yourself voice, and at the same time it is about giving voice to others. Because of this philosophy of inclusiveness, a dialogue often ensues creating the opportunity for group empathy and reconciliation. A Spoken Word event isn't just about a poet reciting to an audience; it's about the audience talking back. It's about the give and take of words and ideas between everyone present. The poetry is only partly what the poet brings; it's wholly about what everyone in the moment of the reading does together. It may be thought of, I believe, as a reciprocal act of sharing and/or protesting.
With the essential impetus of walking the talk. My first foray down the path of action was in 1988 when Gordon Murray and I founded The Vancouver Small Press Festival. At that time we believed that small presses represented the voice of the people, and like the Beatniks before us, we felt there was an intrinsic connection between that voice and the street. Small presses had long been an alternative means of getting poems from poets to their readers without the hierarchies of companies and profit. Back then there were hundreds of small press publishers. But they didn't really know each other, or have a collective voice, something that's needed to turn individual action into a social force. The Small Press Festival brought many people together. At a meeting of the publishers who attended the 1989 festival, the Small Press Action Network was first suggested, and hence SPAN was born. SPAN continues to this day.
When I attended Naropa in 1989, I observed my teachers (like Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima) employing poetry as protest. They took to the streets and they used poetry to speak about social justice. They protested. They created space for others to speak about their social injustice. They lived what they believed and they believed what they lived. They were pacifists who demonstrated for change. It was revolutionary and their action did change the face of poetry, without question. Suddenly poetry was being written to be clearly heard and accessible in a large forum.
In the early 1990’s I assisted in developing an art program for “street kids” in Vancouver. My job was to teach poetry and performance. We were hired to help these kids express themselves, and, the way most projects of this kind work, as a way for them to find their way back into society. But as we developed the program we came to realize that we weren’t there to teach the youth how to live inside the system, but how to survive outside it. We also recognized ourselves in what we were teaching them. In that way—Art & Action didn't just reflect one another, they pushed each other to grow.
A principle of Art as Social Action is that people know what they need; if something is worth doing, they will pick it up and do it themselves. In Calgary 2001, T. Crane, Fred Holliss, Kirk Miles and I launched the Single Onion Reading Series—as a one-off event, to present Vancouver musician Tippy Agogo who was passing through town. But something more caught on, and the reading series continues to this day, and has grown into a respected and widely varying forum for poets and writers to share their work and their ideas. In fact, it was Single Onion that produced the series in which I presented the first version of this lyric essay.
A long-time advocate of social justice and art, in 2003 I decided to take another plunge into the realm of poetry as community development. It was my vision to create a space for artists to: discuss poetry, develop a pedagogy for Spoken Word, perform their work, teach in an educational program, and network with one another. With that ordinance in mind, and the notion of “Orenda” (an Iroquois word meaning Tribal Soul), I founded The Calgary Spoken Word Society. The society (or community) then produced The Calgary Spoken Word Festival (with poetry events, panels, discussion groups, and workshops), and an educational series called Word Travels, for youth. We also produced a monthly Slam which kicked-off in 2006, and in 2008 we hosted and produced the National Slam of Canada, in Calgary. With the idea of opening the space to a more inclusive model, in 2011 I initiated a collective to manage and produce the Calgary Slam. That group (of which I am a member) is called the Ink Spot Collective.
Along with the festival, in 2005 I produced a networking circle at The Banff Centre which then evolved into The Spoken Word Program (the first program of its kind in North America). The program grew out of round-table talks between 20 invited artists considered to be leaders in the form of Spoken Word. By this I mean: Spoken Word Artists who have made substantial contributions to the development of Spoken Word, through the originality and excellence of their own writing/performance works, and also through their involvement and contributions to the expansion of the Spoken Word community.
Since its inception the program has been unique—a circular module addressing writing and performance possibilities, in the creation of pedagogy, the inclusion of at least three languages, emphasizing collaborative works, highlighting networking and the business of writing. I was honoured to be the Director of the program 2005-2012, and was delighted with my successor Tanya Evanson.
Spoken Word poetry is much more than words on a page or riffs brought to the stage. It is a political action to promote change, both transformation in the individual and also to the community. In that way, the creation or making of the art is a political act in itself, and all art becomes a form of protest.
Spoken Word is a form of poetry which may be traced back to most cultures through their oral traditions. On my journey I have discovered that most cultures needed these stories and tales, this poetry, for survival. ie. Don’t pitch your teepee on the south bank of that river or you might get swamped. The voice of the group, or the orator would share their own sagas and also the stories of their tribe. Perhaps this is where myth derives its root and I often think of the first people who got up in front of their gathered community to inspire them to think about the world we live it, what to look out for—how to improve their lives. But they didn't just use the language of politics or satire or rhetoric. They spoke in poetry.
When I began doing what is now referred to as Spoken Word, it hadn’t found its name yet. Although Spoken Word finds its root in some of the oldest traditions, I would say it is one of the newest forms of writing. And Spoken Word reflects the contemporary world as the Oral tradition reflected an ancient world. Spoken Word explores the contemporary: New language. New technology. New ideas. New ways of being and seeing. New styles, rhythms and forms. But most of all, it is about sharing openly. It is a forum for all people and does not discriminate based on colour, gender, religion, style or education. I will keep my word—it is a poetry of inclusion.
So, where are we now?
Right here, in the middle of now,
I observe we are living in the neo-dark-ages, Aquarius
and maybe there’ll be great creative fertility
as we move from lethargy to catharsis
from the lethargic to cathartic
chaos to pathos,
and maybe we will embrace our imaginations
and shift into new creations.
Recently when texting someone
I misspelled the word poetry,
and the word was ironically auto-corrected
So here, in the middle of now
I ask myself—
when do my words move from poetry to poverty?
I am reminded of the words of Blake,
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
In Calgary, this bountiful city where I live
there are thousands of children in schools
who do not have enough to eat,
I ask myself—
when does my discussion about poetry move to social action?
when do I—when do all artists turn obsolete,
when do they admit defeat?
I am told that in October 2014
there were 3,500 people
living on the street in Calgary, homeless—
when do my words move from poetry to poverty—
and when do they move to humanity?
Amid 25 million dollar bridges being constructed
and luncheon tabs being deducted—
how can I possibly find peace?
Here and now, poets—
do we speak of an economic down-turn
when we’ve always lived on the edge of scarcity?
when there are little to no funding streams
for individual artists in Calgary?
Here and now, poets—
do we speak of our earth being destroyed?
by fracking and factory farming, et cetera and et cetera
or do we simply deflect, and remain distant and disarmed?
Here and now, poets—
do we speak of education?
when only the rich can afford the luxury of learning?
I am a poet
in the here and now.
I am an outsider, an outrider
wandering, therefore wondering,
how do we continue to disguise our demise
as money mongers speak-saccharine
and we become the personification of their lies?
Here and now, I speak of poetry
of crazy wisdom.
Here and now,
I ask—is the voice of poetry
an expression of the opposition,
if so, opposed to what, and of what
What of living in harmony
with the earth?
Here and now,
I question—what does the word poetry mean,
what does it represent?
In 2013, to celebrate the 10 year anniversary
Calgary Spoken Word Festival,
Anita Crowshoe & I
created a project called “A Tribute to this Land.”
We invited one Elder
from each of the five Nations of Treaty 7
to come together to envision and bless the project,
which was to tell traditional tales to youth,
who would then interpret the tales
in Spoken Word Poetry and song—
to create their own take—in a creative ping-pong.
In the first circle the first question
posed by Elder Reg Crowshoe was:
what does the word poetry mean in your language?
(beyond dictionary definition of “poet” as “maker”).
Each Elder answered,
in the language of their people—
in the language of the land,
“bird,” “bird song,” “small bird story.”
By this I mean the word “poetry”
as translated by the Elders
whose culture and language
has been ripped from them.
And what do we poets have to say about that?
How do we translate the word genocide?
What about extinction?
Orunamamu would say:
If you find a feather
A soft and tickly feather,
It’s for you!
Pick it up and put it in your pocket,
A feather is a letter from a bird.
Right here, in the middle of now
here and the now,
what does the word “poetry” mean to you
beyond how it is defined, I mean
poetry as a personal reflection
a way to see the world and live in it.
Is it time we unconfine and re-undefine?
Yes. Relevance, my friends.
Last month a young poet attempted to insult me
by calling me, “The Avante-Gardener,”
which I loved, and I thought it was brilliantly put,
so maybe Spoken Word Artists
are the Ultimate Avante-Gardeners! Dig?
every orator knows,
you are only as good as your material.
Poetry demands contemplation,
deep song meditation
and I speak of the oral tradition,
a medium written for the eyes
of the orator,
for reading writing eyes
and speaking listening eyes.
Here and now,
Spoken Word is created
by the people, for the people
in the voice of the people.
Spoken Word embodies the notion of inclusion
inclusion of all people—and since its re-emergence thirty years ago,
Spoken Word embodies a vision for humanity,
a non-authoritarian, non-hierarchical approach to living
with strong intension, intension, in–tension—
Spoken Word is a social revolution,
it is about giving back—to the community.
So the poets ask themselves: what is my action?
what is my noble truth?
Therefore, Spoken Word is socially relevant
in its depiction of people, politics and place.
Spoken Word confronts the sharp edge
with an open hand. With acceptance—and sometimes
Almost every culture has an oral tradition
deeply rooted in the earth—
in the Griots, the Bards, the Seanchaí,
the First Nations, the Azmari,
the Minstrels, Skalds, Scops, Rhapsodists, and the Ashiks,
the Balladeers, Troubadours, and the Taliesins.
From Aristotle and the Greeks,
through the Renaissance—Shakespeare, and Molière,
to the Dadaists, through the Surrealists, and Apollinaire,
continuing through the Beats—
who spoke in the vernacular of the streets
evolving into what is now known as Spoken Word.
Spoken Word includes thought and impulse
could be joy or tragedy,
almost always a declaration,
in and out of improvisation,
the Spoken Word Poet finds
The Spoken Word Poet must find their authentic voice
and then speak it from the heart—beat.
It is a poetics of the body—as the body holds memory
Spoken Word uses gesture and articulate movement
to emphasis thought.
Rhythm is everything:
and sometimes rhyme
plus metre, language, melody, diction and tone.
Images are everything:
and the concept that maybe we are not alone,
because we see each other as family.
Silence is everything:
bringing silence to what we see
and breath, taking a breath, as we
breathe, together, to create change.
Often, in Spoken Word there is attention given to narrative
to story—personal, community, and of culture. History. Hers.
Spoken Word—word play—spoken is about communication
in euphonic deliberation.
Spoken Word introduces the integration of media
Spoken Word Artists remember:
that which defines us
confines us, and
those who define us,
So rules will never be written in stone
and boundaries will never big box us in,
to limit our perceptions and possibilities.
Spoken Word is an umbrella
for Slam poetry events. A Slam
refers to an event, which holds space
for competitive poetry. A Slam
is an event, not a style of poetry.
Spoken Word will continue to grow
and evolve, aporia,
To balance a stick
one must keep their eye on the tip,
not the ground, or the sky.
Poetry lives in the inner space
and the outer world,
not in the ego skin that contains it,
no matter what form it takes.
One rain drop
is a single reason, for the poet
to listen. To listen, in
the here and now.
With invective response—