Celebrating poetry that revolutionizes and heals

Johnny Trinh, artistic director of the Vancouver Poetry House. | Photo by Miquel Delamo

“Even before language, there was a language that we don’t speak, and after language, a new language will arise,” says the 7th Poet Laureate of Toronto, Lillian Allen, highlighting spoken word poets’ innate right to experiment with language.

Just in time for National Poetry Month, Vancouver Poetry House’s Verses Festival of Words, a spoken word festival for which Allen will deliver the keynote address, returns for its 14th rendition from April 18 to 27. Bringing together artists from across Canada, this year’s Verses festival will showcase poetic power through the theme of “Learning and Remembering.”

Historicized poetics

“The university should be as much about learning as about unlearning,” says Allen. “We learn a lot of things in the colonized society … that needs to be unlearned, and I think that’s part of what the new voices are doing.”

Toronto poet laureate Lillian Allen.

Allen adds that this unlearning should recognize the historical context of those who have made space for other voices and pushed for positive change. Well-known for her dub poetry, Allen remains cognizant of those who have paved the way for her work, most notably the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett-Coverley who, Allen says, gave the Jamaican vernacular back to its people by treating it as an art.

“It was important for me to be part of a historic journey,” says Allen, while noting how art forms created by Black people can become genericized after being consumed by the dominant society. “I wanted to make sure that my folks could have something that says, ‘we created this, this is ours.’”

Having grown up in Jamaica under a British school curriculum, Allen then studied in the United States where she was influenced by the development of a Black poetics practice. For Allen, poetry encourages activism in its ability to engage people through a shared culture. To that end, Allen hopes to see more young spoken word poets involved in municipal politics.

“People keep speaking their truth, social critique, coming from the heart, demanding their humanity, demanding a better world, and taking that into action – it’s just going to be a different kind of revolution that will be loving and transformative and part of the new world coming,” says Allen.

Coming into the room

For Johnny Trinh, artistic director of Vancouver Poetry House, the theme of this year’s festival highlights the importance of mentorship in the arts community. Having been involved in spoken word for the past 11 years, Trinh approaches this community as a safe space where stories can be heard.

“Part of the theme is learning from each other and remembering together – I think it’s really important to retain the knowledge and call back to the teachers,” says Trinh. “It takes a community to build an artist whether we resist against it or are nurtured by it.”

Poet, filmmaker and educator Patrick de Belen. | Photo by Irene Dominguez

To this end, this year’s featured poets were chosen not only for their artistic contributions, but their educational and community work as well. The lineup was also curated with attention to artists who combine disciplines, including poet, filmmaker and educator Patrick de Belen who also recognizes the power of community.

“That’s something I needed as a young artist, and something I still need today,” says de Belen, while crediting his mentor Dwayne Morgan who helped him break into Toronto’s poetry slam scene. “Through mentorship and guidance, the young artists grow up and start taking responsibility in building and maintaining these communities.”

Drawn to spoken word for its angsty ability to question the conventional, de Belen says that the genre’s directness, honesty, and vulnerability was helpful in developing his filmmaker voice. For Verses, de Belen has prepared poems concerning grief, mental health and resistance against societal oppression, but has also left space to improvise according to the room.

“It’s just you on the stage sharing your story. No glitz and glamour, nothing to hide behind,” says de Belen, noting how spoken word’s authentic expressions make it a unique art form. “I think that’s why I believe people need to be in the room to really experience it.”

At the Hullabaloo All Star Slam on April 19, co-presented by the Vancouver Writers Fest, de Belen will be joined by fellow poets Chris Tse and Erin Dingle. Other Verses events include Oral Traditions on April 22, which is held in partnership with the Native Hip Hop Festival Society and features Indigenous artists, and Mashed Poetics on April 23, which combines live music with poetry. For Trinh, who is looking forward to welcoming poets to this community, it is important that attendees bring the knowledge back home.

“Good spoken word poetry has such a clear and powerful intention, and a drive to connect with the audience and that’s what transforms us,” adds Trinh.

The healing power of poetry

Poet and singer Daniel Viragh. | Photo by Gaëtan Nerincx.

Daniel Viragh is another local poet who will be celebrating National Poetry Month. Raised in Montreal by Hungarian parents, Viragh is no stranger to linguistic multiplicity. Having published poetry in English and French concerning a range of themes, including spirituality, resilience and immigration, Viragh is currently drawn to writing about a shared humanity beneath personal grievances.

“We’re all human beings. Physically, we all express the same emotions, maybe on a different spectrum, and we speak different languages. But a mom cuddling a child is the same child, same mom, in any different culture,” says Viragh.

For National Poetry Month, Viragh hopes to release a French version of his podcast, Poetry of Evil, where each episode offers a recitation of three poems. Viragh notes that he titled the podcast in recognition of its power as a mental health resource, including in his own life.

“A lot of people go through a lot of trauma and anxiety and it’s hard for them to do anything with that anxiety,” says Viragh. “So if we can provide a safe atmosphere for people to process that, then they can begin on the journey of healing for themselves.”

While noting how poetry is usually taught in schools from an analytical framework, Viragh emphasizes how his poetic writing process, unlike his songwriting approach, happens on a subconscious level. For Viragh, the most important part of his poetic creation is capturing the emotions or mood – a process that can be freeing.

“I think the most important part of the arts is not that we go to the gallery, albeit the gallery is important and culture programs are important, but that we do art,” says Viragh. “The fact that you are creating art gives you a sense of liberation because you are being creative.”

For more information about Verses, see: www.vancouverpoetryhouse.com

For more information about Daniel Viragh, see: www.danviragh.com