A spoken word celebration

By Jordyn Marcellus

Starting April 1, the usually staid and conservative Calgary downtown core will be infiltrated by beatniks, hippies and even a few Rastafarians. They’re all here for the 2009 Calgary International Spoken Word Festival, Canada’s largest spoken word festival and the premiere poetry event for Calgarians.

Presiding over the madness is Sheri-D Wilson, described in arts circles as the “mama of dada” and a Calgary-native herself. After leaving Calgary at the age of 17, Wilson traveled the world, living in cities like New York and Vancouver, honing her craft. After returning to Calgary 15 years ago, she’s been involved in all aspects of the spoken word community. But it wasn’t until the new millennium that she decided to make the huge leap into creating a festival devoted to spoken word in the city.

“In 2000, I went to Africa where I was performing as a poet and I was inspired to do something for my community so I came back [to Calgary] and I started up this festival,” she says. “That’s really where it came from. It’s about the exchange of voice and the exchange of song. As we go into the seventh year, we’re meeting my original vision and dream.”

Most people conceptualize poetry events as elitist gatherings where clove-smoking, beret-wearing beatniks with goatees and sunglasses snap their fingers to esoteric, drug-addled ramblings. CISWF explores other aspects that don’t jive with people’s conceptions of what poetry events are.

With the Calgary-based Dragon Fli Empire performing and reggae singers like Ras Michael, the festival’s programming aims to bring poetry to the masses.

“There’s poetry, music and most of it is spoken word,” says Wilson. “It includes hip-hop, jazz, dub, beat, storytelling and slam… We have international and local artists and we all come together to create a, what I think of as, an inclusive festival that gives voice to the people. That’s why I think [the festival is] so popular– it’s down-to-earth.”

One of the problems with trying to put on any arts event in Calgary is trying to find a place to hold the show. Wilson herself identifies that this is one of the major problems to putting on any cultural event in Calgary.

“One of the things that Calgary must address is the fact that we don’t have many venues,” says Wilson. “In order to hold a very, very large event for international artists, we don’t have many venues to do that.”

Trying to keep the festival inexpensive is one of Wilson’s goals, despite the international-calibre of the artists. This was an issue considering Calgary’s venue crunch. As festival director and a leader in the arts community, she helped to cultivate places for the festival’s shows.

“We’ve got shows in the Auburn, the Calgary [Central] Library and this year in the Chinese Cultural Centre– and that show is going to be wild and completely wacked,” says Wilson. “We’ll be playing at the Banff Centre in their club. It’s great. It has this real underground feeling.”

Wilson is effusive about many of the artists, but none moreso than John Giorno. A New York-based performance artist, he is easily one of the festival’s highlights. Performing on April 4 at the Chinese Cultural Centre, Wilson describes him as “the true New York voice” in spoken word. Giorno, a Buddhist for 50 years and a member of Andy Warhol’s original Factory group, is both a gay and AIDS activist as well as performing all his work from memory.

“I first performed with him at the Harbourfront Festival in Toronto over 20 years ago, so I’ve known him for a long time,” explains Wilson. “I performed with him at [Festival] Voix d’Ameriques in Montreal. I was lucky enough to share a bed and breakfast with him so I got to hang out with him a large amount. At Voix d’Ameriques, we really clicked and I was just, sort of, taken back by the beauty of this man. The magic that he has is unbelievable.”

Wilson says Calgary audiences are in for a treat when he takes to the stage, as they’ll be blown away by Giorno’s once-in-a-lifetime performance.

“He will bring the house down,” she says. “People don’t know him here, but he’s really popular in Toronto, Vancouver and– of course– New York. When people get a load of him here, they’re just going to freak. The people that are lucky enough to get to see it will remember it for the rest of their life.”

It may seem strange to call the festival the largest in Canada, but it’s through the hard work of Wilson and the arts community in Calgary to make it so. Wilson doesn’t deal in hyperbolic statements– she knows that Calgary has the potential to become a great arts capital of Canada. She’s been saying that ever since she first started CISWF back in 2003.

“I said from the first festival that Calgary is the poetry epicentre in North America,” Wilson says forcefully. “Everyone was laughing– but it has become that. One of my teachers said to me, ‘Fake it’ ’til you make it,’ so I’ve always faked it until I maked it. It has become what I said it was to become. There’s an amazing experimental poetry community here in Calgary already and now it’s also a hub of spoken word. We have everything here.”

Wilson wants nay-sayers to note that she feels that, in time, we’ll be agreeing with her assessment of Calgary’s burgeoning arts scene.

“Mark my words,” she adds. “Calgary is going to be noted for its culture.”

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