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Photo from the VerseFest / Capital Slam Facebook event page.

Cathy Petch talks poetry, performing, and Otherness ahead of VerseFest

By Kabriya Coghlan on March 17, 2016

Cathy Petch is one of the poets who will be performing in the Capital Slam event at VerseFest on Friday, March 18. Petch is a woman-of-all-trades: a poet, a theatre performer, a musician, a comedian, and a slam performer. She told Apt613 that she was very pleased to be invited to take part in the festival this year.

Petch was born in Peterborough and grew up in Toronto, but she’s spent lots of time in Ottawa, thanks to her connections in the close-knit slam poetry community. When she was at Trent University, she would hitch hike to Ottawa once a year to visit the National Art Gallery, which she said was a source of artistic inspiration for her.

Creative writing and the arts have been a part of her life since she was very young, Petch explained.

“I was an avid reader as a child. I had a speech impediment, so I was often off in my own little world,” Petch recounted. “So I started writing about my own little worlds at an early age.”

Her speech impediment actually encouraged her to turn to theatre as well, where she discovered her love of performance. “Like so many people who are afraid to speak, I really flourished in doing drama and playing other characters,” Petch explained.

“I always wrote poetry, and then when I got into slam I realized that you can bring theatre and poetry together.”

Petch is also a musician, and she played in bands before eventually deciding that she wanted to incorporate her music into her slam performances. She plays the musical saw and brings it onstage for her features. It’s a unique instrument – an actual, functional saw (she bought her first one from Home Depot) that is played with a bow, similar to a string instrument.

“It’s beautiful, it sounds very much like a human voice,” Petch said. “You have to bend it in a certain way and then there’s sort of a sweet spot that you put your bow over and you just strum it lightly.”

Not all of the poetry that she writes is intended for stage performances, however. Petch explained that with slam poetry, everybody in the audience needs to be able to understand what you’re saying the first time, especially if it’s a competition when you’re being scored. With written poetry, the reader has the opportunity to mull over the words more, and some of the poetry she writes is just meant to be appreciated that way.

A lot of her work explores the idea of “Otherness.”

“As a child, I was very isolated because of my lisp, due to bullying and other things, so…my imagination really had to carry me along,” Petch said. “And also as a child…I very much identified as a boy, but we didn’t have the language for it, so those are the kind of themes I explore.”

Petch will be bringing her new book Unhuman Poems to VerseFest. It’s a collection of poems written in the voices of “everything but humans.”

Her performance at VerseFest will be a bit of a roller coaster, as Petch described it. “I have people laughing and crying and then laughing again,” she said. “I try to take care of my audience, but I do bring them to spaces that might make them uncomfortable. But I’m also very honest about who I am and how I came to be the person that I am.”

Petch said she thinks it’s “amazing” to see the kind of dialogues that are happening now at events like VerseFest.

“You know the worry of the ‘PC (politically correct) world,’ I find kind of hilarious,” she said. “‘Cause it’s actually just, you know, people want to stop feeling oppressed and want to be vocal about it, and you’re calling it PC. Well that’s just you not wanting to change your shit.”

Petch was enthusiastic about the line-up for VerseFest this year, recommending several of the other poets, including Robyn Sarah, Kevin Matthews, King Kimbit, Erin Dingle, Shannon Maguire, West Ryan, and Jamaal Jackson Rogers (JustJamaal ThePoet). Rogers is one of the organizers of Ottawa’s Urban Legends Poetry Slam.

“I remember just seeing him the first time, and I was just blown away by his energy and his spirituality and everything,” she said. “He’s just incredible and really good for the Ottawa scene.”

Cathy Petch will be at Capital Slam at the Knox Presbyterian Church (120 Lisgar St) on Friday, March 18, 2016 at 9pm as part of VerseFest. Evening passes are $15, festival passes are $50 and can be purchased here. VerseFest runs from March 15 – 20, 2016. Click here for a complete schedule of events.