“Poetry is meant to be read out loud,” says John Akpata, a spoken word poet who was chosen for VERSeFest’s Hall of Honours this year, along with Anthony Bansfield, the founder of Ottawa’s Golden Star Lounge spoken word poetry series.
Both are set to be honoured this Sunday, March 29, at 7 pm in a special VERSeFest event, which will see both artists perform their work.
Akpata was introduced to spoken word performances when he was a student at Carleton University. Since then he’s had a successful career as a poet, spoken word performer and musician, releasing five albums and touring internationally. He also hosts a spoken word radio show, Monday Night Scribes, on CHUO 81.9 FM.
“I was able to meet a lot of artists, writers, poets, and performers very quickly (after graduating),” says Akpata. “CBC had a thing called the poetry face-off, and I was able to participate in that and win for Ottawa (in 2004), and through that I was broadcast on the radio.”
Akpata’s poetry explores themes of identity, confrontation, politics, love and travel. He says that as a musician, performing spoken word was a natural transition for him.
“I feel comfortable onstage . . . I like being able to work with other performers, musicians, and the live medium of the performance onstage is thrilling. It’s a lot of fun.”
Akpata met Bansfield when he began performing at the Golden Star Lounge. At the time, Bansfield was already established in the spoken word community, having worked with other poets from across the country to put out CDs and start up poetry shows in Ottawa.
“Anthony is like a trailblazer, and he’s a good friend to have,” Akpata says. “He’s someone who had gone the path before me, and then when we met up, he was able to open doors and share a lot of stuff with me, and with other people too.”
Bansfield says his own influences when he started performing were spoken word poets such as Lillian Allen, as well as the reggae and hip hop music he would play on his own radio show.
“I always liked the idea of breaking boundaries,” he says. “You could have spoken word poetry on a hip hop show, and then at a spoken word poetry show you could rap. So I was open to see that there might be some breakdown of those barriers, and I think some of the early work I did was like that, but it was also just for the pure fun of it.”
In the early 2000s, Bansfield was working with other spoken word poets, including El James, who was recently named poet laureate of Halifax, and started putting together shows in Ottawa.
“People hadn’t seen that type of poetry, that slam poetry style . . . it just blew people away,” he says. “We started up . . . Golden Star Lounge, and we were bringing people from across the country, and from the States as well. And what happened, I think, was that people saw a degree of quality, of possibility of style and content that they hadn’t been exposed to before.
“I think that was a really good time in Ottawa, people were really moving together, the musicians and the artists and the DJs and hip hop crews and the poetry people, you know, for people who love live music, it was a good time in Ottawa.
“When we started the Golden Start Lounge, (Akpata) came out and performed some pieces he’d written. We’d known each other for a little bit before that, I knew he did some brilliant photography, he’s a multi-talented guy . . . and then (he was) blossoming as a spoken word poet. I could see he had it, he had that love and passion for doing it.”
For the performance this coming Sunday, Bansfield says his show will likely be a mix of old and new works.
“I have poems that cover a lot of different themes,” he says. “I think some are political and ask questions, some of them are observations on everyday issues, some of them are romantic . . . some are very personal, so it’s a range of poetry. As someone with an African-Canadian background growing up in Canada, I think some of the stories I have about that experience have resonated with people.”
Bansfield says VERSeFest has a great line-up this year, and that he wants to see El Jones, Lillian Allen, Komi, and Artemysia.
For his part, Akpata says he’s especially looking forward to seeing the all-female spoken word showcase Fire and Ice, who will be performing on Saturday, March 28 at 4:30 pm at Pressed Cafe (750 Gladstone).
“There’s not enough females doing spoken word, and there’s not enough female performers,” he says. “So like, me, as a man, quite often I like to go and just sit down and shut up and listen to female voices. Because even for myself on the radio, I’d say about 20 per cent of the spoken word CDs that I have are female, and it’s just guy after guy after dude after man. So that showcase is pretty important.”