VERSeFest, Ottawa’s annual poetry festival, will take place from March 25-30. In advance of this literary celebration, we spoke with acclaimed local poet David O’Meara, who is also the artistic director of the festival.
Apartment613: The first VERSeFest took place in 2011. What was the aim of starting this annual poetry gathering, given that Ottawa already has a writers festival?
David O’Meara: Ottawa has a very large, diverse poetry community, with over a dozen reading and performance series organized through the year. Not a week goes by that there aren’t at least three or four events happening at various venues. With such a large audience it seemed natural to create an annual festival with a focus on poetry. The Ottawa Writers Festival has always been hugely supportive of poetry, and they continue to be, but there’s need and room, I think, to give a whole week over to showcase readings and performances of poetry. And the audience is there to prove that.
Apt613: What can people expect from this year’s VERSeFest. Any special recommendations / suggestions?
DO: Where to begin? It’s such an amazing wide range of stuff. We’ll have stunning spoken word events with Lenelle Moise and Moe Clark, exciting new poets like Suzanna Showler, Sarah de Leeuw and Andrew Faulkner. There’s our interdisciplinary music / dance / voice events on Thursday night. We’ve got Liz Lochhead, the current Scots Makar, or Scottish Poet Laureate helping to open the festival. And two must-sees have to be the Capital Slam event (Saturday) with Two Dope Boys in a Cadillac, creators of the world’s first psychedelic talk opera, on the same bill as Irish poets Sarah Clancy and Stephen James Smith, both former champions of the Cuirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam. Then our closing Sunday event has American poets Mary Ruefle and Michael Burkard with Michel Pleu, Canada’s current Poet Laureate with Katherena Vermette, current winner of the Governor General’s Award.
Apt613: Many people don’t realize that the National Capital Region has a fantastic poetry scene. For those who may not be familiar with our local poets, can you describe how active the poetry community is in our region?
DO: I’ve actually heard people say they moved to Ottawa, or decided to attend university here, because of how busy the poetry scene is. Capital Slam, Urban Legends and Artistic Showcase all have vibrant takes and unique energies on the spoken word scene, while The Tree Reading Series shares an open mic with a few featured poets, the A/B Series often concentrates on more experimental and sound poetry, and the student-run In/Words and Blue Mondays readings are great venues for people to give new poems an airing in a supportive, fun setting. What’s also interesting is how the so-called “spoken” and “written” word communities have become more integrated, more willing to share work and pay attention to each other’s strengths. It’s exciting that there are so many series, but they’re all a bit different, and that diversity really gains strength when it all comes together at the festival.
Apt613: Many people who enjoy poems only experience the beauty of poetry through the written page, while never attending a live reading. For such people, what can you say to encourage them to come out and see poets read live?
DO: In many cases, words should be enjoyed on the page in a contemplative setting, but I always find it instructive, entertaining and thought-provoking to hear the poems come alive through the poet’s voice. So much can be gained from intonation, inflection, emphasis, subtlety and passion when a poet reads or performs the lines he or she has carefully organized and crafted. A new tension arises, a new conviction unfolds as a good performer gets behind words in front of an audience. A type of imminence — the idea that something is going to happen or be revealed — stalks the attentive audience. That particular energy is unique to the live performance, and even more so in a festival setting, where poets respond to that particular pressure by bringing their best game.
On the flip side, for those poetry lovers who regular attend readings, and/or who have gone to previous VERSeFests, how does this year’s festival compare to the previous three?
Nothing replaces good poems and dynamic readings of them. That remains our goal and I don’t see one weak event this year. And each festival has a unique flavour brought to it through the diverse confluence of voices. Anyone who has seen Kaie Kellough or Elizabeth Bachinsky or the current Griffin Poetry Award winner, David McFadden, present their work knows they shouldn’t miss them. The very rare chance to hear Mary Ruefle, Sandra Alland, or the Irish poets are reasons for our regular audience members to come out. We have such a great mix of varied events, from the always-interesting Factory Series lectures to the Sisters in Slam Showcase to the screening of Robert McTavish’s “The Line Has Shattered,” a documentary on the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference. Each event will surprise with its own flavour.
VERSeFest is happening from March 25 – 30. Tickets for single events are $10. Day, Evening and Festival passes are also available. Click here for more info or to purchase. Performances take place at Knox Presbyterian Church (120 Lisgar Street) and The Mercury Lounge (56 Byward Market).