Spoken word dissolves boundaries and celebrates courage

The Calgary Spoken Word Festival slams it up April 1 to 6 with workshops panels launches awards and of course poetry — lots and lots of poetry.

Ottawa-based poet Ikenna “OpenSecret” Onyegbula will perform at the festival April 3 as part of the Smart Men Hot Words event. He has twice been named Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Champion and produces Canada’s national youth poetry festival YouthCanSlam. Perhaps because of his work with youth (he describes them as “deeply intelligent deeply passionate people”) Onyegbula believes that anyone can relate to spoken word.

“Our intelligence our passions our dreams our hopes — all of that is passed through just using our words and everybody can relate to that every human being on this planet” he says.

Governor General’s Literary Award-winning poet Lorna Crozier who will perform as well as teach a workshop at this year’s festival is more of a page poet than a slam artist with over a dozen poetry books to her name but she also values the inherent performance of every poem.

“I think every poem is an oral creation beyond how it appears or how one reads it on the page because poetry is first and foremost in my mind music” she says. “Every time I write a poem from the first draft to the 90th I read it out loud.”

An undercurrent to the 20 events in this year’s festival and the dozens of artists taking part is the daring it takes to be a practising performing poet. (Don’t believe me? Test your mettle at the open mic on April 5.) “It does take a lot of courage to step in front of a lot of people and speak your heart but it’s really rewarding” says Onyegbula

When he first started competing in slams he says people told him he wasn’t very good. He came up against other preconceptions in his career as a spoken word artist too. “I’ve always had to fight against conceptions that other people have or placed on me because I’m African I have a deep bassy voice with an accent…. If I had listened to any of that I wouldn’t be a spoken word artist today I wouldn’t a Canadian champion” he says. An ongoing theme in his work not surprisingly is “the deep strength we have within us to push past some of the obstacles in our lives.”

Even off the stage though choosing to be a poet takes courage. “Poets can’t make a living to save their souls… so we’re all on the edge in a way in that we’ve fallen off the edge of marketability” says Crozier.

And when poets gather at events like this one “it’s like a bunch of endangered animals getting together and seeing each other and admiring one another and liking the different paw prints that are being left in the snow by this strange creature we all want to live with.”

Crozier is hoping to shock her audience a little this year — for the Edgy Women Ignite the Night event on April 4 she’ll share some erotic poems which she finds receive an even stronger reaction now that she’s of grandmother age. “I think poetry tracks the human heart and the human soul but also the human body through its many phases” she says.

This will be Onyegbula’s first time appearing at the Calgary Spoken Word Festival but he’s looking forward to taking part. “It’s one of the premier spoken word festival in this country hands down” he says. Crozier is similarly glad to be part it saying “It’s lovely to be in a place at a festival that so honours poetry.”


It’s okay if you’ve never heard of Gerald Thurston — all the more reason to attend the Calgary Spoken Word Festival’s tribute to him on April 2. For the past 40 years Thurston “brought change to Calgary in a very humble and rumbling way and nobody says much about him and yet everybody was affected by him” according to artistic director Sheri-D Wilson. “He talks about how we need to bring people together and how art can be everywhere; it’s doesn’t have to live on a proscenium.”

That commitment to community is proven by the range of artists involved in the tribute: Alberta College of Art and Design’s Wayne Baerwaldt; former Wordfest director Anne Green; Michael Green of the High Performance Rodeo; ProArts’ Damon Johnston; visual artist Eric Moschopedis; and Wilson herself. “Some people will roast him and some people will cry and say meaningful things. It will be like a funeral only he’s still alive” says Wilson with a laugh.

She adds that it’s worth attending the tribute just to hear Thurston speak. “The things he would say just off the top of his head will make you ponder and think for the next three months” she says. “I love characters and he’s a character.”

The tribute takes place April 2 at noon at the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer.