Bringing poetry back to the people

Festival organizers want to strip away poetry’s stereotypes


1st Annual People's Poetry Festival
Friday, August 19 Sunday, August 21

More in: Literary

People respond to poetry in different ways. For some, poetry is exciting and beautiful. For others, it’s an academic exercise for the elite, boring and lame. Some still think poetry is something of interest only to a very exclusive subset of the population.

Yet, the inaugural People’s Poetry Festival, starting Friday, August 19 in the Kensington area, could bolster poetry’s reputation, says festival co-ordinator Neshali Weera.

“We’re trying to open it up,” she says. “Showing people that there’s a diversity and a variety of poetry, that there’s something for everyone and there’s also the possibility of them being poets as well.”

The festival will feature a myriad of events examining the breadth of poetry, including writing workshops and poetry readings. A number of “do-it-yourself” booths will be set up along Kensington Road, encouraging passersby to try penning a sonnet or haiku. One booth will feature two typewriters, and pedestrians can bang out a poem and put it up on a public display or take it home.

There will also be reading stations designed to look like a living room. Poetry is not just about writing, but reading as well, says Weera. These stations will feature a selection of poetry books so that anyone can sit on a couch and read.

The festival has even made its way to The Mustard Seed, where organizers have worked with the Seed’s clients to help them create poetry. Those poems will be made into visual art pieces, which in turn will be part of a multitude of exhibits between the buildings throughout the neighbourhood.

“I wanted to make it look like an art gallery hall,” Weera says. “So people can walk through and experience it that way. And I also thought it would be kind of cool to have these pieces in spaces that aren’t usually used in this way.”

One part of the festival that Weera is particularly excited about are the “poetry walks” — a kind of guided tour leading participants to several stations throughout the community where they can experience poetry in a multitude of forms. At one station, visual artists and poets will be collaborating, bouncing ideas off one another, creating art pieces and poems that are closely linked. The poetry walks also give people the chance to contribute to the creation process. For example, they can write comments or mini-poems on sticky notes and leave them at a station.

“We’re trying to really get rid of this idea that poetry is something you listen to by someone who is published or known, and it’s just a one-way interaction,” says Weera. “We want to show everyone that it can inspire you as well. It doesn’t have to be just that person, it can be something you can engage in.”

This year marks the first of what Weera hopes will become an annual festival, expanding with each passing year.

When asked why she loves poetry, Weera pauses, smiles and says, “I just do.” Then she adds, “Personally, I can’t do it, and so I appreciate good poetry where they’re expressing something in a way that I couldn’t.... I love just hearing it and reading it because it’s giving me a perspective that I don’t have.”

One of the most moving experiences she encountered with poetry happened in Edmonton. A local poet in that city, who frequently writes about her experience as a new Canadian, held a reading that Weera felt a strong connection to. “It was general and specific in a way that I understood it, but it wasn’t my story,” she says. “I think poetry is able to do that, where it doesn’t have to be your specific story, but they describe it in such a way that it is your story.”

It’s the way poetry can draw people together that makes Weera so passionate about sharing it with as many people as possible.

“It doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of your life, but just to be exposed to it, I think, brings something to your life,” she says. “It certainly brings something to mine.”


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