As the country celebrates National Poetry Month, Calgary’s streets will ring with a wild diversity of poetic voices. The sixth annual Calgary International Spoken Word Festival, under the expert guidance of the Mama of Dada, Sheri-D Wilson, bursts into April with over 35 artists in a dozen events. Between storyteller Ivan E. Coyote, slam sensation Shane Koyczan, the slamming beats of Kinnie Starr, the carefree hip hop of Dragonfli Empire, the exquisite visual poetics of derek beaulieu and a host of other talented wordsmiths, there’s quite literally something for everyone’s taste.
Every year, the festival’s most explosive event is the aptly titled Big Bang Poetry and Music, and this year includes Juno Award-winning dub poet Lillian Allen, John Giorno (founder of Giorno Poetry Systems and inventor of Dial-a-Poem), Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace and reggae singer and Rastafarian priest Ras Michael.
Allen, a Jamaican-born, Toronto-based poet, is credited as one of the originators of dub poetry, a form based in reggae culture. “It’s a kind of eclectic, energized, politically charged poetry,” she says. “The whole idea of dub is a remixing of different elements, reaching back into history and forward into new possibilities. It’s your spirituality, your religion, your church. It’s your way out of the three-dimensional reality we’re supposed to believe in — a way to assert that life has more than four or five dimensions.”
At Big Bang, Allen will perform with musician Jarret Prescott, who acts as a dub mixer. “It’s almost like a DJing approach,” says Allen. “He mixes music tracks with my voice, combining the esthetic of dub music with dub poetry, fusing them together to create a new sound.”
After her Calgary appearance, Allen will head to The Banff Centre as a faculty member of its spoken word program, where 16 students will hone the craft. “It’s a place to experiment,” says Allen. “In this digital age, people should think about how best to get their work out there, with Internet and video.”
Before the digital age, Giorno was a poetic pioneer of the analogue world. In the 1960s, as he worked alongside artistic visionaries like William Burroughs, Patti Smith, John Cage, Laurie Anderson and Andy Warhol (he was the subject of Warhol’s film Sleep), Giorno was famously quoted as saying that poetry was 75 years behind the other art forms. He set out to remedy the time lapse.
“In the early ’60s, in New York, there were a lot of artists,” says Giorno. “Not famous, just artists: painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers. I have no idea how it happened, it was coincidental or cosmic. Like, Phil Glass and I are exactly the same age, and we just happened to go to the same school. These pop artists, Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg and everyone, were a great inspiration. Any great idea that came to their minds, they did without apology. That’s what gave rise to the idea that the book or magazine weren’t essential, that there were other ways for a poem to connect to an audience.”
In 1965, he founded Giorno Poetry Systems with the goal of connecting poetry to a larger audience using innovative ideas and communication technology. He started by recording poetry onto LPs. “We would send 500 or whatever across the country to college radio stations, and they would play them like rock albums,” says Giorno. His most famous project, Dial-a-Poem, put recorded poems on an answering machine and allowed the general public to call in and listen. People responded in the millions.
Forty years later, Giorno believes that the poetry world has more than broached the 75-year gap. “Poetry is leaps and bounds ahead of everyone,” he says. “We are in a golden age of poetry, such as has never existed in the history of the world. With rap, and hip hop and the great common factor of the Internet, poetry is everywhere, all the time, in a miraculous way.”
In addition to his performance in Big Bang, Giorno will participate in an informal conversation about his life and work, and facilitate a poetry workshop. “I’m a poet, I’m a Buddhist, and I’m happy to talk about it,” he says. “I think, as an artist, when thoughts come to your mind, you’ve developed a certain muscle that lets you see them clearly instead of letting them vanish or dissolve. That’s what a poem is, or a sculpture or a painting or a dance: they’re wisdom manifest.”
Ras Michael is a veritable repository for wisdom. As a musician, he has released more than 30 reggae albums and collaborated with some of the world’s most legendary musical artists, including Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. He’s also a Rastafarian priest, a Nyabinghi specialist and an evangelist, ambassador and diplomat for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahido Church.
Nyabinghi, named after a spirit goddess, is a form of Rasta music closely related to reggae. “The drum is the first instrument,” says Ras Michael, “before any other instrument, before winds or anything. We break the music down to pure drums. It’s a spiritual thing, an inspirational thing. It’s an experience.”
For Ras Michael, his art and spirituality are inseparable. “It’s syncopation,” he says. “The vibration goes right in the soul, and it redeems. We become one within the spirit of it. All people, all nations, all colours. The whole world is a garden, and all the people are its flowers. We beautify this garden with our different colours.”
At Big Bang, Ras Michael will perform with a special Calgary version of the Sons of Negus, a mix of local and international musicians. He will also join forces with local drumming sensation Bambalamb! to lead a drum circle, open to drummers and dancers alike. If you don’t have a drum, you can rent one for $10.
“Spoken word has allowed generations of people to take up the word,” says Allen. “You don’t have to have a nervous breakdown, trying to write a poem that sounds like Shakespeare. You don’t have to wait for a publishing chain and 10 editors to decide if it’s worthy of an audience. There’s a democratization of poetry that has happened. Culture is in the hands of the people, as opposed to in the hands of the few and sprinkled over the people.
“Sure, you can pick up a book, sit beside a fireplace and sip a nice glass of wine,” says Allen. “You can do that with spoken word, but it’s best realized in community, where energy is transmitted and transmuted to groups of people through the body language of its creator.”