Tucked away in a corner amid the hustle and bustle of Continental Coffee, two of Vancouver’s most successful spoken word poets joke about what type of food best represents their poetry. Jillian Christmas settles on upside-down pineapple cake. “Grapefruit juice,” answers Chris Gilpin, “because it’s delicious but bitter.” Both Christmas and Gilpin are co-directors of the upcoming Verses Festival of Words, an annual “smorgasbord of all things word,” now about to celebrate its fourth year.
“[The festival] started as something that was in the Vancouver Poetry House mission statement. It says that there will be the creation of a yearly festival,” Gilpin explains, “so it was a long time coming.” Previous festivals included the Festival of Spoken Word in 2005 and the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2007—the natural culmination of these events resulted in Vancouver’s own ongoing festival.
“I thought it was a really important thing to have on Commercial Drive,” says Gilpin. “There’s a writers festival that’s fantastic that happens on Granville Island each year, but I thought it would be great for East Vancouver to have its own festival. [It’s] a chance for us to figure out what it means to be a writer in the 21st-century, in a time when things are changing a great deal in the publishing industry. I feel like a lot of the definitions for what it means to be a writer are outdated.”
Gilpin’s involvement with the festival goes back to its very beginnings, having been on the organizing committee for all four years. For Christmas, the festival holds a special significance.
“I was new to the city and kind of lonely, not knowing how to tap into the poetry community here,” says Christmas. “And then the festival happened and all of these friends and poets that I knew from all across Canada came and congregated in the city and it made me feel very at home. I felt that the festival played a very big part in my feeling welcome in Vancouver.”
Formerly known as the Vancouver International Poetry Festival, the festival underwent a rebranding last year to its current moniker. “It’s more inclusive,” says Christmas. “We were already doing things like storytelling in the festival, but we were still calling it a poetry festival,” says Gilpin. “It made more sense to rename it something that reflected the wide variety of writers we had at the festival.”
This year’s Verses is bigger and better than it has ever been, with over 34 events (compared to last year’s 24) including visual installations, workshops, book launches, musical collaborations, and the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam, which will bring the best poets from all across Canada to compete for the title of Canada’s best individual slam poet.
“We’ve really tried to focus a lot on community oriented events,” explains Christmas. “We’ve invited four different community stages this year. We have a series called Talk the Talk which is focussed on community conversation around anti-oppression work and that’s definitely something that has expanded this year.”
With all these amazing events, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I ask Gilpin and Christmas for their must-see shows out of the eight days of the festival.
“I’m just excited for April 6,” Gilpin explains. “On that day, we have three shows at Astorino’s and they’re just incredible. It starts with Shut the Front Door! which is a show that is a mix of really writerly comedians and really funny poets together. The next show is C.R. Avery’s book launch, it’s a brand new show he’s creating from scratch. There’s going to be music, video, dancers, and lots of surprises. We probably don’t even know what’s going to happen. Last is Jangle and Shout, which is a show featuring some of East Vancouver’s best writers and musicians, or writers who are musicians.”
Christmas recommends Sounds Like Fire on April 7, featuring Robert Lashley, Magpie Ulysses, and James Lamb, and d’bi young. “It’s going to be a very eclectic show,” Christmas says with a grin. “All of those people are such powerhouses that I don’t think anyone is going to leave that show disappointed.”
Whether you go to one show or all of them, each event is sure to be an eclectic and unique experience. With a new name, wider variety of shows, and more events than ever before, this year’s Verses Festival of Words is shaping up to be the best yet!
Verses Festival of Words runs from April 5 until 12, with events happening on and around Commercial Drive in Vancouver. More information can be found at versesfestival.ca