Did the people who had never been to a Voices of Venus show have any idea what they were in for? Did the people who had never been to a blUe mOnday show have any idea what they were in for?
If not, that's exactly what I had been hoping for VERSeFest: that I would look around and see someone in the audience being exposed to something entirely new. Although, I have to say that even I can't remember ever having been to a poetry show before where not one, but two of the performers removed clothing . . . but that's another story.
Wednesday night was sort of a girls night at VERSeFest - Voices of Venus, of course, is the city's only women-only open mike & series, and the University of Ottawa's blUe mOnday series, who hosted the second of the evening's events, featured Sandra Ridley and Christine McNair. Voices of Venus hosted an open mike (all erotica and all signed up in advance) and then a sexy set by Beth Anne Fischer, a new and very welcome addition to Ottawa's spoken word scene. She started out the set with a piece accompanied by a lovely flamenco guitar that made the whole poem seem somehow sun-dappled and sultry, encouraged the audience to get loud, did poems that were funny and funky and hot (check one of them out here), gave out chocolate, and wrapped up the set with a polished, fun, really well-choreographed... burlesque routine. Yup, she did a striptease, tassels and all, to Michael Buble's rendition of "Fever." There's a gorgeous picture, snapped by Charles Earl, here.
I've got to say the open mike was pretty stellar as well - the whole set damn near stolen by Luna Allison's theatrical, vulnerable, hypnotic piece, more dramatic monologue than straight up poetry performance. (See? Boundaries and borders getting shoved around all over the place!) But the other performances were also strong: Allison Armstrong's "All Woman" and Emily Kwissa's love poem to anger being standouts for me.
Going from the Voices of Venus show to the blUe mOnday was a brain-expander for me. The crossover that was going on between the different series was made obvious when the host, after their open mike, said something (possibly a bit too self-disparaging) like, "That was a really good open mike. I've seen a lot of those performers as features at other shows. Usually our open mikes are, well, they're kinda different. You know. And usually our open mikes aren't so . . . slam."
"Spoken word!" someone yelled from the audience, "there's no competition here!" (She meant that "slam" is a kind of poetry show which involves a competition, although it's frequently conflated with the style of poetry that most often makes it onto the stage at a slam. That terminology, and all the discussion that goes with it, and all of that stuff about poetry categorization, is getting clawed to the surface at VERSeFest, which is something else I'm happy about.)
"Well, you know what I mean," he said, kind of defensively. "Just - our open mike isn't exactly like that." Meaning, I assume, that their open mike has more people reading their work off pages, and probably more new poets. (I don't know, haven't been, should go.)
But what turned out to be the brain expander for me was listening to Christine McNair and Sandra Ridley, while being aware of the 'spoken word' people in the audience. Christine and Sandra are probably/would probably identify as (not that I want to run around slapping categories on people) 'page' poets. But as I listened to their readings, I started hearing how some of the wordplay is the same. Repetition to create a rhythm and to punctuate. Breaking or twisting a word in the middle to bring extra meaning out of it or to make it sing. 'Team pieces," even, since the two poets joined forces a couple of times to read certain sections of their poems in counterpoint. They both break syntax and juxtapose unlikely ideas and words, allow images and ideas to be suggested at rather than given, and put the listener in the place of building her own linkages and relationships to the poems, but (especially with the open mike bridging between their work and Beth Anne's spoken word) I couldn't help but feel a strong sense of continuity.
Both Christine and Sandra set a whole different rhythm to the night. Quieter, yes: from poems designed to get a round of applause at the end we had moved to a sense of sequence, a sense that it was okay not to clap (although people did, sometimes, for some poems.) It felt we were listening on a longer timeframe (and in fact, Sandra only read two long poems, both of which gave us - and her - time to stretch out and relax into their flow: a meditative way to wrap up the night.