Ottawa’s poetry karaoke night is a lyric entreprise

Daniel Toth has mixed poetry with karaoke and created something new in Ottawa. Photo: Alicia Wachon

By Karen-Luz Sison

It was standing-room only at Chinatown’s Bar Robo as locals came together recently for a new kind of karaoke show: POEKA Night.

POEKA, otherwise known as poetry karaoke, is a novel way for Ottawa poetry enthusiasts to share their favourite works. The main rule: no original poems allowed. Each volunteer performer has to read poems written by established authors from any genre.

POEKA organizer Daniel (aka Colo) Toth said the idea for the event came from his own experience with the poetry scene in his native Saskatoon. He used run poetry variety nights with a local collective, Tonight It’s Poetry, and poetry karaoke readings were part of the show.

“The idea’s been around, but I’ve never been anywhere where (poetry karaoke) was actually its own show,” Toth said. “So, the kind of new concept I had, was to take the idea and make just a specifically poetry karaoke show, with no other options, no featured poet. Because I’m not paying anybody to perform, I can keep the show free and accessible to everybody.”

POEKA had its second Ottawa show early in March, with participants including newcomers to performance poetry and experienced slam poets.

The show was conceived as a non-competitive performance space, said Toth. He added that POEKA aims to be a “poetry show after-party” with more of a relaxed atmosphere than other poetry events, such as open mics and slam competitions.

“Nothing’s on the line because you’re not doing your own stuff,” said Toth. “So, if you mess up your poem, no one cares. It’s just like karaoke. If you miss a line, drop the lyrics, everyone will just cheer you on and have a laugh.”

He said he’s met attendees who tell him they were too intimidated to go to a poetry show until coming to POEKA.

“If you’ve memorized your own poem and you’ve put out all your sweat and tears into it for months, and then you go to perform it and you drop a line or you forget your poem, it’s really daunting,” he said.

Panos Argyropoulos, co-director of Ottawa poetry collective Urban Legends, attended the first POEKA event held at Bar Robo in January. He said he appreciates how the audience is “much more engaged” with the poetry.

“It’s a celebration of poetry as opposed to anything else,” he said. “And it’s specifically poetry, which is, I would say, unique and also it allows for an audience that appreciates poetry and is there for poetry.”

The latest POEKA show featured works from a variety of genres, with readings of works by lesser-known slam poems along with well-known traditional poems, such as Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman and Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.

Argyropoulos compared POEKA to open mic nights for music.

“POEKA is an incredible experience,” said Argyropoulos. “You can write songs, but there’s always those hits that you absolutely love, and that’s why karaoke is so much fun. And that’s why covers are so much fun, because you kind of get to put your own flair on something that’s well-known.”

Toth’s plan for POEKA is a keep it at Bar Robo and hold shows every two to three months. The venue, he said, has been very supportive of the idea.

“I’m just really happy that something like this exists,” said Argyropoulos. “I think that there needs to be more poetry in the city, and I just like the idea that this is something new, this is something different.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University

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