VERSefest 2017: Eclectic mix is driving poetry festival’s success

VERSefest festival director Monty Reid at a 2016 event. Photo: Pearl Pirie

Here’s something that’s much more than a rhyming couplet.

VERSefest’s seventh edition runs from March 21 until March 26 and it will bring a boatload of poets from across Canada and the United States and Europe to the capital.

When it started in 2010, a few hundred hardy souls showed up. Now, organizers expect houses packed by fans of the form.

“Seven years ago, we were thrilled to have a couple hundred people show up,” said Vivian Vavassis, the fest’s communications director. “Now we’re getting audiences of 1,600 with shows often standing-room only.”

She says she believes the strength of the festival is the diversity it offers.

“People come to our shows and they’re surprised by what they find: we have experimental poets, sound poets, lyrical poets, concrete/visual poets, and traditions like haiku.

“Our readings have incorporated music, dance, and multimedia. We have political poets, intimate poets, and humorous poets – sometimes they’re the same poet.

“By being able to expose audiences to much more than just a rhyming quatrain, our audiences often show up for a particular poet and then are surprised to discover a new favourite. And so they return. And they bring friends. Word of mouth has been incredibly kind to us,” she wrote in response to emailed questions from Artsfile.

“Attention spans are shorter nowadays. And poetry can certainly capitalize on that. The reader or listener gets an enormous return from just a few lines. And while form is inherent in so much if not all of the good poetry we hear, many of the best poems are subverting the forms they take on.

“Poetry gets interesting when it fights the constraints of form, pushing against it it even as it works within it.”

This year’s edition starts with an appearance by Acadian poet, musician, and filmmaker Zachary Richard. Also on opening night you’ll hear some social commentary from Stephen Collis and Carolyn Smart. American spoken word artist Carlos Gómez the first night.

Also coming are World Poetry Slam Champion Amélie Prévost, and and some heavy metal verse featuring Rhizome.

Prominent Canadians will certainly be present with bill bissett and Governor General Award winner Steven Heighton attending. (Watch for an upcoming Artsfile interview with Heighton). And then there’s some local talent such as Sandra Ridley and Barâa Arar.

Poets are coming from Denmark, Spain, Ireland, the Czech Republic, and the United States. Prominent American poet and activist Mark Doty is among the latter delegation.

The festival will also feature an exploration of haiku. The Japanese art has become an internet phenomenon.

Pearl Pirie, another festival organizer says, haiku is perfect for a world in which millions of people speak 140 character bites on Twitter.

“Because it is small, it is thought to be easy to write. The fewer the syllables, the less leeway one has for sloppy word choice. Haiku has spun off into many new forms so there’s something for everyone to own. To name a few, scifaiku, jew’ku, or myku (myku where you make it short and disregard any rules for content, form, contrast, or relation to historical examples).

“Haiku, as a form, has also coincided with various movements in Canadian and American society. In the 1910s when people were looking for exotic exchanges, Japan’s aesthetic in arts inspired Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings. … Then and now there were a lot of streams, including surrealist haiku and gendai for political bent, and the verifying five-seven-five syllables of philosophical statements.

“Haiku’s nature of being minimalist, aware, calm, and nature-oriented gives people a route for expression. It jives wth the health food industry and … yoga, Pirie says.

Finally the fest will celebrate the return of a Poet Laureate for the city of Ottawa. Actually there will be two laureates announced; one English and one French.

Getting to this point was a bit of a journey, explained Rod Pederson, president emeritus of VERSefest.

City council had agreed to re-establish the Ottawa Poet Laureate Program in 2014 with an annual budget of $25,000. But it didn’t happen, he said, prompting poets to descended on City Hall.

Eventually it was agreed that VERSe Ottawa would run the program which would feature two laureates who will serve a term of two years. The annual budget of $25,000 will run the program with each laureate getting a $5,000 honorarium, .

For more information about VERSefest tickets, events and locations, please see


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.