VERSefest celebrates 10 poetic years

Gewn Benaway is a featured poet at this year's VERSfest.

A decade ago Ottawa was a different place. No light rail troubles then. Stephen Harper was prime minister and Jim Watson was just elected mayor.

This was also the time that a group of dedicated versifiers started thinking about what is now known as VERSefest.

Starting on March 24 to March 29, the 10th anniversary version of the capital’s international poetry festival will showcase 80 poets in English and French through readings, lectures, workshops, panels, music and film.

These poets are page and spoken word. They hail from seven provinces and six countries.

Among the headliners are the Anishnaabe and Metis poet Gwen Benaway, Colombian poet Angye Goana, champion slam poet Brandon Wint, three time Governor General’s award-winner  Jean Marc Dalpé, Sheree Fitch and Ottawa’s own award winner Ben Ladouceur. 

Festival Director Monty Reid reflected in a media release on the history of the event: “We started with nothing except goodwill, and we’re now one of the biggest poetry events in the country.”

More than 2,000 festival goers are expected to attend events at Knox Presbyterian Church and elsewhere.   

Three people, Rod Pederson, Reid and David O’Meara, were behind the first event in the spring of 2011. The festival is one of the key events hosted by VERSe Ottawa which is a collective of organizations that curate reading and performance series, wrote Vivian Versassis, the communications director of the event.

The first festival featured 31 poets and 1,000 attendees. Over the years, festival organizers estimate some 15,000 people have come to events in what is now one of the biggest poetry festivals in Canada.

The festival’s name honours Ottawa’s bilingual nature (verse / vers), but including French poets took some time to develop. Today about 35 per cent of the festival lineup is francophone.

Over the years in addition to dozens of poets from across Canada, VERSefest has welcomed Australia, Chile, Columbia England, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, and the United States.

Some of the big names include: Philip Levine, Dennis Lee, Anne Compton, Mary Ruefle, Raúl Zurita, Yusef Komunyakaa, George Elliott Clarke, Fred Wah, Jane Munro, William Hawkins, Daphne Marlatt, Lillian Allen, Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Sheri-D Wilson, Nick Laird, Colette Bryce, Afua Cooper, Phil Hall, Sue Goyette, Gwen Benaway, Marilyn Dumont, Herménégilde Chiasson, bill bissett, Nicole Brossard, El Jones and Gary Geddes.

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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.