- Outskirts to Mainstream?: Performance Poetry on the Move
Montreal, circa 1999: a large manila envelope from the Canada Council for the Arts was wedged into the cramped mailbox of the old lopsided apartment building I lived in. I read it as I climbed the four rickety flights of stairs to my door and was surprised to learn about a new program called Spoken and Electronic Words created to fund artistic projects by performance poets. Successful applicants received money to create and produce work and kept profits from product sales. Preposterous, I thought. Shortly thereafter I conceived a project, submitted my first arts grant application and two years later launched my first performance poetry album with the grant I received. Since the funding program’s inception many performance [End Page 76] poets have become proficient grant writers, sat on arts council juries, developed relationships with grant officers, and learned to pitch projects that meet multiple guideline criteria in language that resonates with jurors.
Over the past decade, performance poets in Canada have increasingly been interviewed by scholars, critics, and artists working on theses, dissertations, magazine articles, and documentary films. We have been asked to track our journeys, define our work, and state our influences. Many of us who are not white are almost always asked to pinpoint what makes our work representative of whichever cultural signifier peaks the interviewer’s interest. Then these interviewers usually collapse our poetry into musings on identity shaped to illuminate the challenge of the said segment of Canadian society. Our hetero, homo, trans, and queer white female and white male colleagues of various classes do not seem to be asked as often to fit into these dominant constructions of Canadian multiculturalism and nationalism. Many of us have also noticed a dearth of substantive analysis of our work. Performance poet Kaie Kellough recently observed,
They [academics and media critics] aren’t aware of the forms and concerns that we engage, they are oblivious to many of the references we make, and in general, there is a lack of knowledge of the context within which our work should be situated. They don’t know anything about poetry performance by Canadian artists of color. What this means is that they cannot engage our work in any profound way. They don’t know how to think about our work, and instead of acquiring the tools to discuss it properly, they gloss it over, ignore it, or worse, dismiss it outright. We may be mentioned, but what we are doing is not explored. The same intelligence and attention to detail that we bring to our creative process is not applied to our work by academics or critics.(Kellough)
It is an exciting and tumultuous time for spoken word, dub poetry, and rap poetry in Canada as these three forms of performance poetry become further entrenched in the epistemological nerve centres of academia and public arts funding. For the past fourteen years that I have worked as a performance poet in Canada and beyond I have witnessed the performance poetry pendulum begin to swing from the outskirts to the mainstream—assuming of course that academic inquiry and public funding are signs of the mainstream and not elements of yet another fringe.
Prior to the arrival of the manila envelope that fateful day I created and performed poetry with little attention to how to define or reproduce it. The seduction of possible public funds and the attached project eligibility guidelines shaped the cultural product of my subsequent work and arguably that of many other practitioners. The new grant program was launched within the Canada Council’s Writing and Publishing Section, which also had grant programs for Literary Readings and book publishers. This pairing forced the Canada Council...