INTER-VERSES #1: Chris Gilpin
Chris Gilpin, Co-Director of the Verses Festival of Words is interviewed by Miguel Burr.
Love it or hate it, humans have communicated complex thoughts and emotions through poetry since the dawn of language. Poesy is that ephemeral quality that makes words sweet or sharp, light or heavy. This quest for expression has lured scribes into the poet’s life since Sappho spit verse to get up under Anactoria’s sopping wet toga on the beaches of Lesbos. And if you drop by Commerical Drive’s Café Deux Soleil on any given Monday night, you’ll see that in three thousand years, not much has changed.
I’ve been flirting with Vancouver’s poetry scene since I first hit town in 2006. I’d dabbled at open mics in South Korea where I was an expat for years, and later in San Jose, California, where I read at the same slams as Mike McGee—although to a much less dazzling effect. Regardless of my lack of high-scoring ability, I was hooked. I soon found myself stepping up to the mic at Van Slam. There I was soundly beaten by the likes of Jillian Christmas, Lisa Slater, Zaccheus Jackson, Johnny McRae, Duncan Shields, and pretty much everyone else, including Chris Gilpin, at one time or another. To this day I remain humbled…
All this adds up to the reason why I leapt at the opportunity to pursue another one of my literary passions: interviewing. This Q&A with Chris Gilpin (the organizer) is the first lead-up to April 2013’s Verses Festival of Words, the freshly rebranded title of what was once Vancouver’s International Poetry Festival. In future installments of this interview column, I plan to pursue answers to many of the confounding mysteries surrounding the poets bound for Verses’ stage. Who? Why? What? Where? And most importantly… How?
This first installment of Inter-Verses begins in a quiet booth at the back of Zawa, at the north end of the Drive, with Chris explaining to me the changes he and his organizing team have made so far…
Chris Gilpin: We’re calling it ‘The Verses Festival of Words’… we just renamed it.
MB: Why did you rename it?
CG: It used to be called the Vancouver International Poetry Festival for its first two years. And then what we realized is that we were doing a lot of things that were outside people’s conventional definitions of ‘Poetry’, and we realized that people really enjoy going to those things so long as they don’t realize that what they’re watching is poetry. The perfect example is Leonard Cohen tonight. I would say that there are going to be 10,000 people there easily.
MB: Is it at Rogers [Arena]?
CG: At Rogers, and I would say they’re going to a poetry show. He sings, but…
MB: He’s a poet.
CG: And there’s some music, but…
MB: I don’t think you even have to debate that…
CG: Yeah, but if you told them they were going to a poetry show tonight, I think they would be surprised. That’s not what the audience thinks they’re going to.
MB: Are you saying that there’s a stigma on poetry?
CG: Yes. Definitely. Especially… I really admire the PUSH Festival in town. I think they’ve done some amazing things. But I think that one of the most amazing things they did was with their branding. They call themselves the PUSH Festival, which sounds great. Interesting. Sexy. Edgy. They did not call themselves the International Experimental Theatre Festival… which is actually what they are. If they called themselves that, no one would go.
“Dude, wanna go see International Experimental Theatre?”
“I don’t know…”
MB: They’d think it was something like a Czech blacklight theatre piece or something like that… which I really like.
CG: (laughs) Thinking about that, we had the same revelation that is, if we present these amazing poetic creations, things that are maybe on the edges of poetry, but definitely with a nod to the literary tradition as well, but we don’t label them as poetry, we can really get people excited about it.
MB: You guys are refining the marketing approach…
CG: Definitely, we’ve looked things over, learned from the last two years and said, ‘Let’s present this in a different way.”
MB: And what kind of people do you expect to see that weren’t there before?
CG: I think what we’re hoping from the name-change and the re-branding we’ll actually reach a broader audience. Right now our audience is a very young audience, which is great, because it’s very vibrant and lively. But we definitely want to reach past just people who are interested… who are Spoken Word enthusiasts and live in East Vancouver. We want to reach people, who could be all kinds of people who are interested in words. The kind of people who might even go to the Writers Fest.
MB: Okay, so maybe more of the mainstream Vancouver literary culture… who’s confirmed in the way of artists?
CG: Well we haven’t announced anyone yet… but…
MB: Any sneak-peaks here?
CG: Yeah, I can give you a scoop. It does look like we have Beau Sia confirmed for sure.
MB: Sounds familiar…
CG: I’m very excited about having him. Beau Sia is a guy who really made his name here in 1996 by being part of this movie called Slam Nation which was internationally distributed. It’s the journey of him on the Nuyorican Slam Team going to one of the very first national poetry slams. And his team loses to Taylor Mali’s team actually. But you get to see the journey of this poet, this young guy who lives in New York, who decides he’s going to write the craziest, loudest, fastest rants and present them at poetry slams… he really gets back into the punk tradition of spoken word. ‘Cause the last reincarnation of spoken word really comes from punk artists like Patti Smith, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, people like this who got tired of playing their three-chord songs and decided, “Well, you know, I’m just going to stand up here and rant for a while…”
MB: Right, that’s kind of the transition from poetry to spoken word. And who’s that Englishman… a really funny guy… I know you know who he is…
CG: John Cooper Clarke?
CG: I’m obsessed with John Cooper Clarke. We’re working really hard to bring him over this year.
MB: I noticed he’s still alive.
CG: He’s doing really well. He’s been rediscovered in England. He’s booked solid all over England. He’s doing the biggest literary festivals in England right now.
MB: He’s a kind of a Shane MacGowan, crusty-survivor…
CG: Yeah, absolutely. That’s really where he’s at. And still incredibly sharp and he’s fascinating to me because here’s a guy who… Joy Division used to open for him at shows. He came out of that whole Manchester scene in the late ‘70’s and he became massively influential in the spoken word community, fairly accepted in the poetry establishment in Britain, only within about the last ten years, but also massively influential in the British stand-up comedy scene. Every stand-up comic in Britain could tell you who John Cooper Clarke is…
MB: He manifested in various scenes…
CG: Yeah, and that’s what I love most about some of the best spoken word artists is they’re mixing it up, they’re drawing not just from their Norton Anthology of English Poetry, they’re also drawing influences from hip-hop or stand-up comedy or something else…
MB: Those almost seem to blend quite often… but back to Beau Sia…is it a ‘comeback’ for him?
CG: In a way, yes. He’s been around, doing shows for a long time, but he just released a new book for the first time in thirteen years. His new book is called The Undisputed Greatest Writer of All Time. It came out on Write Bloody Press, which is publishing all the best spoken word authors and having the sudden realization that their poems look really great on the page too. So he came out with a new book, he’s starting a new tour, he’s also kind of going through a life transformation right now, which he talks about on stage, so I can talk about that too, which is that he went through a very serious car accident last year.
MB: I wonder if it’s changed his writing perspective.
CG: I’m sure… how could it not? But it’s hard to say. I have ordered his book. I can’t wait to get it, ‘cause I’m sure part of it is in the book. I know that there’s a fascinating poem in the book called, A Letter to a Mentor which he just released on his blog. It starts with, “Don’t fuck your students… ever… don’t go there…” And this is the kind of thing, you can imagine it’s going off on a long rant after that… Beau Sia will get up in your face, come up with one idea and just run with it, and that’s what I love about him.
MB: I was a teacher for years and other teachers said that too… college teachers.
CG: (laughs/coughs) It seems like something that maybe wouldn’t need to be said, but probably does need to be said, loudly and in many forms.
MB: It could lead to something strange… Any other scoops?
CG: In terms of other artists we’re bringing up… who else can I say that we’ve got confirmed right now? I’m really excited… we have… Ivan E. Coyote is going to be performing.
CG: I think Ivan is really the best spoken word artist in Vancouver right now.
MB: Throwing down a gauntlet of sorts!
CG: It is. But in terms of being established, I’d have difficulty thinking of anyone else. Ivan is another prime example of why we needed to change the name of the festival. Because here we are calling ourselves the Vancouver International Poetry Festival… Ivan performed at the first festival… but Ivan doesn’t do poetry… Ivan does storytelling.
MB: It’s more accommodating…
CG: It’s not poetry… Ivan will tell you that. Ivan doesn’t even like the term ‘Spoken Word’. It’s really storytelling that Ivan prefers as a genre. But what we’re doing is really within that idea… bringing in somebody who is speaking in that oral tradition.
MB: You’re just broadening it to accommodate everybody, it sounds like.
CG: It’s not as though we’re broadening it to change the festival. We’re actually broadening it to reflect what was already happening at the festival.
MB: Fair enough. Why, is it controversial? Are some people unhappy about it?
CG: There definitely was some resistance on the Facebook thread to the idea of us changing the name of the festival. And I think that part of that was coming out of resistance to any kind of change, to be honest.
MB: That’s always there.
CG: And the other thing was just that when you live in a very…a somewhat insular community of poetry enthusiasts, it sometimes can be difficult to convince them of what we talked about at the beginning, of poetry having maybe bad connotations to the general public…
MB: It’s like the opposite then.
CG: Within the small poetry enthusiast community of Commercial Drive and spoken word fans; they can’t conceive of that being a bad word.
MB: They’ve been fighting for poetry to be respected for so long that maybe they feel like it’s a betrayal of sorts?
CG: I’m not sure if they would go that far, but they’re definitely… they have very strong positive feelings about the word ‘poetry’ and so they can’t understand why there would be someone, which I would say would be about 90% of the public with strong negative feelings about the word poetry.
MB: Well, it sounds like you’ve gotta wrestle with that stigma either way. What kinds of events are on the books?
CG: It’s exciting… like the Ivan show, it’s not just Ivan. We’re actually booking Ivan with Veda Hille. You know Veda?
MB: Does she not do something with music?
CG: Veda’s done all kinds of music projects and established herself as a pretty amazing musician. She’s worked with all kinds of folk festivals and orchestras. Veda definitely has a big reputation in East Vancouver. But the idea of getting not just Ivan, but Ivan and Veda…
MB: Kind of a power-house billing…
CG: Yeah, we’re really excited about that. And the idea again, of it being more than just words. We’re putting together words and music to make something larger.
MB: A fun-filled night of entertainment…
CG: Words are always going to be at the core of what’s presented… but there’s no reason… there would be some purists that would say that by putting music with it you’re adding too much showmanship. But I feel very strongly the opposite, especially when you have very intelligent artists like Veda Hille and Ivan E. Coyote. They know how to keep words at the centre of what they’re presenting, and to create something larger at the same time.
MB: Will some traditions from past festivals be repeated?
CG: Definitely… in terms of shows we’ve got Ivan back again. Ivan was at the first year. We’re gonna repeat another show we had at our first year, called: Fernando Raguero Vs. the World.
MB: Oh yeah!
CG: Were you at that show?
MB: No, I wasn’t, but I’m very familiar with his work. I wanted to go, but I couldn’t make it.
CG: I got to host that show in the first year. It was one of my favourite shows that I’ve ever done. So much fun. We get Fernando up on stage, he’s got his books there; he’s got all his poems.
MB: His stacks of poems!
CG: He has thousands of poems. And what people don’t know about Fernando is that he also writes songs. And we’re gonna make him bring his guitar this time.
MB: I’ve seen him perform, yeah, his music’s really good.
CG: And so the format is that people sign up, they do a poem, so it has an open mic aspect, and then during that poem, Fernando has to figure out what poem he wants to respond to them with. So the nice part is that as you watch the person do the poem, you also get to see Fernando sweat and rummage through all his chapbooks as he races to find the perfect poem to respond with. And then, just by applause, the audience decides who won that round. The open mic poet or Fernando.
MB: It’s a really good showcase for him.
CG: He’s a local poet that more people need to know about, that’s for sure.
MB: Absolutely, one of my favourites, if not my favourite local poet. Is there much money at stake?
CG: For that one I don’t think we’ll have a cash prize, that’ll just be really for fun.
MB: No, no… I just meant overall…
CG: Overall, there is, in the sense that we’re hosting the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Championships for the third year in a row. And this is something that we haven’t just come up with, this is something sanctioned by Spoken Word Canada, which is the national body for us to host, so… Every poetry slam across Canada will be determining their venue rep through a competition, and sending their best here and then…
MB: It’s an organized sport basically…
CG: And then they go through preliminary rounds and then a finals night in which the winner will be getting a thousand dollars.
MB: That’s a lot of money…
CG: This is a fair chunk of change…
MB: Like a micro-grant or something…
CG: Exactly. That’s a good way to think of it. It is like a micro-grant for that poet. And second place and third place and fourth place also get lesser amounts of money. Poets will work all year to do that. And more importantly than even the money, if a poet wins the Canadian Indies, that’s a big thing on their resume. That can help them open a lot of doors.
MB: They’ll get a lot of work…
CG: So far, both of the winners of Canadian Indies have been invited to the World Cup of Poetry, which is held every year in France, so… that’s another opportunity.
MB: The dream… You’re also a performer. Can you tell me how the role of organizer different from being an artist who performs?
CG: It’s really a great chance to give back and also to get a chance to organize things where you can hang out with all the people you’ve most wanted to meet and most enjoyed seeing on stage. So there’s a lot of very fun stuff about it. The not-so-fun part is what I’m doing this week, which is writing a grant for the city of Vancouver; and there’s a lot of paperwork that I have to do. What I keep telling our board of directors is if we do enough paperwork, it’s going to turn into paper money. We just have to keep doing the paperwork.
MB: I’ve seen you do a piece that mocked the Beats.
CG: Well… the Jack Kerouac piece…
MB: You were dressed up as a big beet… is there an equivalent movement in today’s poetry/spoken word scene?
CG: There has been many good things on the internet mocking spoken word, that’s for sure. You can look at even Mike Myers in How I Married an Axe Murderer, he’s making fun of the Beat Poets. But Tom Hanks just put up a video, a slam poem to something or other that you can look up on Youtube.
MB: I heard about that. He’s slamming something really common…
CG: I can’t remember what it is…
MB: Justin Bieber or R. Kelly or something…
CG: Those thing are coming up, but the most fascinating aspect of slam poetry culture that I saw in pop culture recently was that the New York Knicks put up a series of bus shelter ads, and it said, “Why go watch poets in the East Village when you can see real artists slam?” And it’s a riff or a parody on poetry slam… a direct reference to poetry slam… and of course they’re kind of dissing it… but I was like, “Man, if we can get insulted in that kind of way, that’s the best publicity we can ever get!”
MB: It’s not a very bad diss.
CG: I was excited when I saw the ad. I was excited about the fact that Madison Square Gardens was going to the trouble of referencing poetry slam in its advertising campaign. That was awesome.
MB: That’s major. Well, maybe the Beats were the quintessential poets of that age. Could you name some quintessential modern poets? I know we already have in the course of this conversation…
CG: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately… I’m all for, if you want to talk about some beefs with the literary tradition always saying, “Well, you guys don’t have any great poets…” “The spoken word tradition doesn’t have any great poets.” They’ll try to say that the spoken word tradition is just the worst possible stuff you can find on Youtube, which is very boring. When in fact all traditions are made up of 90% poets which are sort of mediocre, 10% poets which are kind of good, and of that 10%, maybe 1% of poets which are incredibly good.
CG: And if you look throughout time, any tradition is only judged by their very best. We don’t think about all of the terrible poets from the Romantic Poetry Era of the 1820’s. We only think about Keats and Shelley and Byron.
MB: The others are dust…
CG: There are hundreds of terrible poets who didn’t matter. So any tradition can only be judged by its very best. And I think that if you look around now that even within just North America, at the very best poets, it’s incredible. The two names that I would mention off the top of my head, that really strike me as incredible, are Khary Jackson, out of Minneapolis and Brian Ellis, who now lives in Portland, but who was originally from the New England area. They work so well on the stage and in a book form. They can compete with any poet, anywhere, in any tradition right now.
MB: Throughout time?
CG: I would say so, actually.
CG: Brian’s second book, Yesterday Won’t Goodbye is one of the best poetry books I’ve ever read. And that’s just mentioning a couple, but… there’s a lot of other people. Beau Sia has done so many amazing things throughout the years. And on the Canadian side of things… you look at somebody like R. C. Weslowski, who has pioneered a whole form of surrealist spoken word all by himself…
MB: Very sonic.
CG: Yeah, people are going to be studying R.C. Weslowski for a long, long time.
MB: Whoa! Don’t let him hear that!
CG: I tell him that.
MB: Pumpin’ the ego. Not sayin’ he has one. If you had a time machine and you could assemble a slam throughout time, who’d be in the top five? Who’d go head to head?
CG: Rumi. Shakespeare. Keats. Whitman. T.S. Eliot. I never got to see them perform, so those are the ones I’d really like to see go up against each other…
MB: What would happen?
CG: Well, Shane Koyczan would win.
MB: (laughs) Boom. Name drop. I notice that a lot of spoken word pieces that succeed at the VanSlam are crowd pleasers.
CG: Which way do you mean?
MB: There seems to be a new formula for what floats or rises to the top, and it seems to be what appeals to the most people… there used to be some kind of acid test for literature… like if it spurred some kind of world event… or historical event… things worked their way into literature, but now it’s a populous kind of thing.
CG: Slam is a populist event. What’s interesting is that especially at the Vancouver Poetry Slam actually, I would say that the old formulas have trouble succeeding. If you’re just going to rant against injustice, you’re not going to get very far. That’s a formula that people have tried to use many times, and I’ve seen people come away quite shocked. “I said everything that everyone wanted to hear and I still lost. Why didn’t it work?”
MB: So what works now?
CG: Writing good poetry works really well. But if you try to use all the formulas you can, and you can’t write good poetry…
MB: This might be a ridiculous, bottomless question, but what is good poetry then? It seems to me like audience participation is a big thing these days. People want to get in on it… the crowd wants to chant… you know, like Erich… ah
MB: Haygun’s Dungeon Master…wins every time ‘cause people like growling and saying ‘Dungeon Master’. R.C. is huge on participation poetry.
CG: I like both of those poems in the way they tie into the audience. Those poems are very good examples of the best that’s come out of the slam tradition in the sense that the problem beforehand was that poets were completely ignoring the audience that was directly in front of them with their heads down in their books. And now you see these poets directly engaging the audiences in front of them and asking those audiences to participate in the creation of the poem. And how exciting is that for everyone that…
MB: It’s very meta. Since this whole thing is about poetry, would you indulge me with a little free association?
CG: Alright, I’ll try.
CG: Of Omaha.
CG: R.C. Weslowski.
CG: Fernando Raguero.
MB: Skip it. Liberty.
MB: What’s the last word?
CG: The last word is Illumination.
Miguel Burr is a novelist dabbling in poetry and journalism. His first novel HUMANOID is available through the Vancouver Public Library, select local bookstores and online. To purchase a copy directly from the author, email a request to email@example.com. A second novel is finished and forthcoming.
Burr has published interviews in community magazines and newspapers around North America and Asia since 1994. Read his recent interviews, reviews and essays on visual art at www.decoymagazine.ca. To read earlier work, drop by the author’s apartment and rummage through old clippings.