Jillian Christmas on The Verses Festival of Words

Interview by 
Chelene Knight

Just in time for National Poetry Month, Room chats with Jillian Christmas, about the Verses Festival of Words, taking place in Vancouver B.C. from April 21-May 1st.

The mission of the Verses Festival of Words is to celebrate the transformative power of words – written, spoken or sung; to engage diverse groups in cutting-edge, live performances as both audience and participants; to present influential artists from both the oral and literary traditions, and to encourage the next generation of performers and writers. Verses embraces a wide definition of literature and orature that includes page-based poetry, spoken word, oral storytelling, and singer-songwriters.

ROOM: Tell us a bit about your personal writing journey so far.

JC: I began writing in my early elementary school days. An old friend recently wrote to remind me of the first time they witnessed me read my poetry aloud during a library talent show for my grade 5 class. A few months ago, on a trip home to Ontario, I found that first piece of poetry. After cringing at myself and the poem for a very, very long time, I decided to bring it and all of the other poems contained in that electric blue fun-fur covered notebook back to Vancouver. I will be reading that poem as an introduction to this year’s presentation of Sara Bynoe’s Teen Angst Poetry, so I guess you could say I’ve come full circle. 

ROOM: Speaking of coming full circle, it seems the festival itself has had quite a journey. How did the Verses Festival come to be? And what prompted the change from Vancouver International Poetry Festival to Verses Festival of Words?

JC: The Vancouver International Poetry Festival was the brain-child of Sean McGarragle, former Vancouver Poetry Slam Slam-Master and community organizer. It rose up from a desire for celebration of the overwhelming talent in the Canadian and U.S. poetry communities. When I was asked to help organize the festival back in 2012, alongside Ruth Mason-Paul and Chris Gilpin, we decided that we would broaden the reach of the festival, we wanted it to be inclusive not just to poets but to all forms of the literary arts. Since then, the festival has included crafts such as comedy, long form/ traditional storytelling, exemplary songwriters and so much more. Our hope is that this list will continue to grow and we will learn more about ourselves and our writing through this great and expanding literary link we all share.

ROOM: I love the inclusivity factor. As Artistic Director, what are your hopes for this year’s festival? Are you hoping to reach any new audiences this year? And what are your tactics for this?

JC: My hope for this festival is that we will flood these territories with a sense of pride, for all that they have created and for all that they have welcomed. I feel lucky to be in this place, it is not the land of my ancestors, but I have been made to feel at home all the same. I want to give space to the voices that have called us in and lifted us up on broad shoulders. For that reason you will see in this festival and every festival I am lucky enough to curate, voices of the first people of this land, with work deserving of all the stages we can offer and all the microphones we can find. 

ROOM: There always seems to be this “divide” in the community when it comes to what we call literary writing, and the spoken word and slam genre, do you see this? And how does Verses aim to meld the two? Are they even different? How so?

JC: I see that divide as a fallacy, same as the many other stories we are told as a means to keep us separate from each other, more or less powerful than each other, more or less worthy. I want this festival to destroy those ideas, I want it to smash patriarchy, I want it to break language barriers and noise limits, and crack book spines. I want it to tear down all of our old ideas about what we can and cannot be. I see no reason to keep playing by archaic rules. Instead I offer up a question, to myself and to others. If our work is not bringing us closer together, if it is not making us more sure of our value, more grounded in our own voices and less dependent on other people’s definitions of us, then what is it doing?

ROOM: You say that “Verses embraces a wide definition of literature and orature” can you elaborate more on what this looks like?

JC: Verses Stages have seen an incredibly wide variety of performance styles over the years, from the live podcast adventures of Barbara Adler, to the musically-misbehaving book launch antics of C.R. Avery, to the ASL Showcase where poems are presented in the highly performative art of American Sign Language while also delivered in English by a skilled interpreter. We have hosted many lit magazines, visual poetry exhibits, conversation groups, and the list goes on and on. Needless to say, we like to mix things up. It’s a literary feast and everyone is invited to the table.  

ROOM: What are some of the biggest obstacles you faced as Artistic Director when it comes to putting together a festival like Verses? How do you overcome these?

JC: In Vancouver we are constantly losing beloved venues to the great condo monster in the sky. It’s tough watching spaces that once housed lively community events sitting empty while they await “development”, just so that they can sit empty again. While this can be heartbreaking, we are always attempting to find creative solutions. This year we have proudly increased our venue partnership with The CULTCH which features three gorgeous East Van theatres. It is also deeply important to us that we maintain strong connections with familiar community venues, like the ever supportive Wise Hall and Lounge, and the slam’s generous home venue, Cafe Deux Soleils to name a few. If we can commit to supporting each other, perhaps we can hold tight to some of the communal spaces that have helped us build and grow together over the years.

ROOM: Finding a space is an important thing to artists, so kudos to you for keeping at it. That being said, Vancouver is full of talented writers and artists, what would you say to the emerging writer/artist/performer who has no idea how to get started?

JC: Come check out the Verses!! It’s a great entry point and contains so many professional development opportunities, open stages, examples of creative excellence and chances to meet and mingle with a plethora of peer writers.  

ROOM: Who are your mentors and why?

JC: I am lucky enough to say that that is a long list, some of my most impactful teachers have included Sheri-D Wilson (Calgary), d’bi Young (Toronto), RC Weslowski (Vancouver), Jane Davidson (Sunshine Coast), Zaccheus Jackson Nyce and my grandmother, Sylvia (The Cosmos). All have been spectacular examples of how to build community while taking care of one’s self, all have led me back to my own strength when I have felt weakest, all have been brilliant, joyful lights when I thought I might lose myself in the dark. I am indebted to all of them, for their stories, their time, and their fierce and unapologetic truth telling. 

ROOM: If you could sum up the Verses Festival in just one sentence, what would you say?

JC: Literary sleepaway camp for the tender-hearted traveller, backstage pass into the notebooks and minds of our writing heroes, an eleven day parade of the best and brightest this continent has to offer, with a cherry blossom on top.

www.versesfestival.ca 

Jillian Christmas was born and raised in Markham, Ontario. She currently lives in Vancouver, BC., where she serves as Artistic Director of Verses Festival of Words. Jillian is an enthusiastic organizer and activist in the Canadian arts community, her focus being to increase anti-oppression initiatives in spoken word. She has participated in, developed and executed programs in partnership with Toronto Poetry Project, Wordplay, Brendan McLeod's Travelling Slam, University of British Columbia, Vancouver Opera, and the CULTCH Mentorship, and facilitated spoken word workshops for youth and adults across the country.

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