The Real Story



This is the real story of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word! I have occasionally written that I was the founder and, in my more generous moments, that I was the co-founder. Neither statement is completely true, as the Festival was, and continues to be, a collective effort. But what is the real story? To answer that, I have to first take you back to the basement.

In my basement back in Bells Corners, in the west suburbs of Ottawa called Nepean, I used to cut cardboard in the shape of electric guitars and tape it to tennis rackets, set up drum kits made of pots and pans, including pot lids rigged with wires to serve as cymbals. And pretend to jam. Air guitar, while playing the songs on 45s on a little red plastic turntable with built in speaker. The Beatles, Elton John, Deep Purple, Queen. Rock and roll, that wild rebel feeling. But I also loved the records from my folks’ collection – Sparrow, Lord Kitchener,Harry Belafonte, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh. And then I went and got myself the real deal, a cheap acoustic guitar, and began writing songs. The lyrics were grim, expressing a lot of the loneliness I felt as pretty much the only Black kid in a white neighbourhood, an only child who never really felt that I fit in and was called names on the regular.

But, I was always social, loved to hang out with friends, playing sports, riding our bikes around the neighbourhood, and one of my good friends, Dave, introduced me to a lot of the rock and roll I grew up with. And a next friend, Keith, whose house had the only basketball net in the driveway where we regularly played hoops, brought me a record one day from New York where his brother was going to college. That record was Rappers Delight, and within three days I had the entire song memorized. And it was then I started to write rap poetry!

I think some of the love I had for poetry was from my Grandmother, my father’s mother, who I only knew from stories from my Dad, as she passed when I was still a baby. But she had met me, coming from Trinidad to visit Canada: I have the photo of her and my uncle, aunt, Mom and Dad in Parry Sound, with me about a year old, in my mother’s arms. Apparently, she enjoyed reciting poetry, and would even recite on the radio. And she was a confident as a public speaker, and well-respected, eventually becoming elected to the Port-of-Spain City Council.

But my own poetry never reached an audience for many years, just me reciting rhymes for my own fun and satisfaction – anger, humour, revenge, imagination, sadness, silliness – just writing and re-writing and singing/speaking to basic guitar chords or a hand-drummed beat on my desk. From my first poem written around the time I was in Grade 8 or 9, throughout high school and my first two years of university: just writing on the down low, compiling notebooks full of various reflections, stories, rhymes, fuelled by the rap records I found in the CFRU FM collection, by Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, Fat Boys, Grandmaster Flash and others who I played on the radio show I produced there. Along with the steady flow of reggae by Third World, UB40, Steel Pulse, Leroy Sibbles, Junior Reid, Black Uhuru, and of course, the visionaries Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

Moving back to Ottawa in my third year, I ended up in a creative writing and a Canadian poetry course with University of Ottawa prof Seymour Mayne. I soon got myself kicked out of the class for challenging the focus on form over content, pissed by one’s student use of blackness in a poem to conjure up the usual negative associations. But, I continued in his Canadian poetry class, and was invited to submit poems to a collection put together, with his backing, by James Whitall and Frank Manley. At that time, as well, I was reading books by Caribbean writing – Frantz Fanon, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon, Walter Rodney – in a course I was taking at West Indian Literature class at Carleton University. And, I was hosting a radio show – named ‘to the nth degree’ – at CHUO FM at U of O, and writing for the school newspaper, The Fulcrum. Two events marked that year, in 1986, that sparked my evolution as a poet: reciting two of my poems published in the Noovo Masheen chapbook, and attending a show by Lillian Allen.

I still have that review of Lillian’s show, which I wrote for The Fulcrum. I met Lillian briefly after the show, and included a plug in the review for her upcoming record, which would be the seminal LP Revolutionary Tea Party. I had never personally heard anything like what I had heard at the show that night, though I had played records by Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson on my shows, along with songs by Gil Scott Heron, one of my favorite musical poets. But this we dub poetry live and direct – not a a distance, from NYC or Jamaica or the UK, but from a Black person living in Canada, like me! It was an experience that completely altered the way I approached my work, not just from the point of view of conceiving words in the service of social change, driven by a vision to resist and self-define. Hearing and meeting Lillian and experience her dub poetry shaped the Caribbean flow of my words, made me more conscious of and excited by the possibilities of applying ‘version’ techniques – echo, stretching sounds, accelerating or slowing tempo – to my compositions.

Moving to Montreal that summer after graduating, I ended up meeting other aspiring young Black poets through the Black student association at Concordia University. A group of us started to regularly meet to workshop spoken word poems. Amuna Baraka, Tisca Pratt, Shingi Sabeta, Ted Runcie, Dee Smith formed the core of a group called the Diasporic African Poets. We were often invited to perform at a variety of functions, including events held by the activist group AKAX (Also Known As X), lectures by such visiting writers  as Rosemary Brown, George Lamming, and Ivan Van Sertima (often organized by one of our great metors, Alfie Roberts), community association events (e.g. Barbados House), and student groups (like the Champlain College Black History Month showcases). My poetry became sharper through increased workshopping and performances, and I eventually connected with Lillian Allen and Afua Cooper at the Toronto International Dub Poetry Festival, where I performed at the Concert Hall and met poets like Brother Resistance, Oku Onuora, Sister Jean Breeze, and Muta. When I spoke to Lillian about wanting to put together a book of Montreal spoken word poets, she promised to help out and gave me advice on how to apply for a grant to get it done.

By 1994, my first child, Jelani, was born and I had published my first book, The N’X Step. It was a collection of poetry, stories, artwork, and photography by Black Montreal artists, and the second work published through my company, RevWord. The first as a four-song EP produced with my partner-in-rhyme, Shingi, and my good friend and other musical mentor, Kali.Kali had introduced me to musical production, and coached me in performance, inviting me to perform on a with his band, Kali and Dub, one of Canada’s top reggae bands. I had also been getting performance and production experience through a cricle of hip hop artists that included DJ Choice (the producer behind Zero Tolerance and Dubmatique and a long time homie of my cousin, Joe), Shade of Culture (with my NDG neighbours, D Shade and Orion), Def Threat (Arkade and Ziploks), Manchilde, and others. I had also been writing for Montreal publications like Images, Community Contact, and the Mirror, as well as pursuing an acting career with the Black Theatre Workshop. The BTW had been the base for the workshops that formed part of the creation of The Next Step, with Afua and Lillian coming in from Toronto to mentor us in our writing. And, I had been producing guerilla poetry events, like performing poetry with a bullhorn in the Metro and handing out transcripts of witnesses of the shooting of Black Montreal youth. OR, producing a performance with spoken word poetry and video (using a video-projector) at the famed Yellow Door. I had also been gaining some video production skills through working with Black Is, a community cable TV show, which included interviewing visiting artists (including Ice T!).

But, I was feeling that it was time to move from Montreal to Toronto, and I had been visiting there on a more frequent basis, hanging with my bredren John D, the two us us went way back, as part of the Trinidadian community in Ottawa, and our folks knew each other back in Winnipeg where many Trinidadians had come to attend university. I had come to know the Annex, in particular, as John lived on Howlands. And I had been getting familiar with the sessions at Mutoddis, hanging with Clifton Joseph and others in the dub poetry movement, and found myself a job working at the Harambee community organization. I had also been meeting people like Citizen and Katt,Little X, Nosakeri, Dwayne Mrgan, Estelle Boateng, Jelani Nias, and many others in the emerging spoken word poetry movement in that city, along with MCs like Phatt Al, Nafarious, and Motion. I had actually met Collizhun and Don D of Nefarius through my work at the Davenport-Perth Community Centre near Oakwood/St.Clair, where I lived. I had learned from Lillian’s coaching (and politicking!) in obtaining a Canada Council grant for the N’X step project, my connections with various artists I had met while watching and performing at Citizen and Katt’s All Truths Spoken Are Poetry in Motion spoken word poetry shows, my recording and production experience from participating in the Word Up CD (Virgin-EMI) and video series (MTV) coordinated by Jill Batson, and my performance work with Kali, Manchilde (especially at the Savoy/Metropolis  hip hop and live music series in Montreal), Phatt  Al (especially performing on Spadina with the D.O.M., and guests that included Jack Soul, Philosopher Kings, Esthero, and others). And I had released my second record, “Return of the Rap Poet.”  It was 1998, my second child, Tariq, was born, I was now married to my wife, Melissa, and I was ready for WordLife.

At a show featuring K-Os and other artists, I met up with K-Os DJ and co-producer, S-Love. I explained to him that I wanted to produce a collection of the Canadian spoken word and hip hop artists. Something musical, with the focus on the spoken word, that would bring together emerging dub poets like D’bi Young, and Naila, plus music artists like Motion, Phatt Al, Manchilde, and Nefarius, with a capela work by artists like Jelani, Dwayne, JD Vishus, and Jemeni. I short, I wanted the focus on the best of the young Black artists I had witnessed, and on the power of their word, with a musical context that was natural to the rhythms of our styles as new world griots. Sheldon was down for the project, and I applied for a Canada Council grant to do the project. When the grant came through, I had already pulled together most of the people I knew I wanted for the project, including meeting up with some peole I didn’t know form my own hometown, most notably Eddy “the Original One” and Ras Kagiso. Working in studios in three cities, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, we pulled together the recordings and mixed them down in Sheldon’s studio in Whitby. Iw as logging heavy mileage on Lissa’s prelude, and in January 1999 I drove through the notorious Ice Storm with Zip and Manchilde after a recording session in Toronto, finally making it back to Ottawa which I was now calling home once again. Lissa and the boys had moved ahead of me and we had found a place with the help of my folks, near the Lees Avenue Algonquin College campus where I was enrolled in several courses. And the famous WordLife show in Montreal had stirred up its own storm at Isart, following a riveting show with Dwayne’s band in Toronto. It was now 1999, and the Ottawa launch of WordLife was next.

I had booked a spot in  downtown Ottawa near the Rideau Centre, with the help of Len Puckerin (of 747 party fame!). Canada Council people (like our long time spoken word section angel, Paul Seesequasis) came out, Eddy and Kagiso and Afrikaren’s friends came out, my friends and family came out, and many others that simply came to see what this Wordlife/spoken word poetry thing was all about. And following the success of that show, Eddy and Anthony Lewis collaborated to bring a couple of guys by the name of Talaam and Faraji to perform at the Mercury Lounge, whose DJs, Lance Baptiste and Trevor Walker, were friends of ours and backers of innovate performance forms like spoken word poetry. That show, with people rammed in Mercury to hear, for the first time, African Americans slam poetry, was followed by another show in 2001 featuring yet another of the best slam poet in the U.S., Jamaal St. John. One of the people attending those series of shows (we held another a couple of years later at Mercury featuring UK poet TuggStar  and his group), was Pierre Ringwald, who was so impressed he was inspired to later create a spoken word poetry slam series in Ottawa called Step Up Slam.

Where the WordLife launch and the Mercury Lounge series we produced left off, The Step Up Slam continued , galvanizing spoken word poetry in Ottawa with a monthly slam poetry series running out of the lower section of Barrymore’s. Within a year or so, Pierre moved to England, and Eddy had by now re-located to Toronto, and there was a demand for more spoken word poetry by people in Ottawa who were blown away by the Mercury shows. as well, I had been recording a Cd of my work, collaborating with African and reggae musicians/vocalists like Mighty Popo, Waking Lion, and Sligo, producers and artists like Manchilde and Ras Kagiso, and Ottawa hip hop/reggae producer, Goggs. The result was the full length CD recoridng, Tales of the North Coast, and the launch of that CD in 2002 marked the inception of the spoken word poetry/slam series, The Golden Star Lounge.

The GSL series was the result of my vision of a spoken word series that could bring together the Black Ottawa community, in all its diversity – West Indian, Haitian, East African, Canadian-born, immigrant, professionals, students, everyday hustlers, everybody. And, through feature artist and thematic shows, cross language barriers (which we did with our show featuring Haitian artists Eddy Garnier), include Aboriginal artists (as we did with features like Shayne Koyczan and Takralik Partidge), span genres like dub poetry (Debbie Young, Lillian Allen) and hip hop (Juggaknot) and funk.jazz fusion (Kalmunity), and include a diversity of the best spoken word artists in Canada (like Montreal spoken word legend Fortner Anderson). Mostly, it was about poetry as community buidling, an interesting and safe space to get together and exchange views. The series immediately received a broad range of support, particularly from a number of young artists who garced the open mic and, later, the feature artists lot to develop their skills: John Akpata, Garmamie Sideau, Ritallin, Doretta Charles,  Elissa Molino, Steve Sauve, Q, Matt Peake, amongst others.

In 2003, I had contacted the Steve Marsh of Poetry Slam International (PSI) in the UNited States, as I anted to participate in the National Poetry Slam. I had been a member of the first slam poetry team in Ottawa, the Step Up Slam team, which Pierre had planned to send to the NPS. However, those plans had fallen through. But, I saw we could make it happen with the GSL the following year, and we eventually put together a team after a season of slams over the course of 2002-03: Garmamie, John, Q, Oni, and myself. With John  performing spoken word poetry for US Customs at Pearson Airport, and their subsequent applause, we flew onto Chicago and expanded our spoken word poetry horizons hearing performances by brilliant and powerful performers from across the US and even other countries, including the Winnipeg and Vancouver slam teams (the only other Canadian teams).  And upon our return, and in talking to Dwayne – who had attended one of the pervious NPS as an individual, and was now running an Up From the Roots slam series in Toronto – I saw that we could create a network of spoken word poets in Canada that, like the NPOS,  would express our creativity on a national level. And, I knew just the people I wanted to contact to help make it happen: the people who would form the Northern Griots Network!

The NGN was a collaboration of Black presenters /performers of spoken word poetry, and they came from Vancouver (Tanya Evanson, Jamilla), form Toronto (Dwayne Morgan, Karen Richardson, Motion), from Ottawa (nth digri, Eddy da Original One, John Akpata), Montreal (buttaphly and mahalia Verna) and Halifax (Shauntay Grant). Again, with the strategic support of the Canada Council through the spoken word poetry program, we brought together a group of committed and talented people to discuss plans, over the course of two days in Ottawa, how we could collaborate to deliver, among other other things, a spoken word poetry Exchange of Black Canadian artists. And not only did we plan that initiative, we presented two spoken word poetry shows for Ottawa audiences to experience what the best of the form on display, performances that would rock the African Palace where we held GSL shows, and also at La Scala, drawing from a broad range of people in the Ottawa beyond a ‘spoken word scene’: all of us had started connected to community, not to any set scene, and that was and remains the strength of our art. It is art with a social connection, accessible and engaging, not just for a score or points or for a narrow clique of wannabe hipster followers! And the XChange we sparked between poets in paired cities – Halifax and Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto – reached that same broad range of people. And after that strategic move, the next ring of the concentric circle was to set off an even broader national spoken word poetry event.

In April 2003, I sent an email to Graham Olds, organizer of the Vancouver Poetry Slam, and Darek Dawda, coordinator of the Winnipeg Poetry Slam. I had previously spoken with Dwayne, and we had spoken word the idea of a national slam at our NGN discussions. I heard back  immediately from Graham and Darek, and they were dons with the idea. Darek, in particular, said that he would  team up with me in developing the concept, and we proceeded to do our planning. By the middle of the summer, I had drawn up a proposed structure for the event – including a full program of events – and Darek had provided his input. While I wanted to call the event NorthWords, Darek was set on the Canadian Word Olympics, so we went with his suggestion. I had the text of an email Darek sent Graham in Early October 2003 to get his feedback on the structure for the Festival. Here is the text from that email:

“hello vancouver and winnipeg,
i am forwarding you a sketch of a proposal for the 2004 Canadian Spoken Word Olympics festivities that Anthony Bansfield from Ottawa who it looks like will be coordinating the first CSWO festival put together after the two of us talked about it for two weeks i like the structure and think it will work well. now it might be a good time for you guys to voice and comments or suggestions
p.s. Anthony apparently emailed this proposal to Dwayne in Toronto already .”

I will be picking up the story from that point, including a mention of the international tour I initiated and co-ordinated with Pilote le Hut in Paris for Darek, Shane, and Oni to travel to Europe perform in several countries.  (I had to pull out of the tour when I took on a position at the Canada Council in July 2004 as the Coordinator of the Equity Office- and that is a whole story unto itself!).

As well, I will be putting up some archival material, of particular interest considering we are approaching the 10th anniversary of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in 2014. I have some of the original website content I had developed, as well as other material that illustrates the vision.


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