VERSeFest challenges audience assumptions

By Vivian Vavassis – 

Ottawa has always been a poetry town. With over a dozen reading series and an average of three events a week, the city is a sweet spot for poetry lovers. Not convinced it’s your thing? VERSeFest, Ottawa’s International Poetry Festival, returns for its sixth year and is ready to take on that challenge. Showcasing more than 60 poets between March 15-20, VERSeFest aims to prove that there’s a poet for everyone.

“How fortunate Ottawa is to have an early spring festival like VERSeFest, especially after the dark nights of winter,” says Kitchissippi resident and VERSeFest poet, Sandra Ridley. “Bringing in writers from around the world, this festival elevates and celebrates all forms of poetry. VERSeFest ignites the brain and inspires the heart.”

Kitchissippi resident and VERSeFest poet, Sandra Ridley. Photo by John W MacDonald
Kitchissippi resident and
VERSeFest poet, Sandra Ridley. Photo by John W MacDonald

If Ottawa is a poetry town, Kitchissippi is a strong contender for poetry quartier. Its diverse character makes it home to many of the local poets involved with VERSeFest over the years, including Pearl Pirie and slam veteran Sir Realist.

Pirie praises VERSeFest for pitting the familiar against the unfamiliar: “My prevailing impression of VERSeFest is the will to bridge gaps between people and between forms of writing and performance, to support as one community. Because of the long reach of curators, I got to read with people…who I hadn’t heard of but was impressed by, like Stevie Howell, Giles Benaway. New discoveries are one of the best things about a festival like this.”

The festival opens with Governor General (GG) Award winner Élise Turcotte. She’ll be joined by an eclectic mix of other poets, including Amal El Mohtar, Griffin Poetry Prize winner Jane Munro, Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny, and celebrated war poet Yusef Komunyakaa among others.

Balancing literary giants like Komunyakaa with newcomers is intrinsic to the festival’s mandate to present a perfect equilibrium of established and new poets, written poetry and spoken word, female and male gendered poets, English and French. Almost all of the events are bilingual. Balance is the interweaving theme that threads the festival, drives its energy, and draws attendees.

After all, audiences are the ones driving Ottawa’s burgeoning scene. Canadian icon Lorna Crozier agrees: “It makes such a difference to read to people who love poetry, who are open to various voices and forms, and who show their appreciation through deep listening. Such is the audience at VERSeFest.”

Poets will be hailing from Ireland, Armenia, and Norway. The feisty Anne Boyer, known for her powerful social commentary, will attend from the United States.  Phil Hall, Marilyn Dumont, and Cathy Petch are among Canada’s finest.  And George Elliot Clarke, Canada’s newly appointed Parliamentary Poet Laureate, will read alongside the recently-named GG winner Robyn Sarah Sunday, March 20th, at the Hall of Honour showcase.

The lineup also features a number of emerging poets who are new on the literary circuit. Dub poet and Juno winner Lillian Allen is enthusiastic about this approach: “I’ve heard and seen one of the best poets I have ever encountered at VerseFest 2015, someone I didn’t even know exists, and believe me, I know and have read or seen many, many poets.”

Come for the poets you know. Even better, come for the ones you don’t.

VERSeFest runs March 15-20. For venue listings, times and tickets, visit


Leave a comment