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Today my friend and colleague Kat Fournier and I launched the very first episode of Just Another Gala: Your Ottawa Theatre Podcast. Ottawa’s theatre scene has exploded in the last few years, and we feel that some thorough on-air discussion is in order. Join us!

We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Please like and share widely.

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Don’t miss the 26th annual One World Film Festival at the National Gallery of Canada from September 24 to 27, 2015. This is my first year as Festival Manager, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be presenting a wide-range of local and international documentary films that will inspire you to make informed choices about Canada’s future. With an important federal election coming up, this is hardly the time to be apolitical! Pay-what-you-can tickets are on sale now.

ONE-WORLD-FF-POSTER-11x17-w-bleed_MP

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Let’s talk about this idea of community.

As artists, it is something we often seek out: to find like-minded people to share in our passions, to have not just a poetry show to attend but also a place to enjoy milkshakes together afterwards.

Community is about inclusiveness, but also exclusiveness. We say we want everyone to feel safe and welcome in our community, but in order to do so, we must restrict certain freedoms and the participation of certain people. We also have to make choices about whom to include in our community when there is a conflict between two or more people: we have to consider who benefits our community more greatly, who has earned the right to an unquestioned place in our community.

I remember you. You designed the CD cover for one of the poetry collective’s first albums. You were sweet, short, blond-haired. You volunteered at the first national poetry festival and welcomed me to the events. Then you got pregnant, and your poet boyfriend left you, and we never again saw you at those events.

I remember you. You organized showcases and women’s events. You brought passion to your work. You married a young, fiery poet for love in a ceremony that I’m sad to say I missed. You also got pregnant, your marriage fell apart, and you no longer felt welcome at those events. I’m sorry.

I remember you. You moved here from Nova Scotia, for love of another poet, and shared your sensual work onstage, and I was glad when we eventually became friends. You said you only felt welcomed by association with him, and when he left you, carelessly, you were suddenly a stranger in a place you hoped to make your home. I hope your memories are better now.

I remember myself, also. I was 19 (in 2005) when I started attending poetry events regularly. I was invited to run my own side project. I was encouraged to start performing. I was made to feel special. I was desperately in need of community, and I felt flattered when a certain poet began to take an interest in me. Even then, I recognized that he was not a good person. I had heard things, but I chose to ignore them, thinking – as long as he is good to me, that is what counts. But he wasn’t good to me. He treated me badly, both in a personal and professional capacity. He raised a hand to me once, but I stepped back in time, so I suppose I can’t officially complain about that.

My experience with him was not a positive one, and yet I do not consider myself a victim, as it was my choice to get involved with him, and I take full responsibility for that. But I am disappointed by how other people responded to what happened to me: at the time, I did report his behaviour to other people in the community, and the response was often – he just needs more love, more understanding, so we can’t give up on him… and think of how much he gives back to the community.

By the end of that very difficult year, I considered ceasing my involvement, until the final meeting when he announced that he was revoking his role as director and would no longer be attending the events. He recognized that people were not attending the events because of him and that there was tension due to his presence. I was relieved and grateful. But only for a short time, as a few months later, he was back again, welcomed back heartily, and no one seemed to remember any past wrongs. People can be so forgiving when it’s convenient to them.

In 2010, the poetry collective held a meeting to determine whether the current director would remain in his post, or if another member would assume his responsibilities. At this point, the poet in question decided to apply for the directorship. And you would not believe the turnout for that meeting: perhaps the most well-attended in collective history. Twenty-or-so poets showed up simply to vote against him. Only three people – still taken in by his goofy charm, and seeming professionalism – voted for him, insisting they could handle him despite his reputation.

I understand why people made excuses for him, and continue to do so even now when he is accused of sexual harassment and taking advantage of minors. He was, after all, one of the people responsible for starting the poetry collective in Ottawa, for hosting a multitude of community events, for tackling issues of mental health in his poetry, for being a mentor to young poets, particularly in launching a youth poetry slam. (On a side note, who in their right mind allowed this person to receive funding for a YOUTH poetry slam?) And just last year, he was included in a ‘hall of fame’ for his contributions to the poetry community. How can you fault someone who seems to do so much good for the community to which they belong?

The question we need to ask, perhaps, is what these people gain from being in a leadership role. In this case, this particular poet gained for himself immunity from taking responsibility for his actions. His seemingly small faults could be excused because of the persona he chose to project within his community: one of social awareness, human compassion, and encouraging the youth of today. Artists and leaders who preach these things can be some of the best people around, or they can be some of the worst. It can be difficult for us to wrap our heads around this hypocrisy, to recognize that people who purport such ideals – “especially people who care about strangers, who care about evil and social injustice” – can be so carelessly wretched to those who love them, look up to them, and work alongside them.

This poet is now being banned from poetry events across the country; his features are being canceled; he is being reported to the school board; his name is being held up as an ‘example’. An example of what? Of someone who got away with this type of bad behaviour for ten whole years, possibly more? If I were a young predator – since now it seems fashionable to use this word – I would consider this a success story: indeed, I could get away with the exact same behaviour for over a decade, especially if I’m a little more careful (I can learn from his mistakes!) about not getting caught.

Let me be clear: I am beyond grateful to the people who are now speaking out and making an effort to make amends. I think they are doing absolutely the right thing, and I applaud them. But I think we also need to consider how this might have been prevented, or dealt with earlier. And how we can better handle the next generation of so-called predators, disguised as mentors, colleagues, and friends.

All those poets who attended the poetry collective meeting simply to vote against him, you must have done so for a reason. But did you ever speak out against him, or did let your anonymous vote speak for you?

I spoke out at one time, but I should have spoken louder and more frequently. I gave up and I quieted down because, frankly, I wanted my community. I still do. I didn’t want to be yet another young woman pushed out of the community because I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as a man who treated me badly and treated others worse.

Especially in the arts, there is this liberal-minded attitude that artists can get away with all types of bad behaviour because they are artists. As though carelessness and fiery moods and sexual aggressiveness are all part of the artistic temperament, inherently. I assure you, they are not.

There are many other people like him out there. Poets in Vancouver created a blog about it a few years back, sharing their experiences of being harassed, assaulted, and misused, then ignored or shamed by their community when they tried to say something about it. Of course, the names of the abusers were never included because that would constitute ‘defamation of character’ – at least until the culprit is publicly deemed dangerous by an organization (rather than a number of individuals), and then we can say their name all we want.

Funny how, technically and legally, I could have used ‘his’ name throughout this article, and yet my gut instinct told me not to. Perhaps because, really, this isn’t about him. This is about a community that supports and excuses and sometimes even defends people like him. To be clear, I don’t like the guy, and I’m certainly not sorry to see him being held accountable in this way – but I also don’t want to see him reduced to a scapegoat for a community whose problems are far bigger than one bad egg.

As cynical as it may sound, perhaps the first step toward positive change is recognizing that ‘community’ is not always what it may seem. We may feel the temptation to involve ourselves wholeheartedly, embracing the warm feelings associated with having a group to which we belong, and, in doing so, fail to step outside the inner circle to acknowledge the problems inherent therein. At least, that has, I think, been my predominant weakness in my ongoing search for community. Perhaps it is a little foolish, but ‘community’ is still something I idealize and strive for in all aspects of my life, so I do understand where that feeling comes from, and why it is so important.

And let’s also remember and acknowledge those people who once belonged to our community and who, for whatever reason, were made to feel excluded or felt obligated to leave: I’m sorry for what happened; I’m sorry we didn’t do more to help; and I hope you found joy in community elsewhere.

We’ll do better next time.

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A Clown Wedding at the Eiffel Tower

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My background was, I suppose, theatrical…

Simon Callow, My Life in Pieces: An Alternative Autobiography

After about half an hour of waiting for Simon Callow at the stage door of Trafalgar Studios following a performance of his one-man show Being Shakespeare, Ottawa playwright Lawrence Aronovitch asked me: How determined are you?

Considering his book Being An Actor was practically my bible throughout high school and ‘Meet Simon Callow’ is number 91 on my list of 101/1001, yes, I was pretty keen to exchange a few words with the guy, perhaps snag an autograph.

Just as we were contemplating heading back to our respective homes, Lawrence looked over my shoulder, smiled, and said simply, There he is.

And out walked The Actor into the dimly lit street, followed closely by a young man with a fold-up bicycle. He greeted us warmly and happily agreed to sign our newly purchased books.

 

Did you find the script or did the script find you, I asked with uncharacteristic succinctness.

He laughed and replied: Well, I wrote it.

Didn’t the playwright write it…?

It was a collaborative process. We worked together quite closely. There were some changes made.

Lawrence is a playwright! I couldn’t resist playing the role of agent/producer…

Ah, really! T.E. or Olivier?

Confirming the correct spelling of his name, my companion mentioned that he, too, was working on a one-man show.

You inspire, Lawrence said graciously. I saw you in Wilde. And I’ve read Tuesdays at Tescos.

An extraordinary play, noted Simon Callow. A difficult play, difficult to memorize.

Probably keen to continue with their evening, The Actor and the man with the fold-up bicycle politely made their excuses and headed up the street and into the crowds of Trafalgar Square.

Funny he would say that, said Lawrence.

Say what?

That he wrote the play. Really, Shakespeare wrote most of it. And the playwright, presumably. There was a lot of subtext in that statement.

Yeah, true. Interesting. [pause] Hey – we met Simon Callow! Nice!!

And that’s how I celebrated my sixth month anniversary of living in London.

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You told me once “Don’t pout. It’s unbecoming”

And I cried for a week

You told me I should develop a thicker skin

And I wondered why you felt the need to teach me that lesson

When it was you who seemed to value my skin for its softness

And my lips for their sweetness

And my body for its tendency

To let you in

 

In this sometimes harsh world, is it any surprise

That kind words are desperately sought after

Even if they’re not always sincere

Even if it’s just a ploy to get ahead

To get me into bed

Because then, hey,

At least I’m getting laid

 

I will soak up your sweethearts and lovers’ talk

Like syrup on pancakes

I will sacrifice my working hours

For some quality time and late-morning showers

Even if, in the end, my efforts are not matched

And the result is frustration, disappointment, distress…

 

When my mother finds me grieving over yet another seething injustice

She says to me, fondly

“You’ve been this intense since you were five years old”

And while I’m not entirely sold on the idea

That our personalities are determined at such a young age

It gratifies me to realize that I haven’t yet passed that stage

Because the truth is

I don’t want to develop a thicker skin

I don’t want to win arguments based in unfair fashion

Or use my passion to formulate malicious attacks

Or pack my slate full of anger and hate

Because while I’ve been hurt

I’ve not yet been broken

And while I’ve spoken my mind about the kind of lovers I’ve known

The kind who’ve shown themselves unworthy of the title

Lover

My tone, I believe, has always been mischievous, playful, without regret

And I begin each new love affair full of unabashed optimism

Yes, it’s a constant struggle

But each new person is different

And each new person has the potential

Has the essential elements that make it possible to feel something

 

And with a thicker skin, I’m afraid I might not be able to sense your soft eyelashes brush my face

Or your careful fingertips along the sides of my neck

Or your gentle lips pause against the backs of my knees

I never want to close myself off or shut myself up or turn my face away

To protect myself from what you might say

Because what you might say might be beautiful

You see

Sometimes I can feel my heart beat

And I never want to lose that feeling

Written by Jessica Ruano

September 2010

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The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW 2010 Ottawa www.cfsw.ca) returns to the capital for the first time since its inception in 2004 with the largest slam-focused spoken word event in Canadian history. From October 12 to 16, 2010, Ottawa will be treated to a wide-ranging display of Canadian slam poetry and spoken word featuring over 100 of the best spoken word poets from 15 communities across Canada.

Capital Slam: John Akpata, PrufRock, Chris Tse, OpenSecret, and Brandon Wint

Over the course of five nights, 18 teams participate in highly competitive poetry slams that will determine this year’s Canadian Slam Champions. Home of the defending champions, Ottawa has two teams – Capital Slam and Urban Legends – attempting to keep the title in the capital this year.

Truth Is...

CFSW 2010 Ottawa features some of the biggest names in spoken word, most notably Dwayne Morgan with Toronto’s Up From the Roots, Truth Is… with the Burlington Slam, RC Weslowski from Vancouver, El Jones from Halifax, and John Akpata on Ottawa’s Capital Slam team.

CFSW 2010 Ottawa opens with a Francophone Showcase featuring Outaouais poet Marjolaine Beauchamp and closes with performances by the festival’s Poets of Honour Anthony Bansfield a.k.a. ‘the nth digri’ and Shauntay Grant.

CFSW 2010 Ottawa’s Daytime Programming is entirely FREE! Poets and poetry enthusiasts are welcome to attend workshops and panel discussions on poetry writing, spoken word in schools, and connecting with other arts organizations. There will also be a Last Chance Slam on October 12 to determine the festival’s ‘Wild Card’ Team, a Youth Showcase on October 13, and a Steve Sauvé Memorial Nerd Showcase on October 14. The poets will hit the streets of Ottawa ‘Guerrilla style’ on the afternoon of October 15 to perform random acts of poetry in the downtown core.

Following the slams, there will be late-night events highlighting the poetry of music: the Poetry & Music Cabaret featuring Scruffmouth, Moe Clark, and SPIN on October 13; the Slam After-Party with Montréal’s DJ Cosmo on October 14; and Toronto’s Kobo Town and Ottawa’s John Carroll & the Epic Proportions will grace the stage on October 15.

Shane Koyczan

Spoken word poetry in Canada has boomed over the last few years with numerous achievements across the country and around the world. In January of this year, Shane Koyczan introduced spoken word to the world at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver when he performed his poem “We Are More” at the Opening Ceremonies. This past summer, Ottawa’s Ian Keteku, member of the spoken word group The Recipe and one of the workshop facilitators at CFSW 2010 Ottawa, won the World Poetry Slam Cup in Paris, France.

The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word takes place in numerous venues in downtown Ottawa (see the attached CFSW 2010 Ottawa press release and schedule for details) from October 12 to 16, 2010. For more information, please call the CFSW 2010 Ottawa hotline 613 301 8648, email info[at]cfsw[dot]ca, or visit www.cfsw.ca.

Tickets and Passes

Tuesday FREE ALL DAY | Slams Wednesday and Thursday $10 at the door

Semi-Finals Friday $10 adv./$15 door | Finals Saturday $15 adv./$20 door

Festival Pass $40

Advance Tickets and Festival Passes available

East African Restaurant | 376 Rideau Street | 613 789 7397

Compact Music | 190 Bank St. | 613 233 7626 | 785½ Bank St. | 613 233 8922

Vertigo Records | 193 Rideau Street | 613 241 1011

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