Storyteller Ivan Coyote has performed on a lot of stages, so when they say Verses is one of their favourite festivals to work with it’s serious praise. “Queer voices have never been othered or sort of an add-on to expand or increase diversity,” Coyote says of the six-year-old Verses. “They’ve always been an inherent part of the festival since its inception.”
Verses is not specifically a queer event but it is helmed by two queer women, including artistic director Jillian Christmas, and continues to highlight both established and emerging queer voices, such as Rachel Rose, Billeh Nickerson, Coyote, Kai Cheng Thom and Amber Dawn, among others.
Since its 2011 launch, the festival has aimed to create a space where the voices of poets, spoken word artists, oral storytellers and singer-songwriters “will be received, honoured and welcomed — not censured or prevented from speaking stories of trauma,” Christmas says.
In addition to genuinely valuing queer voices (“we don’t want to tokenize,” Christmas says), the festival also strives to create a space that’s inclusive and welcoming, putting up signs to create gender-neutral washrooms, for example.
Verses also continually asks for input from performers and audiences alike, through moderated discussions called “Talk the Talk.” This year, there are two discussions, one on the subject of mental health in arts communities, and the other on being allies and building community.
“It’s a community that has chosen to address issues head-on and engage in difficult conversations,” Christmas says.
(Ivan Coyote co-stars in an excerpt from a 2013 presentation of Gender Failure alongside writer-musician Rae Spoon./Clyde Petersen video)
“They are not just paying lip service to these ideas,” Coyote says. “[The festival is] truly a place where they make an attempt to include marginalized voices, and give those voices a place to see themselves mirrored on stage.”
This year, Coyote will join Amber Dawn, Montreal’s Kai Cheng Thom, and four musicians to perform There Be Monsters at the York Theatre on April 24, 2016.
A collaboration of music and words, the performance will explore “what it means to be defined as monsters and monstresses by others, and finding the beauty in that,” Thom says.
Coyote has collaborated with Amber Dawn and the musicians in the past, but only recently connected with Thom, after reading and relating to an article Thom wrote about her experiences as a trans performer.
Thom is excited about the collaboration. “It’s been my dream to work with them,” she says.
This will be Thom’s second appearance at Verses. In 2011, she competed in the Canadian Individual Slam Championship there, performing a piece “about being a trans woman and wanting babies,” she says.
(Kai Cheng Thom talks about the stories she tells, the languages she chooses to use and how complicated using words can be./Camerin Cobb and Tarek Lakhrissi video)
Despite some improvements in diversity, Thom says the world of literature can still feel like an old boys’ club. “But Verses is really putting their money where their mouth is and centering not just queer voices, but a diversity of voices.”
She praises the direction set in part by Christmas, who is no stranger to this kind of work. Christmas helped develop Spoken Word Canada’s national policy to improve the political dynamics in the spoken word community.
“I’m just really happy to see a festival as central to the national spoken word scene headed by a powerful, feminist, black woman poet,” Thom says.
Verses takes place from April 21 to May 1, primarily at venues in the Commercial Drive area in East Vancouver.