VERSeFest, Poetry and… Feminism?

Posted: April 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

This has been a crazy week.

It kicked off a little earlier than that as we wrapped up the regular season of Capital Slam.

That night didn’t go so well, as I wrote about on this blog.

When that went down, suddenly I was getting praise from various sources about being a ‘good feminist’ and having a willingness to talk about such things.

I wasn’t really expecting that, exactly, and that isn’t why I did it. Every time I hear praise for such things, it rings false to me. I say, “but what about all those other times, when I said nothing?”

In fact, you could easily argue that the people I called out were guilty of having bad timing (in addition to the things they chose to say) because they spoke at a moment that bubbled my ‘tolerance’ past the tipping point. The same thing happened when I was in a position to talk about safe space a couple of months back. Someone thanked me and I had a hard time with that, knowing HOW OFTEN I had looked the other way and taken the easier path.

No more.

I realized something as VERSeFest wound up… I bought a bunch of books this year, and see if you can see a common theme…

Elizabeth Bachinsky – The Hottest Summer in Recorded History
Karen Connelly – Come Cold River
Lenelle Moïse – Haiti Glass
Mary Ruefle – Madness, Rack and Honey
Sarah Clancy – Thanks For Nothing, Hippies
Souvankham Thammavongsa – Light

Each one is written by a woman. (Though I also bought the new issue of Arc Poetry Magazine, which presumably contains work penned by more than one gender…)

This doesn’t take into account that I desperately want the new David McFadden book, but it has not yet been published. I also already own Blaise Moritz’s Zeppelin and the 2 Dope Boys chapbook… AND I quite enjoyed a number of readings by male poets…

…but those are the ones I chose to buy. What is it that spoke to me with those readings?

I can certainly that it wasn’t the same thing from reader to reader. We’ll see.

(Though right now I am reading a Witold Rybczynski book called Waiting for the Weekend…)

So, amazing – though tiring – VERSeFest. I have enjoyed very much helping, in my small way, to put the festival together.

My favourite part, obviously, was the VERSeOttawa Hall of Honour ceremony.

Sandra Ridley did an admirable job trying to fit all of Amanda Earl’s accomplishments into an introduction speech. Amanda’s contributions to the Ottawa poetry scene have been immeasurable and her addition to the ranks of the honoured is well deserved.

When it was time to introduce Danielle Gregoire, it was my pleasure to do so. I went off script just a little to say how wonderful it was to induct one of my best friends and got a little choked up.In many ways, it was Danielle that made the community into a home for me. She isn’t who got me writing, but of course, the mark I have left is hardly about my writing and it was Danielle who asked me to be Collective Treasurer and it is working with her that I gradually turned into the Slam Master.

Sometimes she doesn’t get the credit she deserves AND our community tends to have a very short memory. It was wonderful… and just wonderful to have her back in Ottawa!

(Now it is time to start looking towards NEXT year…)

But, I was still busy.

Still on theme… some months ago I was contacted by Sophie Tamas about coming into her class at Carleton University as a guest lecturer.

The class: Canadian Feminism.

Of course my first question was… why me?

I had done nothing to show myself as being any sort of expert in feminism, that is for certain.

The thing is, I do consider myself a feminist.

There was a time that I would have made some claim about being interested in equality rather than feminism, in the same way people will claim that there is such a thing as ‘reverse racism’.

It is here that I am grateful for my years. As long as you keep your eyes, ears and brain open, as the years pass you learn things. I learn things all the time and plan to keep doing so in the future.

One of the biggest things I learned was the concept of privilege. And I don’t mean that I was TOLD about it… it was that I LEARNED about it. Recognized it.

The number of advantages I have in my life due to a complete accident of birth have been innumerable. It is like being born in a caste system and being marked as ‘better’ for reasons completely removed from my actual actions and words.

I have also learned to not take that personally. I am not a bad person for being a white, hetero-sexual, able-bodied, middle class male. But while that is nothing to be ashamed of, refusing to acknowledge those advantages (or worse, to actively argue against it) is extremely insulting to those who society has not deigned to give those advantages.

So… here I was… being invited to speak in a class on Canadian feminism.

Of course the ‘why’ was not because I was an expert on feminism. In reality, Sophie asked me to talk about spoken word, my background, its link to activism. They had been talking about body image and male platonic touch (which has inspired a poem… that I am not quite ready to unleash).

I was honoured to be asked. That class was last night.

I was SO nervous. I talked about going to my first slam and ‘hearing the call’. I talked about my story and becoming entrenched in the community. I talked about inspiration of different sorts and about choosing what messages you want to address.

I talked about how you can have a positive-activist mind-set without being an ‘activist’. I talked about using that stage to learn and teach.

I told them about the Kwissas and how changing how one person views the world can be every bit as important as changing things on a grand scale.

In there, at Sophie’s request, I performed a poem. I chose Angst as a reflection of why I do what I do.

Then I took questions. There was some great ones! We talked about honest emotion on stage. We talked about gender balance and inherent inequality in slam. We talked about the difference between expressing something you had WORKED through and something you were WORKING through.

Afterwards, Sophie had them doing a writing exercise, which I won’t get into here, because for some, it may have been quite personal. I was honoured again to listen to some of the student’s writing and to take part in their group discussions.

So, now what?

It was a number of interestingly timed events that has gotten my mind working, but what does it change? It doesn’t turn me into a crusader but my general thought for all of this stuff has for a long time been defined as “what you call politically correct, I call not being an asshole”.

But, one thing is certain, I WILL keep calling people out, when I think it is warranted. That isn’t ‘Rusty the Slam Master’, but ‘Rusty the Human Being’. When I think it is people who are making a mistake, I will talk to them instead. As I said before, life is a learning process. Sometimes we need to learn.

But not everyone is open to learning.

  1. gregfrankson says:

    Great post, Rusty. I was sad that I was unable to be there at Versefest and I’m so glad things went well with Danielle and Amanda. Also, I’m deeply intrigued by your most recent experiences of “feminist”-related affairs. I’m sure we will have a good chat about it at some point. Keep being you – the world needs it. Much respect, my friend.

  2. I have been feeling a similar dive to do something more in relation to safe space and creating a dialogue, although I do not know exactly what that will look like for me yet. I think that it is so easy to forget these types of issues or to dismiss incidents as they come up, and it is important to make a shift toward constant action and discussion

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