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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Guerrilla takeover planned for today


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Anytime after 3.00  this afternoon, the War Memorial, Parliament Hill and the Byword Market are the locations likely to be infiltrated by a band of urban warriors dedicated to animating public space with their preferred weapons of choice – the human voice.

Yes it is the “guerrilla poetry” program of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word – a rotating national event that has come to Ottawa for only the second time.

As public art goes, guerrilla poetry — where impromptu spoken word events quickly take over a street-corner or a well-known gathering spot — has to to be one of the simplest (if ephemeral) ways to animate public space. It does take a certain kind of courage though, and we were keen to talk with a practitioner to find out just what goes into the making of guerrilla poet. We spoke with with Danielle Gregoire, whose work can be seen in the video on top this post.

Spacing: Psyching yourself up for public speaking can be tough at the best of times, but on the street – with poetry – seems like it might be even more daunting. How do you get “in the zone”?

Danielle: I like to pick an appropriate piece. Something more street prophet-ish. If I have a milk crate to stand on, even better. I have a few pieces which start with lines you just can’t ignore, for example, “I was sitting on the toilet, in the Chapters downtown…” which is a part of my Random Acts of Kindess piece. You just have to remember that people are going to think you are nuts, and go with it. It’s really kind of free-ing, once you let go of all the social pressures to behave in public. It’s also easier if you gather a little crowd before you start. That way you have a focal point. Staring at the public can be daunting.

Spacing: Any memories of the “first time”?

My first experience with Guerilla poetry would have been at the 2006 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Toronto. An incredibly large group of poets hit up the downtown Chapters and just started throwing poems from the mezzanine into the unsuspecting coffee drinkers below. It was organic with no pause, and no pre-rehearsed moments.Just poem after poem from about fourty poets from across the country. It was exhilarating to be performing in a space where the poetry was unexpected. The response was good, and I think that all the poets that went there came out more confident in their art.

Spacing: What is your most memorable interaction with a member of the public while reading poetry on the street? A comment, a heckle, an expression of total bewilderment?

Danielle: I once performed at a busking day in Toronto with the Toronto Poetry Slam organizers. We had a wee little amp, and a microphone. It was in Kensington Market, a ridiculously hot day in the summer, and I was about 7 months pregnant. Not at top form at all. I did a piece about how we no longer sing in the streets which involves samples of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, but done Jeff Buckley style, and it seemed as if there was no one listening. The street bustled with activity, but very few passerbys took the time to stop in listen. I did notice a man. He was sitting on the curb. I thought he might just be smoking a cigarette on a break. After my performance he approached me. He thanked me for my piece. He was very emotional. He was an older man, originally from Britain, and he said that when he was a young boy, singing or whistling in the streets was quite commonplace. When he moved to Canada he found the streets a much more conservative and quiet space. He tried whistling, but was looked at like he might be mentally unstable. He stopped. He said that after hearing my poem, he would start up again. Society, be damned.

Spacing: How does Ottawa rate with your colleagues in the street poetry line of performance? Tough crowd, indifferent, supportive?

Danielle: I think Ottawa, because of its national capital status, is used to demonstrations in the street. There are always festivals going on, and public art performances aren’t a rarity necessarily. Meanwhile this does cause a sort of “walk-by curiously” attitude. I’ve done street poetry in Halifax, Toronto, in Lanark County and in Ottawa, and once you get a crowd gathered (something we could learn from the busking tradition) then the environment in supportive. I think people, by nature, are curious. It’s why we rubber-neck at accidents, and stand by burning buildings. We just want to be inspired by something. We want a story to tell. To be a part of something larger. Catching poets from across the nation connecting in the streets by way of spoken word poetry…well that’s something to see. I’m hoping that this year, we make some glorious noise