There are few things in life more reliable as a pick-me-up than the work of a good wordsmith. Wanting nothing more than to escape January's mercury madness, for the past few weeks I've come home from work, closed my door and retreated into a good book. But there has been one thing missing in my literary oasis: human contact. I love lit and I read on a daily basis but I need to mingle with the masses too.
Thankfully, Montreal artist and organizer D. Kimm knows what a powerful force people and prose are against the mid-winter blahs. As the artistic and general director of the production company Les filles électriques, she's had the foresight to schedule an eight-day-long literary refuge, the Voix d'Amériques spoken-word festival, right smack in the middle of winter. Now in its fifth year, the festival runs from February 10 to 17.
"When I ask people to be a part of the festival, I don't want people that will just come to make a showcase and then go," she says. "I want people that will be involved and will share with other artists and have something to give to the public."
The program is diverse and adventurous, with a fitting guest of honour: Tomson Highway will open the festival in English, performing his own songs on piano, accompanied by theatrical singer Patty Cano and Berlin-based saxophone player Ulrich Kempendorff.
A character in his own right, Highway is quite the score for the festival-he is a dynamic gay Canadian Cree playwright, author, poet, songwriter and pianist who is at ease in French, English and Cree. Best known for his plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (both of which have been staged all over the world, including New York and Tokyo) and his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen, he has won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play and Best Production, the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama and is a member of the Order of Canada, to name very few of his many formal accolades. Maclean's magazine named him one of the "100 Most Important People in Canadian History." He is a trained pianist, with a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from the University of Western Ontario.
He and his partner of twenty-one years spend six months of the year in the south of France (he has a view of Spain and lives within walking distance of the foothills of the Pyrenées) and the other six months near Sudbury. He's chosen to perform in Montreal in the dead of winter just to say thanks to Prise de Parole, his publishers, the festival and Montreal.
"Life should be an act of thanks," he said. "I just want to thank everybody; I'm just having such a good time."
Highway is genuine in his sentiment. He has a joyful spirit that is just a tad mischievous, and he speaks with the ease that comes from being a world traveller. Born in a snow bank-literally- to Nomadic caribou-hunting parents in the Northwest-most corner of Manitoba, he estimates his family lived in twenty different places while his mother was expecting him. At the age of six he was shipped 500 kilometres to a residential school to attend grade one; to attend high school in Winnipeg, he had to travel 1,600 kilometres from where he was born. He estimates he's visited more than fifty countries in his fifty-four years.
He cites "falling in love" as his favourite activity and says the sound of human laughter is in his top-three favorite sounds of all time. Accordingly, he promises his performance in the gay cabaret Jolis Garçons to be similar to standup comedy-although he'll still be at the piano-as he ruminates on what happened to God's wife.
The different setups of his two performances are a good indication of the diversity of the festival. More bilingual than previous years, it features many local-and some not-so-local-artists. One of the major Anglophone events is the Valentine's Day program, "Love and Kisses From Vancouver," featuring cowboy storyteller Ivan Coyote; songwriter Kinnie Starr; the band the Fugitives; and two ex-Vancouverite Montreal-transplant dancers, Deborah Dunn and Chanti Wadge. There are a couple of standout Francophone events: "Body and Soul 3" features seven strong female artists-among them choreographers, singers and poets-and is to be hosted by D. Kimm. "Combat Contre la Langue de Bois, Deuxième Round" promises to be a zinger; and Jacques Bertrand will referee a contest between ten artists who each have six minutes to come up with brilliant wordplay to woo an audience.
The free cinq-à-sept series at Casa Del Popolo starts on Saturday 11 February with the ever-charming Mahalia Verna as host, and will feature Nomadic Massive, a hip hop troupe that mingles conscious lyrics with lush musicality. The next day it's the CD launch for Caniche Hara-Kiri, a francophone group with dramatic and whimsical female vocals overtop math-rock sensibilities. The annual CBC Poetry Face-Off, hosted by Patti Schmidt (Thursday 16 February), belongs to the cinq-à-sept series and features poets Susan Gillis, Oana Avasilichioaei, David McGimpsey, Susan Elmsley and double-bass player Nicolas Caloia.
Rounding out the literary wizardry is the small-press fair, Salon de la Marginalité, at la Sala Rosa on Sunday 12 February (starting at 11 AM). Familiar titles such as Fish Piss, Dstroboto and Maisonneuve will have booths at the fair, which doubles as a networking event.
In the end, the underlying mandate guiding D. Kimm and her board of directors was to assemble a program that allowed those who have something to say to speak up. Accordingly, there will be an open-mic event every night at Casa Del Popolo, after the 11 PM Night Shift series (which features three or four invited poets). The only rule is that you have to perform your own words.
"I think we have to take the power of our own life," said D. Kimm, adding there are many models of how we should aspire to live. "I like people who will take that power. You are the hero of something, and that is special. You have to take charge of your life." Even-or especially-during the crummy depths of winter.
The fifth annual Voix d'Amériques spoken-word festival runs from February 10 to 17. Check out the festival website for programme details.