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Voices of Venus Q & A with
Voices of Venus

Interview by Ren Tomovcik

Each month, Umi Café plays host to Voices of Venus, an evening of women's poetry that is rapidly becoming one of Ottawa's most powerful spoken word events.   Voices of Venus welcomes first-time performers, seasoned veterans of the spoken word stage, and everyone in between, inviting the audience to laugh, cry, listen and participate.  An open mic gets the evening started before a featured performer takes the stage in this warm and intimate venue.

Past featured poets include Jessica Ruano, Danielle K.L. Grégoire, Amanda Earl, Hodan Ibrahim, Megan Butcher, and Shannon Beahen, and this month's highlight performer is the inimitable Luna Allison.  In a space created by women, on a stage populated by women, female performers enthrall and entertain an audience of all ages and genders. Ottawafocus chats with co-organizers Allison and Faye about the poetry scene,  the importance of women's spaces, and the beauty and power of sharing experiences as a community.
Voices of Venus How did Voices of Venus first get started? 

Voices of Venus started as a one-off event in the spring of 2009. There are a lot of women in town with a lot to say and a lot of talent, but much of the local spoken-word scene is fairly dominated by guys, so the women don’t get as much exposure as they could.

The idea of starting Voices of Venus was to give women a stage where they could show off their work and say what they have to say, and be heard by everyone, as opposed to going with a women-only venue, which would leave half the scene in the dark about the kind of talent, passion and drive that are out there.

Why did you two decide to take over and make it a monthly event?

The event had been poorly advertised, so we were actually the only two people there to participate in the show.  Sergio, one of the people who runs Umi Café, asked if we would take on the co-ordination and hosting of VoV because, though he really wanted to see the event take off as a monthly thing, he felt it wouldn’t be right for him, as a guy, to be in charge of such a women-centric event. Basically, we were in the right place at the right time, and it kind of landed in our laps.

What makes Umi Café
an ideal place to host spoken word events?

Umi Café was where the first, one-off edition of Voices of Venus took place – it was such a huge hit that the café wanted to continue hosting it.  Umi is a very community-oriented place and one that fosters a very supportive atmosphere for new performers and spoken word veterans alike.  On top of that, because it’s a coffee shop instead of a bar, people under nineteen can come to listen and participate.  We’ve had young women in their mid-teens come to take part in our open mics and they bring a lot of energy and talent to the stage.

Voices of Venus What do you do to help promote the event and raise its profile? What can supporters do to help?

A lot of our promotion is based on postering and social networking sites like Facebook, as well as occasional plugs and interviews by obliging folks at Apartment 613, The Ottawa Arts News Letter, and CKCU’s Literary Landscapes.  But we also get a lot of people coming due to word of mouth. 

With that in mind, what supporters can do to help is take part in the show.Find that poem, that rant, that piece of flash-fiction you wrote last month, last week, or last year that you never showed anybody.  Bring it to Voices (you get in free if you sign up for the open mic!) and bring all your friends out to listen to you perform.

Before the VoV event became a regular occurrence, did you feel that Ottawa was lacking an adequate space and stage for female performers?

Yes – either that, or female performers didn't seem to be comfortable with the competitive format of the spoken word nights. Those spaces which were exclusively ours tended to be one-off events, or once-a-year happenings. 

That’s not to say that there was no space where women could perform, but I think Ottawa was lacking a regular event that made a point of putting women’s diverse experiences directly in the spotlight.

  Why do you think it's important to have a space dedicated specifically to female artists?

It's a male-dominated scene, slam poetry. Female spoken word artists are rare, unlike in other literary scenes, and it's hard for emerging performance poets to get the confidence to get their voice heard. Basically, we hope this space helps empower women and raise awareness that there are awesome local female artists.  You, the audience member with big dreams, can become one too and get out on other stages, confident and shining!

Voices of VenusWomen have so much to offer creatively and I think it’s important that we gather together as peers to support each other in our work in a context that acknowledges that this work is work and that it has value – both as work, as something that will draw a paying crowd, and as truth: that our experiences are valid and valuable and worthy of being shared on our own terms.

How is performing at a "women's only" open mic different than performing at a mixed open mic, considering that the audience at VoV isn't female-only?

The vibe is different. People are attentive, but not daring you to impress them. At open mics you usually have to fight to be heard, and at poetry slams you have to take it to the extreme, outshine everybody else, and give it all you've got.

At VoV it's about participating in your art with you, without the demand that you have to be worthy of the audience's attention or praise. Your voice is expressed, heard, witnessed.

It's been mentioned that despite the large number of talented female performers in the area, male spoken word artists still outnumber female performers at most spoken word events. Why do you think this is?

Part of it – not all of it, but part of it – comes down to little girls and little boys being socialized differently.  We all grow up expecting women to stay quiet and men to speak up.  And it takes a lot of work to go against that social programming, particularly in mixed-gender spaces.

A lot of Ottawa’s performance poetry scene is heavily based in slam – competitive poetry –  which, here at least, tends to reward in-your-face aggressive poetry more than other types of intensity.  Women’s spoken word is not often aggressive.  It’s intense, and no mistake.  We’ve seen Shannon Beahen bring a room full of people to their feet just by talking about cat ladies and geeky romanticism, and Faye’s poetry regularly makes people cry.  Hodan Ibrahim and Megan Butcher leave their audiences gasping for entirely different reasons.  Our feature poet for December, Luna Allison, has a show called “Falling Open,” and her work will rock you to your core, it’s that powerful.

Voices of Venus What kinds of pieces can new audiences expect to hear at the Voices of Venus Open Mic?

You'll get intense spoken word slam poem pieces, people reading stories from when they wrote as children, experimental poetry, image-based poetry, singers playing on beat up acoustics and banjos, comedic free verse stylings, angry rants... It's a mish-mash of the female experience poured out through words and voice and song.

What do you hope the audience comes away with after experiencing VoV?

Joy, inspiration, a deeper love for spoken word, and the bug to write some poetry themselves. The understanding that female vocal expression can be a mutual experience, a community experience: transcendent, varied, entertaining, thought-provoking and moving. It can feed your spirit and your mind and your heart just as well or better than your television and your cinemas.


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