25th Trillium Award

Profile on the 2012 WESTFEST Lit and Spoken Word Stages, Saturday, June 9

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By rob mclennan

One hundred percent Canadian, and one hundred percent accessible, is WESTFEST?s mantra. This year?s literary component of WESTFEST, a three-day free street festival in Ottawa?s west end, is again two-fold. On Saturday, June 9, 2023, CBC Radio?s Alan Neal hosts the Lit Stage, featuring writer, performer and curator Ruthanne Edward alongside writers Alan Shain, Daniel Richer and Ruth Stewart-Verger at 3 p.m., and 90 minutes later, CBC News? Adrian Harewood hosts the Spoken Word Stage, featuring writer, performer and curator Faye Estrella alongside Slam performers Destiny Anderson, Project Reclamation, Liam St. John, Switch, CauseMo, Komi Olaf, Ian Keteku and Maddy Harris.

Originally founded by Ottawa producer and artistic director Elaina Martin in 2004, WESTFEST began as a one day event, adding a day each of the first three years to eventually stretch over the second weekend of June, bringing over 100,000 people to Ottawa?s Westboro Village. Given WESTFEST?s successes over the years, it becomes impossible to suggest the City of Ottawa doesn?t come out to support its own. Now featuring over 100 curated hours of artistic disciplines, from the very beginning, WESTBORO has included music, contemporary dance, visual art, media and performance art, as well as the Lit and Spoken Word stages. There aren?t many contemporary non-literary festivals that feature literature at all, let alone so prominently, and each of WESTFEST?s performance stages feature an array of talent from various corners of local and national writing. Imagine a festival that hosts Kathleen Edwards and Marcus McCann, for example. Over the years, performers at WESTFEST have included Jane Sibbery, Elizabeth Hay, The Cowboy Junkies, Nicole McGill, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Bif Naked, Gabriela Goliger, Sloan, Saleema Nawaz, Priscila Uppal, Suki Lee, Luna Allison, Mark Frutkin and Danny Michel, as well as many others. As Elaina Martin says:

My love of the literary world is what made me create the two literary components of WESTFEST, at the start, this is the same thing that keeps it relevant and prevalent to me each year! Also, it's about giving locals props, the props they so deserve and I've been able to do that with the literary community as well, local and national. Locals have read with Ann-Marie MacDonald and Elizabeth Hay and more amazing accomplished Canadian writers, it makes me?proud! I love the local writers scene and I love getting a new and different curator each year so that they draw on the different and unique diverse writers groups out there, I really like being surprised (Kinda) by the difference in our roster and the art each year in those sections, it's exciting to me, and hey I am the artistic director so if I'm excited I believe others will be as well.

I tried like hell to get Yann Martel as well as Margaret Atwood, unfortunately their schedules, or fees were too much for me. Being a free event, puts limitations to whom I can invite or who I can get into a contract with for a performance, it's challenging. So, I've tried to keep it to local artists, and they have a place within our event, a place they can call? ?their own?!

Writers who have surprised me, are Mark Frutkin I'm a fan now, Frances Itani same, Gabriella Goliger? there are others? I guess I just like being introduced to new literary creators like anyone, we've had a few that have rocked my socks off, same with WF Spoken Word?.

I've never been working to achieve anything other than offering art to the people? that's why we're free, and inclusive of everyone and 100 percent Canadian. Those are the important aspects of our mandate, one that I created, and one that is an extension of who I am, and has become an extension of everyone involved in WESTFEST in fact, my team are all? like minded peeps, they believe in no barriers in providing art, it's important in a culture that has taken art out of the school curriculum and it's important for a city to enjoy, explore and give props to it's own artists!

I think we bring, openness and awesomeness to the City of Ottawa.

As far as the individual literary components of the events, WESTFEST appoints an individual curator for each stage, given carte blanche to select authors for their individual sets. One article on the events a few years ago quotes Martin as saying, ?We?ve got what?s hot in spoken word, and they?re all from Ottawa.? As 2012?s Spoken Word Stage curator Faye Estrella says:

I chose four members of the Ottawa Fountain (Youth Slam Team), and two members from The Recipe (Ian Keteku and Komi Olaf) to perform. The other performer, Destiny Anderson, is not a local performer, but was recommended by the producer.

My concept for this year's stage is youth and collaboration — I wanted to showcase younger performers (the youngest just turned 13) and how they work together in their spoken word craft to make team pieces.

The festival brings writers to a larger audience that they may not usually find in literary festivals, since WESTFEST, as you pointed out, is music-focused. Vice versa, the audience gets to experience a slice of the literary side of Ottawa that could get them further interested in checking out many of Ottawa's literary events.

I know for me, who went to WESTFEST for the first time in 2005, that's when I started to get to know the spoken word and literary scene in Ottawa. I saw Suki Lee there (even though the website says she was only featured in 2004). I think that's also when I met you, rob, and volunteered to pass out your work. In 2006 I volunteered for WESTFEST again and in 2007 I was one of the features for the Spoken Word Stage. I feel like now that I'm curating for WESTFEST, I've gone full circle and relish the fact to give other up and coming artists and chance to shine on that stage.

The 2011 Lit Stage curator, Marcus McCann, talks about his own experiences:

It was an honour to be asked to curate the 2011 lit programming. I've got to hand it to Elaina Martin — WESTFEST is such a class act. I was looking for the best and most interesting writers within 200 km of Ottawa. I was also looking for voices that hadn?t been heard at WESTFEST for awhile. In a way, it was like creating a fantasy football team; I'll take the QB from over here, the receiver from over there... I wanted to mix fiction and nonfiction, I wanted gender diversity.... not out of some sort of duty, but really because I new it was going to be a better and more interesting program if it was varied.

I organized the event as two pairs of related readings, with a Q&A after each pair. The two pairs were related loosely along the lines of ?outsiders? (you and Jon Paul Fiorentino) and ?outlaws? (Gabriella Goliger and Patrizia Gentile). I thought it would be interesting to pair the ennui and outsidership of Stripmalling and White (disaffected, claustrophobic, depressive, suburban) with a kind of postwar Canadian lesbian outlaw, in the legal sense (Gentile?s The Canadian War on Queers) and in the cultural sense (Goliger?s Girl, Unwrapped). I feel like they were diverse, but there was kinship between the works. Differences that ring with common experience.

For those unfamiliar to the area or festival, WESTFEST?s growth has coincided with the growth and expansion of the Westboro neighbourhood, and the event does as much to highlight local businesses in the area as it does for local artists, taking up a multiple-block stretch of Richmond Road (originally the trail that the soldiers and their families from the disbanded members of the 99th regiment walked in August 1818 from Richmond Landing, just behind Chaudiere Falls, to found Richmond, Ontario, following their leader, Charles Lennon, the fourth Duke of Richmond, Governor of British North America). Now the area is home to an array of hip and trendy shops, restaurants and other businesses, each giving as much as receiving during this impressive three-day event. Come for the writing, I?d say, and stay for just about everything else.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

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