Winnipeg welcomes inaugural Spoken Word Festival

A new Spoken Word Festival is launching this week.

Winnipeg Spoken Word Festival runs June 4-7 at the Gas Station Theatre

Aaron Simm, a performance poet and hip hop artist, is the artistic director of Winnipeg's first Spoken Word Festival (Leif Norman)

A new Spoken Word Festival is launching this week in Winnipeg. The four-day event includes slam, performance poetry, improv and music featuring some of the finest spoken word artists from around North America.

Slam is kind of a mix between a poetry reading and a diving competition.- Aaron Simm

Aaron Simm, the festival's artistic director, says Winnipeg has been a hotbed of spoken word events. The city's poetry slam has been around for more than a decade, one of the oldest poetry slams in Canada.

"Slam is kind of a mix between a poetry reading and a diving competition," Simm quipped.

He describes it as a competition where poets read their poems on stage, then five randomly chosen judges hold up a score between 1 and 10, based on whatever rubric they choose. The highest and lowest scores are discarded, then in the end, the poet with the highest score wins.

"The idea is that you don't need to have a degree to appreciate art, the same way you don't need to be an experienced chef to know if a meal is terrible. It's saying that everyone has a valid opinion about art," Simm explained.

Simm is a poetry slam champion, having represented the city on the national poetry slam stage six times. He says he got into it by accident. He is also a hip hop artist, was writing poetry and lyrics, and one day stumbled on a slam. He was an instant hit, making it onto the Manitoba team that went on to the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Ottawa.

Simm says he loves word play, sometimes a whole poem is built around a pun. He also uses a lot of elements of storytelling and he is definitely influenced by hip hop in both writing and performance.

"For me it's all about rhythm and making sure that words are in the right place and making sure you have the right amount of syllables and that it rhymes (I do use rhyming, some people don't). As for the performance aspect, you want to be big on stage and grab people's attention," he said.

Simm feels that by just coming out and experience it, the festival will help dispel latent feelings about poetry being boring and bookish.

"I remember my first festival that I went to, there was someone who sounded king of bookish and a little stuffy. I thought it would be kind of boring and that I wouldn't like it. And by the end of it I was in tears, it was such a touching poem. I've been hooked on that ever since."

Winnipeg-based Chimwemwe Undi performs in On the Spot on June 5:

Winnipeg Spoken Word Festival highlights:

  • June 4 - Winnipeg Poetry Slam Finals. The winners go on to the national competition in Victoria.
  • June 5 - On the Spot: a mash-up of local improv artists led by Stephen Sim (CRUMBS) and poets. They will collaborate to create an evening of never-before-seen pieces.
  • June 6 - Spoken Weird: "Winnipeg has a reputation for being a bit of an oddball poetry slam compared to other cities. We're kind of isolated from other slams and we have a very unique voice here in the city and that's something we want to celebrate," Simm said. The evening will be capped off with a Haiku Death Match with the audience choosing the best haiku.
  • June 7 - Straight Talk, featuring some of the best spoken words artists in North America, including Buddy Wakefield.

The Winnipeg Spoken Word Festival runs at the Gas Station Theatre June 4 - 7.