There’s no other way to put it: Jillian Christmas is a one-woman poetry powerhouse. Her literary skills have earned her Grand Poetry-Slam Championship titles at both the Vancouver BedRocc poetry slam (2011) and the Vancouver Poetry Slam (2012, 2014), as well as a spot in the celebrated anthology The Great Black North. She's toured the West Coast collaborating with artists such as The Recipe and C. R. Avery, has developed programs with the Toronto Poetry Project and Wordplay, and has facilitated spoken word workshops across the country. To top it all off, Christmas is currently the Artistic Director of Canada’s largest alternative literary festival, Vancouver’s Verses Festival of Words.
This year’s fest takes place from April 21 to May 1, 2016, and will bring award-winning writers such as Ivan Coyote, Richard Wagamese, Wayde Compton, and Amber Dawn to stages across East Vancouver. In this interview with SAD Mag, Christmas shares some of her personal experiences with the festival and offers a special sneak peek of what to expect from this year's lineup.
SAD Mag: Congrats on your 6th year of Verses! Can you tell me a little bit about the thinking behind the festival? How did it get started?
Jillian Christmas: The impetus for Verses really came back in 2007 when Vancouver was the host of IWPS (the Individual World Poetry Slam championship), a festival that travels annually to a different North American city. During that first slam-infused Vancouver festival the city came alive with poets from all corners of the continent....When the circus left town, it was undeniable, there was something tangible missing. Creative writers throughout the city were hungry for an annual celebration of their crafts. Verses Festival of Words (then, Vancouver International Poetry Festival) sprang up as an answer to that need. Since then our goal has been to shine a light on this community teeming with talented artistry, and to reach across the continent to bring some of the best contemporary work to this very deserving city.
SM: Why is literature important to you?
JC: When I was a fledgling writer growing up in Markham, Ontario, struggling to make sense of the space between my mind and the rest of the world, I had a difficult time communicating even my most basic needs or emotions. Literature became a bridge with which I could visit the world and my writing became a lifeline…When I started to discover representations of myself in the writing of heroes like Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde, I was literally saved. In my adulthood I am lucky enough to be invited into classrooms to talk about my experiences and teach workshops on my craft…It’s a constant reminder that expression through the arts can save young lives. To me there is nothing more important.
SM: Vancouver’s arts and culture scene sometimes gets a bad rep. Has it been a challenge running an alternative literary festival in the city?
JC: Perhaps it’s because Verses Festival of Words was born out of a direct need...that we’ve been so fortunate. I’ve heard it said (and experienced personally in different contexts), that it it’s quite difficult to fill venues here in Vancouver, or that when you are able to get crowds out, it is a challenge to have them engage with the performers...Luckily that has not been our experience with this festival. Though, I will say, when planning our lineup each year, we take that theory as a direct challenge, and...design our festival to ensure such a good time that those sitting at home will rise from their desks and couches with the motivation that only FOMO can ignite. In my mind Vancouverites are like any good cat, discerning, a little suspicious, but generous with a rolling purr when you treat them right. I have a lot of respect for that.
SM: What’s the most funny/shocking/moving memory you have from last year’s festival?
JC: Last year’s festival featured...a youth feature at Café Deux Soleil that paid homage to the life and work of Zaccheus Jackson Nyce. The Café was sold out and filled up almost twice over, with some folks making space halfway through the event for the long line of audience that waited patiently outside. Youth poets...had worked tirelessly over the previous semester transcribing the work of the late writer and arts educator...I was moved beyond words by their bold and brave voices.
We are honoured to feature another youth slam showcase in this year’s festival. Prepare to be annihilated; these youth poets are coming for our hearts and our jobs.
SM: What are you most looking forward to from this year’s lineup?
JC: I am always drawn in by the prospect of witnessing some of my favourite artists in new and unfamiliar ways. One way that we achieve this within the festival is by joining several artists together in events that ask them to interact with each other. [These workshop] stages are always a highlight for me and this year’s festival includes even more of these opportunities...than ever before, including...There Be Monsters, Word Circus, Femcees, All Lit Up, and more.
SM: I’ve never (voluntarily) signed up to listen to angsty teenage poetry before! What’s the idea behind Teen Angst Poetry night (April 26)?
JC: Consented public humiliation, amidst the gentlest company of course. Perhaps that makes it sound scary, like those dreams where you’re reciting a speech in your underwear? Except in this context, we’re all reciting a speech, and we’re all in our underwear, and the speech was written by our 13-year-old selves, and maybe our underwear isn’t quite clean.
SM: If you had to describe Verses in three words or less, what would you say?
JC: Stephen Harper’s nightmare.
The sixth annual Verses Festival of Words takes place from April 21 to May 1, 2016. For more information about the festival, visit versesfestival.ca.