WHEN I ARRIVED at the Mercury Lounge, it looked just like it would any night of the week, except for the circle of folding chairs in front of the stage. They were set up for the spoken word poetry workshop that was about to get started with Ian Keteku, an Ottawa-based World Slam Poetry champion.
The workshop was part of VERSefest, an international poetry performance and reading series put on by different Ottawa organizations, which ran from Feb. 28 to March 4.
The event started off by clearing up any misconceptions about poetry slams. Apparently, there is no such thing as slam poetry. In reality, poets perform spoken word poetry at competitions. A poetry slam consists of poets presenting their works to an audience from which a judging panel has been chosen.
Poets begin by competing locally—where teams are usually formed to compete regionally—followed by nationally, and then internationally.
Keteku is one of the few Canadian poets who has competed internationally with a world championship title under his belt. Having grown up in Calgary, Keteku found himself in Ottawa to complete his master’s in journalism at Carleton University. His first foray into spoken word was at a poetry slam in the ByWard Market at Mercury Lounge. By 2009, Keteku was captain of the team that won nationals in Victoria, B.C. One year later, he was named the 2010 World Slam Poetry champion in Paris.
The workshop lived up to the renowned poet’s impressive resumé. Keteku started the event by comparing poetry to magic, explaining that magic is not in the magician, but in those watching—just like spoken word poetry.
“Magic doesn’t come with correct answers but in the interpretation,” he said, while warning the room was a free space and that everyone would be expected to share some of their writing.
The workshop consisted of five different exercises, each resulting in a different writing sample. For one experiment, Keteku pulled out a glockenspiel—a percussive instrument made of keys like on a piano—so that we could play with different ways of describing sounds.
Afterward, I was able to ask Keteku a few questions. He was incredibly relaxed and comfortable answering them, as he shined his shoes and chatted casually. Keteku recently released an album called Lessons From Planet Earth (Re-evolution) and is part of a spoken word troupe called The Recipe. Having achieved so much already, the critically acclaimed poet spoke about what he’d like to do next.
“I have kind of taken the job of a poet [as] a regular job,” he explains. “[My] goal is to do what [I] do and do it better each time, and do it to a greater extent and affect more people if [I] can with every performance—every workshop.”
While reaching out to the public, Keteku often brings up the human condition. I asked what that means in his poetry.
“Society has a need for individuals to tell us what’s going on in our hearts and in our minds, about the human condition through art. We’ve always had a need for it and poetry is one of those avenues.”
Keteku’s workshop was informative and full of inspiration from start to finish. He wanted to make it clear that words evoke feelings and everyone can find that magic. According to Keteku, anyone can write poetry.
“There is no right way. Every person has a voice.”