This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture


The New Voice Of Democracy

Jackie Wallace

How poets, not politicians, are politicizing Ottawa youth

Oni the Haitian Sensation: I have always used poetry to advocate for something

Ottawa is a vocal city. The art of government expresses itself loudly through heckled speeches in the House of Commons and sound bites gathered by frantic scrums of journalists on the steps of Parliament Hill. But another voice has stepped up to the mic in the nation’s capital—the city’s slam poetry community is thriving and turning up the volume of oppositional rhetoric in the country’s most political city.

If the role of the poet is to reflect the world around her, then it is inevitable that politics would pencil itself into the poetics of Ottawa wordsmiths. But it’s ironic that in the nation’s capital, home to our national symbols of government and politics, it is poetry of all things that is politicizing young people. Slam poetry is the competitive aspect of performance poetry, aimed to inject verse into non-literary venues to an audience more diverse than a room full of poets. It has been an important grassroots arts movement in the US, and in Ottawa, audiences are responding to it as a forum for subversive political views that are often drowned out by feedback from the government scandal of the day.

From sharing the monkey bars with Justin Trudeau in the first grade to emceeing the launch of Ed Broadbent’s 2004 federal campaign, Ingrid Joseph’s life in Ottawa is steeped in politics. “I have always been a political person,” says Joseph, 31, better known around Ottawa as Oni the Haitian Sensation. “I was going to become a diplomat, but I’m not diplomatic.” So, becoming an outspoken poet and a driving force behind the city’s slam scene was the next best thing.

“Slam is coming up to the surface in Ottawa,” says Joseph. “I take slam poetry everywhere I can.” She has capitalized on the opportunity to perform her poems for parliament, Ottawa City Council and the CRTC, vocalizing her verses on demilitarization, AIDS and racism. “I have always used poetry to advocate for something,” she says. It is her raw, direct use of language that makes her messages accessible, particularly to a younger audience, and is why she has been invited to perform at politically motivated events aimed at youth. At Rush The Vote 2003, an event aimed at fostering political awareness in Canadian, Joseph performed her poem Academic Fuel.

“…If you/ disagree with the things you see/ Get involved with the politics of your country/ It’s your future and we need leaders/ Like devoted people not disbelievers…”

“I see absurd federal and international things that the average Canadian citizen doesn’t see,” says Ottawa poet John Akpata, 31, winner of Ottawa’s 2004 CBC Poetry Face Off. “When homeless people from across the country are protesting at 24 Sussex Drive, or there is a rally for Palestine on Parliament Hill, I can ride past on my bicycle. I can directly inject myself into an atmosphere of politics so I can criticize it and reveal the truth about it because of the juxtaposition of my life as a poet in a political town.”

Akpata is driven to write political poetry as a reaction against the heavy media coverage of the happenings in his hometown, which he sees as often being grossly inaccurate, leaving the public ill-informed. Frustrated by this political spoon-feeding, he believes that using poetry to offer a different perspective can empower people and initiate change. “When you express yourself it gives other people opportunity to do the same,” he says.

The relationship between politics and poetry that slam offers in Ottawa may not be what the government has in mind to fill the poet laureate seat when it is vacated by George Bowering later this year. “I don’t think that Paul Martin wants me to write poetry for him,” says Akpata. “But if I create poetry pertaining to Paul Martin and I walk up the street and say it on Parliament Hill, he’s going to hear about it. There are venues available to me here that other people just don’t have.”

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