Girl Power Poetry

Photo: Sonia Sanchez speaks at The 2013 Peace Ball: Voices of Hope And Resistance at Arena Stage on January 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. (January 19, 2013 – Source: Earl Gibson III/Getty Images North America)

[I]f there’s anything that can gather a diversity of people into one room, it’s art. In honour of International Women’s Day, the expression of feminism through spoken word united various women–and some men–at Ryerson’s fourth annual Celebrating Women’s Voices event last Friday night.

“Art does empower. It doesn’t only empower women, but men and children [as well]; especially if the art is about change,” says world-renowned American poet and professor, Sonia Sanchez.

Sanchez was one of the many poets invited to perform at Ryerson’s annual event hosted by Ryerson Students’ Union, RSU Centre for Women and Trans People, and Racialised Students’ Collective. Also featured was London-based Kenyan poet Warsan Shire, and other more local talents like Timaj Garad, The M.A.D Poet, Lishai Peel, and Catherine Hernandez. Celebrating Women’s Voices, held in the Library building, had Ryerson and locals snapping and “hmm”-ing in agreement to the powerful words that were recited.

The poetry at Celebrating Women’s Voices was a form of activism. Heavy topics were discussed in a beautiful and honest way.

University of Waterloo alumna and Waterloo Top 40 under 40 individual, Garad, was the first to perform. She recited “How to win a war,” covering many international issues.

Jamaican-Canadian poet, Melissa A. Dean a.k.a The M.A.D Poet, had the audience at the edge of her seat during her performance. Her fast rapping, musical way of delivering a poem entertained more like a concert with deep meaning. Dean, a Master’s student at York University, brought along two young female teens she has taken under her wing to perform with her. It’s safe to say that The M.A.D Poet has taught them well, as they surprised everyone with their musical talent in singing and rapping. Dean brought up the recent York University shooting during her set and dedicated a piece called “Uncool True Story” about a female teen who was teased and took to a gun to resolve her issues.

Peel’s poetry honoured culture, reciting a poem about her mother. The author of Why Birds and Wolves Don’t Trade Stones had theatre creator and dancer, Hernandez, perform alongside with her.

“It’s easy to do external excavation rather than digging for the personal stuff,” said Peel about writing spoken word poetry.

That much is true, but it’s no strange concept to Shire. Her poetry–which has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese–takes a more personal approach, often speaking about family, self-image, and love. She recited works from her book Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, and shared some new poems as well. She also writes about cultural issues. She read her poem “Girls” commissioned for The Guardian, in which she speaks about female genital mutilation. Her soft-spoken self keeps you in a trance, and is also what distinguishes her to the other main poet at the event, Sanchez.

Seventy-nine-year-old Sanchez recites with the energy of a teen. Completely still in her prime, the world-renowned poet’s style is fluid, rhythmic, and fierce. She recited a poem about sex that she wrote for VIBE Magazine years back, managing to add volume dynamics to her presentation. Short in stance, with dread draped over her face, Sanchez immerses herself completely in her poetry when reciting it. She sang, scatted, and even got audience participation within a poem. An activist and feminist, her work covers anything surrounding society.

“I’ve taught poetry, critical writing, and play writing for years and what you learn is that poetry keeps us alive. It keeps us human. It keeps us always willing to survive and be,” says Sanchez. “Art is a very important part of changing the world.”

Standing ovations ended the event, but the other-worldly feeling of empowerment in the room was hard to shake off.

“I feel like poetry can touch so many people in so many different ways, and it can reach diverse audiences as well,” says 21-year-old Vice President of Education and fourth-year social work student Roshelle Lawrence.

“I’m glad this is our fourth year running. We’re not going to stop because too often, women of colour who do great things in their community are put to the background of things, and this is a chance to put them to the forefront.”