Wilson brings poetry to life on stage

Performance poet advocates for unheard voices and effecting change

Sheri-D Wilson will be performing this Thursday as part of Carolyn Smart’s English course on Canadian spoken word.
Sheri-D Wilson will be performing this Thursday as part of Carolyn Smart’s English course on Canadian spoken word.

Performer-poet Sheri-D Wilson, one of Canada’s celebrated experimental artists, is responsible for paving the way for spoken word back in the ’80s. Though performing to the beat of her own drum with unique, jazzy words has garnered the Alberta native recognition, Wilson still forges ahead with her work and focuses on creating thriving artistic communities wherever she is.

As artistic director and producer for the Calgary International Spoken Word Festival, Wilson has rallied support and exposure for the art form in a city she had once left behind due to its lack of culture.

“I didn’t feel there was any art or possibilities for me here as an artist. Calgary’s changed considerably since then. It’s a real hotbed of art and culture. It’s a good place to be now,” Wilson said.

“At the time, I thought it was a hick town. … I’m glad that I left and travelled and did my thing and created a career for myself as a spoken word artist and now I’m glad to be back here.”

Returning to her hometown is still only one step of Wilson’s journey and career. She’s constantly travelling across the continent and to perform and has lived in Vancouver and New York. Right now she’s on her way to Paris to film a piece about a love affair she has with French poet and surrealist pioneer Apollinaire in an alternate reality.

“I really feel that your place is everywhere as a poet. Your place is where you are so you’re always gathering stories which are the data of your poetry,” Wilson said.

“We’re always talking about how the place influences the artist. What I’m more interested in these days is how the artist influences the place and helps influence the community.”

Wilson’s poetic activism has personal and grander implications. Working with various mediums to bring her words alive, Wilson plays with changing technologies and produces films, books, essays and live performances. Her style is rhythmic and musical and employs the full range of her voice to communicate the issues and emotions of the poems. However, Wilson thinks the role of a poet extends beyond art and translates into an educator and activist. “It’s every poet’s job. If you’re not teaching at a university or in the educational process and not handing the word down to younger people, then you had better be doing something in your community. It’s not just about writing down words and performing them—it’s about helping and changing the world. If you don’t have the incentive, then don’t be a poet.” Wilson and her work are both entertaining and visionary. The pieces often feature the voices of women, creating a space for expression and exploration of the female perspective.

“The women before me, like in the surrealist movement, weren’t even acknowledged in history until recently. I don’t think any voice should be squelched. I feel a deep sorrow when I think of all the voices throughout history who have been,” Wilson said.

“I think a lot of young women speak out a lot about feminism and they don’t know a lot about the history. And that acknowledgement is part of what I’m about. “Like my teachers, Diane di Prima. Now, we have all heard of Allen Ginsberg, but have we heard of Diane di Prima?”

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics student worked with both Ginsberg and di Prima as a budding poet and performer. There she learned a particular style of writing.

“What [the beatniks] taught me so many years ago was to always follow the soul or the heart of your epiphanies. When you start writing the epiphanies there are the large strokes. When you continue to write them, they get smaller and smaller and then every moment becomes an epiphany and then your light comes on more often and you start observing how simple things have great magic,” Wilson said.

Tinged with humour and musical-influences, Wilson’s work, though it appears in print, is meant to be experienced, much like the poems of her beat predecessors.

“You write the poems and that’s one hat that you may wear and there’s the presentation of the poem, of your own text. … There’s two eyes of seeing and two eyes of writing,” Wilson said.

“I write for the orator and I’m very specific about that.”

Wilson has a deep-rooted background in acting and filmmaking that has intersected with her career as a writer. Though known for her performance abilities, the poet still feels she has more to explore. “I like the discovery and magic of performance: the study of alchemy and transformation, the study of metaphysics within that realm. I think the deeper you go into performance the more you learn. You will never hit a wall or plateau. ... It’s always an ebb and flow motion. My study of my performance, I know, is in a state of change, a state of possibility.”

The transient quality of performance and spoken word lends itself well to the impermanence of technology for Wilson. The constant change in technology means new ways to play with the genre that is also evolving and taking root in Canada.

“The exchange of those two forms is going all the time. There’s a total interactive motion between the creation of the work and the poetry and then the form of technology… Blogging, CD, DVD, they inform our work but we inform them as well,” Wilson said.

“It’s so interesting—it’s the oldest tradition and yet it’s the newest form. Within that space are all the possibilities of the moment. I think most spoken word artists think of their work as something that is always in a state of change. It only lives on the page long enough to take it off and read it aloud.”

The emerging Canadian spoken word scene excites Wilson said. Her hand in cultivating the Calgary scene from a grassroots event to a large-scale international festival is greatly appreciated.

“They inspire me. It’s great to feel like you’re aging when you can have an interplay with in the ages. You can actually then find yourself inspired by a younger voice and they might be inspired by you,” Wilson said.

Writing from a place of fury and passion, Wilson captivates her audiences and still remains inspired by life and living.

“I am all the places I have ever visited. I’m all the lovers I’ve ever made love to. I’m all the people I’ve ever met. I am all the books I have ever read. I’m all those things, I carry that with me,” Wilson said in what sounded like an impromptu moment of epiphany.

“It doesn’t really matter after a while where you are as an artist. You could be in a dark room and still perceive the light.”

Sheri-D Wilson performs at the drama department’s Convocation Theatre this Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

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