Po­ets sat­isfy hunger for spo­ken word

Edmonton Journal - - ARTS & LIFE - El­iz­a­beth Withey ewithey@ed­mon­ton­jour­nal. com Twit ter.com/lizwithey ed­mon­ton­jour­nal.com Watch vid eos of Ti­ti­lope Sonuga and Ahmed Know­madic Ali per form­ing spo­ken word at ed­mon­ton­jour­nal.com/ en­ter­tain­ment

This hol­i­day week, the Jour­nal in­tro­duces you some of the in­no­va­tors — cre­ative, soulful and smart — who’ve changed Ed­mon­ton’s cul­tural land­scape. Read the sto­ries in the Arts & Life, Movies & Books and Style sec­tions through Satur­day, and at ed­mon­ton­jour­nal.com

Ti­ti­lope Sonuga and Ahmed Ali know the power of a sup­port­ive crowd. Both po­ets vividly re­call the first time they did spo­ken word in front of a mi­cro­phone, how vul­ner­a­ble, ner­vous and ex­cited they were, and how em­pow­ered they felt when peo­ple re­acted pos­i­tively.

For Ali, it was in 2009 at the Ed­mon­ton Po­etry Fes­ti­val. “I did hor­ri­ble; I sucked,” says the 29-year-old.

Not so, says Sonuga, also a young poet, who was in the au­di­ence lis­ten­ing that day. She liked what she heard. “Titi sup­ported me, gave me a card,” Ali re­calls. The two got chat­ting, be­came friends and soon formed the Breath In Po­etry col­lec­tive with the goal of pro­mot­ing spo­ken word in the Ed­mon­ton area. Ev­ery Tues­day, the pair fa­cil­i­tates Rouge Po­etry, an open-mike po­etry night at Rouge Lounge in the Oliver neigh­bour­hood. The event pro­vides a sup­port­ive, ca­sual en­vi­ron­ment for any poet to share their writ­ing out loud.

When Rouge Po­etry started, no one came. “It was just a few peo­ple star­ing at each other,” Ali re­calls. But “in the third year, I don’t know what hap­pened, boom!”

Now, the event at­tracts a reg­u­lar crowd of 40 to 50 lis­ten­ers. Some­times they have to turn peo­ple away, es­pe­cially on slam nights, when po­ets com­pete for a spot on the slam team that goes on to the na­tional cham­pi­onships. Reg­u­lar Rouge nights are free; slam nights are $5 for non-per­form­ers, with all the cash go­ing to sup­port the slam team.

“Over the years it’s take on a life of its own,” Sonuga says of the weekly event at Rouge Lounge, 10111 117th St. “We see all kinds of peo­ple. We’re al­ways laugh­ing about the char­ac­ters com­ing through Rouge. It makes you want to write bet­ter, dif­fer­ently. I’m so proud and hum­bled to have been a part of it. As much as it’s our po­etry night, it’s theirs as well. This com­mu­nity is re­ally im­por­tant to me and Ahmed.”

Tues­day nights at Rouge Lounge are magic. There’s a buzz in the air, and it’s not just the wine flow­ing at the ta­bles, which are of­ten packed. The crowd is hun­gry for mean­ing­ful words de­liv­ered well. Dur­ing po­ems, peo­ple snap their fin­gers when a poet says a good line (this can oc­cur many times dur­ing one poem). And when each artist fin­ishes, the au­di­ence erupts in ap­plause and cheers. (Rouge Po­etry will take a hol­i­day hia­tus un­til Feb. 4.)

“We want to give a plat­form to peo­ple who de­sire it, much like we did,” Ali ex­plains. The Rouge crowd “is like a fam­ily to us. Peo­ple come there, we give them sup­port and ad­vice, be­cause we want the art to grow back in this com­mu­nity.”

He re­mem­bers how good it felt when he and his team won the Cana­dian Fes­ti­val of Spo­ken Word slam in Toronto in 2011. “I went from be­ing ran­dom dude who sucked on a stage to be­ing some­one who was na­tion­ally rec­og­nized, be­cause I had an op­por­tu­nity.”

Ali per­forms and writes un­der the alias “Ahmed Know­madic,”, a trib­ute to his roots. His dad is a no­mad in So­ma­lia, herd­ing camels, cat­tle and sheep on foot. It is a com­mon way of life in the east African coun­try, which be­came po­lit­i­cally un­sta­ble when civil war broke out 1991.

“And I go from place to place herd­ing words,” Ali says.

Both po­ets im­mi­grated to Canada from dif­fer­ent parts of Africa. Sonuga was 13 when her fam­ily moved to Ed­mon­ton from Nige­ria. Ali’s fam­ily left So­ma­lia when he was tod­dler, ar­riv­ing in Canada in 1991 af­ter four fi­nan­cially dif­fi­cult years in Italy (Ali lived at a board­ing school be­cause his par­ents couldn’t af­ford to have him at home). The fam­ily spent eight years in Kitch­ener, Ont., but when Ali was just 16, his mom and dad went back to So­ma­lia — without him. Ali grew up fast. “I had to pay for my own rent, buy my own food and I had no ed­u­ca­tion about this. It was like a wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The teen started get­ting into trou­ble, as has been the case for many young Somali men who have im­mi­grated here but don’t have the right sup­port, ed­u­ca­tion or lan­guage skills. “I was a lit­tle gang­ster kid at that time, re­belling.”

He did fin­ish high school and doesn’t have a crim­i­nal record. Many of his friends weren’t so lucky; one is in prison for mur­der. He came to Ed­mon­ton at age 23 when his mom and sib­lings moved back and wanted his help, in part be­cause he’s flu­ent in English.

Now, he makes his liv­ing as a poet teach­ing work­shops in pub­lic schools, speak­ing at teach­ers’ con­ven­tions and do­ing paid per­for­mances. “Ed­mon­ton has been very sup­port­ive. Ed­mon­ton, it’s the rea­son who I am, why I am.”

Sonuga is thriv­ing, too. Her first book, Down to Earth, won the 2011 Cana­dian Authors As­so­ci­a­tion Emerg­ing Writ­ers Award, and this year, she won the Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal’s Maya An­gelou po­etry con­test (and got to meet the leg­endary Amer­i­can ac­tivist and writer). Soon af­ter, Sonuga gave up her city job as an en­gi­neer to en­gage in cre­ative pursuits for a year. She spent six months in her na­tive Nige­ria, writ­ing, per­form­ing, act­ing and work­ing with chil­dren. Her se­cond book, Ab­scess, comes out in 2014.

Rouge Po­etry has had a huge im­pact on both Ali and Sonuga.

“I’ve grown leaps and bounds be­ing part of Rouge,” Sonuga says. “Watch­ing peo­ple come up and share their sto­ries, hav­ing that out­let in their lives has made me a bet­ter hu­man be­ing. It’s been a part of my grow­ing up, as a poet and a hu­man be­ing.”

Fish Gri­wkowsky /Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal

Ti­ti­lope Sonuga and Ahmed Ali are spo­ken word po­ets in Ed­mon­ton who run Rouge Po­etry.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.