Poets satisfy hunger for spoken word
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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.”
Titilope Sonuga and Ahmed Ali are spoken word poets in Edmonton who run Rouge Poetry.