On a hot Wednesday evening last week, a group of people sat in pin-drop silence listening to indie pop and spoken word artist D Fretter’s verses.
Amid the faint noise of children playing in the background, and the distant cawing of the crows, Fretter reminded the audience that “the only thing that lasts forever is forever. Everything else will change and fade away…”
Fretter is one of the 18 featured poets at the Poetry in the Park, a.k.a. PIP, series this summer. It’s the 11th year of the series, which was founded by Candice James, New Westminster poet laureate emerita, back in July 2011.
In 2012, the non-profit Royal City Literary Arts Society was founded, and the PIP series became the organization's annual summer event.
“PIP has been one of our longest standing and most popular programs,” said Janet Kvammen, a founding member and the society’s president.
Through the months of July and August, the bandshell at Queen's Park sees poetry performances every Wednesday evening. The format, as per Kvammen, has stayed the same all these years. “Two feature poets each week with an open mic for optional audience participation.”
On this particular evening, the feature poets also included spoken-word artist Tawahum Bige, besides Fretter.
While Fretter’s poems touched on love, loss and faith (his book Joy & Misery features a collection of 120-odd poems), Tawahum, a Łutselkʼe Dene and Plains Cree poet, used poetry and hip-hop to delve into subjects of Indigenous issues, colonialism, grief and more (their collection of poems has been published as a book, Cut to Fortress).
“A lot of great poets in this city, and from other cities, come here for this event,” said New Westminster’s current city poet laureate Elliott Slinn, who was the host of the show.
“You get to hear a lot of diverse voices. Everybody's got a poem inside. It is just about being vulnerable enough to share it. It's really awesome to see people share their vulnerability with strangers.” Which, he added, inspires other people to share their vulnerabilities too.
“And then, we can all be vulnerable together.”
The open mic that followed the performance by feature poets had members from the audience walk up to the stage and read out their works — poems about heartbreak, death, and one about peanuts.
For some, it was their first time sharing poetry with a crowd.
That's the most satisfying part of PIP, noted Slinn — “Seeing new people come up and say, oh, I have a poem to share, and express themselves so openly — it takes a lot of bravery.”
In fact, it was an event similar to Poetry in the Park that pushed Slinn to take up poetry seriously in his early 20s. “I used to write poems as a kid, but I never thought it was something I could do.”
It was only when he saw The Recipe, a poetry troupe from Toronto, perform at Café Deux Soleils on Commercial Drive in Vancouver that something inside him shifted.
“I was like, well, they're saying stuff I've written about privately. So I decided to try it (spoken word poetry) out.”
Ever since, Slinn has performed at several venues, including this year's Poetry in the Park's kick-off in July 2022. “It’s (PIP) a great place to try new material. It's a nice place to connect with new people… like-minded people.”
And what makes it so accessible to all is that “there’s no competition; there’s just expression.”
August 3 — Evelyn Lau and Hasan Namir (Host: Aidan Chafe)
August 10 — Joseph Dandurand and Jessica Lee McMillan (Host: Carol Johnson)
August 17 — Carlie Blume and Catherine Lewis (Host: Hope Lauterbach)
August 24 — Alan Hill and Kevin Spenst
August 31— Jónína Kirton and Cecily Nicholson (Host: Alan Hill)
Have a poem to share? Head to RCLAS’s Poetry in the Park, which is organized in partnership with the Arts Council of New Westminster and the City of New Westminster, at the Queen's Park Bandshell. It’s a free, family-friendly event, LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC inclusive program. Dogs are welcome.
Have a whole book of poems to share? Submit your work and get a chance to win Fred Cogswell Award For Excellence in Poetry. Check out Royal City Literary Arts Society’s website for details.