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Word up, Jazz Fest

Nine of the country’s poet laureates, including Rollie Pemberton, join musicians on the Jazz Fest stage.



Call it the P9 Summit. Now there's a media-friendly moniker for the national gathering of nine poets laureate from across Canada taking place in Halifax.

"It'll be a chance to compare notes and see how the poet laureate's post is treated in each region," says Shauntay Grant over the phone.

As HRM's current poet laureate and summit host, Grant has organized Free Verse, two nights of public performances by the group of nine poets laureate as part of the Atlantic Jazz Festival.

With JazzEast artistic director Lulu Healy, Grant has booked two bands to back the poetic champions as they compose---to paraphrase Van Morrison---on stage at The Company House. For Free Verse 2 on Thursday, the band is Silvio Pupo (piano), Jamie Gatti (bass), Tom Roach (drums) and Rob Crowell (sax and more).

A long legacy of setting poetry to music exists; the Beats, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and hip-hop come to mind.

Roland Pemberton's earliest performances happened with his uncle Brett Miles' jazz trio, Rise, writes the artist (AKA Cadence Weapon) by email. The Edmonton poet laureate participates in the summit and performs Thursday night.

"I am very influenced by beat poetry's structural adventurism. But I don't really listen to any jazz and do not approach music or writing from a jazz perspective," he explains. "The poetry and music I make are done with the goal of subverting expectations and being free from the traditional constraints of genre and structure, though something about that could also be construed as being within the jazz concept."

As Vancouver's poet laureate, Brad Cran is travelling furthest to Halifax. Early this year he wrote an essay (posted at to explain why he turned down the opportunity to perform during that city's Olympics, specifically the Cultural Olympiad.

"As Poet Laureate I was offered time on one of the celebration stages where I would be allowed to read poems that corresponded to themes as provided to me by an Olympic bureaucrat," wrote Cran in the essay.

The piece "went viral," says a still-weary-sounding Cran on the phone.

Myriad Canadian media, BBC Radio and the New York Times all interviewed him. Readers and website commenters responded. "They're calling me a beatnik and telling me to get a job," says Cran, adding, "I have a day job as a tax accountant."

Still, this numbers guy believes poetry is "a good vehicle towards empathy, understanding and breaking down barriers that do exist in a city."

Forget the cliched image of beatniks and bongos. As for barriers: no need. No cops need bust chops; the only chops on display are the poetic kind. The only busting done is by the poets laureate themselves.

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