OPINION: National Spoken Word Funding At A Crossroads
Every once in a while Cytopoetics Events will provide a space for its editor-in-chief Greg Frankson to share perspectives and thoughts on poetry-related issues relevant to the GTA community. Today, Ritallin shares his thoughts on the role of the Canada Council for the Arts in providing grants for spoken word performance:
This spring I submitted several grant applications to the Literary Performance and Spoken Word Program of the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) at the April 16 deadline. I penned four applications myself and I offered input on one other application as well. The annual rush to make sure everything is completed on time and time-stamped at the post office by the application deadline date is a familiar dance to artists of all disciplines who have a history of applying to the CCA.
This year, there has been a series of changes in the program at the Ottawa head office that is having an impact on how grants are being handled. The longtime program officer has departed and new people are in charge. These sorts of changes have been known in the past to have an impact on how applicants are handled, and this year is proving to be no exception.
Of the four applications I wrote, three were rejected for various reasons. None of them had anything to do with the general merits of the project activities; all of them were due to administrative issues. One of them was quite legitimate — I misunderstood a policy related to the project I submitted for my own artistic career and ended up running afoul of the submission regulations. My bad. I’ll re-apply next year.
I have heard nothing about one application and therefore can only assume it was accepted without issue. Since that was the project with the broadest potential impact on the community, I am relieved it has gone forward for consideration by the jury.
The other two applications are more troublesome in my mind. Both were related to youth initiatives, and in both cases the CCA said in its letters of rejection that ”[a]ccording to your project description, you are applying for slam poetry activities that are not eligible.” The distressing part is that this interpretation of longstanding program guidelines was applied to activities that have received tens of thousands of dollars in funding from previous juries.
Ladies and gentlemen of the spoken word community, what that means is a newer, tighter reading of program guidelines threatens to make our projects less compatible with the prevailing views within our largest national funder. We have been put on notice that anything that isn’t explicitly about “shrinking the geography of the country” (read: money for travel), producing CDs or paying poets to perform at showcase-style events will face a challenge inside the CCA.
This will suit some people just fine. There are those who think we should excise slam poetry from the literary arts entirely and deny funding to slam-associated artists at every turn.
The problem with this viewpoint is a good chunk of the vibrancy, fresh blood and innovation happening in the art form right now is due to the efforts of past and current slam poets and/or organizers. This new direction threatens to choke off spoken word just as it is ready to breathe in the rarified air of increased visibility and broader based success for its practitioners.
In light of these developments, I put forward three items for the CCA to consider before it continues down this road:
1. Slams need to be supported. Period. The ongoing viability of spoken word in Canada depends on it. When you look at successful Canadian spoken word artists like Shane Koyczan, Sheri-D Wilson, Dwayne Morgan, Shauntay Grant, Brendan McLeod and Barbara Adler, for instance, all these amazing poets became noteworthy through slamming and/or have been instrumental in the growth of the national slam community. Their current success and stature are due in no small part to their engagement with slam. Turn off the funding tap to the slams now and the CCA willingly stifles the development of new professional artists who will go on to write, paint, act, film and sing their ways into the consciousness of Canadians. I’m fairly certain that’s against the Council’s raison d’être.
2. Constantly shifting the way spoken word is supported from year to year is exhausting for all of us in the community. It is well past time to have a proper consultative process where the program officer tells everyone involved exactly what will and will not be supported via the grants process. Once this is determined, it’s imperative that the guidelines remain firm. There’s nothing worse from a planning perspective than constantly trying to hit a moving target.
3. The era of playing favourites must end. The vibrancy of “literature in performance” depends on support to all artists in all sub-genres. One group of artists with a particular set of views, values and/or perspectives cannot be permitted preferential treatment at the expense of all others. Unfortunately this has been a problem in past years. Openly addressing this reality with the community as a whole is necessary to clear the air so we can all move on from the mistakes of the past.
Some spoken word fans reading this op-ed may question a great deal of what I’m saying. You may not understand the context or recognize the issues discussed. But for those who do see what’s going on, I encourage you to pass these words along to others, add your voices and perspectives, and spur this national conversation with Canada Council that is long, long overdue.
The program guidelines may have been recently revamped, but it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring the Council and the community onto the same page. I encourage my fellow supporters of Canadian spoken word to precipitate and participate in this critical dialogue.
Greg Frankson a.k.a. Ritallin is a spoken word artist/organizer and Creative Director of Cytopoetics