Monday, March 3, 2014

VSWF Spotlight: Barbara Adler

Barbara Adler of Ten Thousand Wolves is this year’s Poet of Honour. As an artist she is incredibly hard to pigeon hole: folk musician, punk, poet, storyteller. But as she started in spoken word, we’ll start there too...
Barbara and her accordion feature on March 8th.
How would you describe your approach/style of spoken word?
My approach has changed quite a bit over the years. These days, I'm mostly interested in the intersections of text and music, so a lot of my 'spoken word' is really something in-between lyric writing and storytelling.
I really love the sound of people speaking (well, most people), so conversational language in performance and audio is something I pay a lot of attention to. I like the idea of performing 'reality,' but better. So, even though I know that most people don't go around speaking with internal rhyme and metaphor, I like working on those little self-consciously 'poetic' techniques to make them feel casual, or understated.
I like it when things move me without screaming, "loooook at me!!!! I'm so deep!" I think comedy is great for that, but I'm also aware that if I say that my style of spoken word is 'funny', I risk being the most disappointing, un-funny jerk ever.
You've been engaging with storytelling with the BC Memory Project - what has it taught you about our role as storytellers?
The BC Memory Game has made me think deeply about the loaded connotations of taking on the stories of others. I think that we sometimes assume that telling a story that calls attention to a 'real' person, issue or place is inherently good. I'm not so sure about that now. There can be such a power imbalance between the person who is speaking and the person who is represented.
I had a huge revelation about this when I heard Stuart McLean tell one of his stories about Vancouver. I'd always really appreciated the cute, slice-of-life introductions he shares about the towns where he records his live shows. I thought it showed a lot of care to come to a place early, learn about the people there, and reflect this kind of affectionate postcard back to the locals. But the Vancouver story was totally wrong, which is to say, it was slightly wrong. I hated that, which made me reconsider his stories from places that I didn't know as well. What do you miss when you pack something into a neat, definite snapshot?

I think storytellers should be seriously stressed about their role, but I mean that in a good way. We get so much of our information about the world through narrative, so there's a big opportunity there to actually change how people think.

What inspired you to create Pathetic Fallacy?
Pathetic Fallacy is a series of wordy songs that tell disastrous stories about young love in the language of weather. It combines three of my guiltiest fascinations: descriptions of dramatic weather, 60s-girl pop and melodramatic stories about young love. I don't know about you, but the words "snow squall" instantly transport me to somewhere more exciting.
I can't believe it took me this long to come up with a project where I could legitimately memorize cloud names and look at pictures of mackerel skies and sun dogs. I'm also digging deep into the music of the Shangri-las (hello, 'Leader of the Pack' is AMAZING), and trying to learn how to self-apply 60s'-style eyeliner.

If you are a teenager and you're reading this, my writing advice to you is to learn how to do eyeliner now, so that you don't have to learn this skill as a thirty year old. Raccoon eyes are way more adorable in high school. Fact.

You work across genres and disciplines - why do you think the audience likes multi-disciplinary artists?
I have a feeling that audiences don't specifically care so much about the number of disciplines someone has under their belt. I mean, sure, if someone is a writer-juggler-dancer-engineer, and they've written a manga-opera, you're probably going to want to check that out. To me though, 'disciplines' are just tools to make a connection with the audience.
The late Jack McCarthy told simple stories in an unadorned voice, and he connected better than anyone. You should link to his poems in this blog. If people care about stories, they need to know his work.

What are you excited about at the Victoria Spoken Word Festival?
It might seem to contradict my previous answer, but I'm excited to see spoken word artists put together a show that draws on disciplines that might be out of their regular comfort zone.
I started performing spoken word in Vancouver at a time when slam poetry was a fairly new art form in Canada. The fact that people could get up on stage, with only a microphone, and completely mesmerize audiences-- that was mind-blowing on its own. It might have just been that I was 18 at the time, but it felt like what we were doing was 'cutting edge' in some way, or at least artistically risky in the fact that it wasn't completely accepted by the rest of the world.

Now that spoken word has its own festivals, residencies, grants and educational programs, I think our next challenge is to make it risky again. I want oral culture to be a culture-culture, and for that to happen, we have to keep switching it up.

Asking poets to do something that has a chance to fail seems like a great way to do it. It's counter-intuitive, maybe, but I think people should come out in droves to this festival, because we're going to witness something that might not work. I think that's one way to make art brave. So, bring it, festival participants-- I am very excited to see you sweat.

Barbara Adler features at the Festival Finale: Inside Story on Saturday, March 8th (International  Women’s Day!) at the Metro. Get your tickets now at

Find out more about the Victoria Spoken Word Festival at