canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Ian Ferrier

Part of the Montreal Fall Books Spectacular

Ian Ferrier has been a catalyst in the world of performance poetry in Montreal and beyond for the past decade. 

Exploding Headman, a CD/book was released by Planete Rebelle press in 1999 and garnered attention to the form, and was perhaps one of the last major works released in what can now be called a significant boom period for Spoken Word in Montreal. 

The scene is still vibrant, with published authors and staunch spoken word artists (seasoned and new) converging at events all over the city. Ferrier's new CD is What Is This Place? (available from

Correspondent Mary Williamson interviewed Ian Ferrier on the spoken word scene, his new CD and the collaborative process.

(November 2007)


Mary Williamson: 

I first met Ian Ferrier during FTA (Festival TransAmériques) outside La Piscine in Montreal at a preview of Dana Gringas's SmashUp.  I expected a booming voice to resonate from his towering frame as he approached from a motorcycle and set his powerful gaze. Ian Ferrier is a soft spoken, thoughtful and intense listener whose interest in the creative projects of the artists around him is boundless and enthusiastic. "Spoken Word" is a literary genre that often occupies a volatile space in Canadian letters; it is both highly revered and severely mocked. 

I met up with Ian to discuss the form and to engage him in a conversation regarding his most recent Spoken Word CD What is This Place , which was launched recently in Montreal.


Previously when we spoke after the Words and Music Show on August 19th [with Robert Priest, Paula Belina, Jordi Rosen and Ilona Martonfi], you discussed a certain reverence and investment in "silence", "nothingness" and "voice".  How do these themes figure into your work and how are they related or unrelated?

Maybe think of Samuel Beckett a bit.  Voice as the signature of our consciousness scratching on the abyss.  Voice as the moving signature of what's human.  I seem to remember Beckett has a play where a person is reduced to a head, and finally to a mouth.  Another part of my interest stems from music, in which the terms are note and rest, sound and silence.  If you think of a person or an animal in motion, or any composition in time, these are the two core elements.

I heard you started on the that correct? 

Yes we did a project called Wired on Words, where we recorded about sixteen poets onto playable media and put them in the DJ booth at CKUT 90.3 FM.All the show hosts could play them in the same way they usually played songs. Poets started to the appear in the radio top 40 charts, and one hit #1. 

The project won that year's Standard Broadcasting Award for originality in programming, and we used the money from the award to do a CD.  That CD—Millennium Cabaret—had over 20 works by different poets, and to my mind it still defines some of the best in spoken word. Of the artists on that CD—Catherine Kidd, Heather O'Neill, Fortner Anderson, Corey Frost, Geneviéve Letarte, Todd Swift and a host of others—a good slice have made a career out of literature, and done well at it.  We still reprint that CD from time to time.

As for the promoting other artists part, you have to realize that when we started there was no spoken word scene.  So if we wanted room to work we had to build an audience for the work. And make it fun to be part of.  I still define art as thinking there's something you'd like to see or hear in the culture, and then making it happen.

What are some of the distinguishing elements of spoken word scenes in places other than Montreal? 

There are spoken word and poetry festivals in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Durham, Kingston, Montreal and (for the first time this year) Halifax. Many of them have at least one poetry slam going on:  a place where up-and-coming poets and performers can present works to an audience.  Other places, and many of the larger cities, combine this with poetry shows, words & music shows, hip hop shows etc. 

Montreal is unusual in that the poetry slam part only existed for a few years quite a long time ago.  And—at least in the English speaking scene—it hasn't been back.  We're much more words & music oriented here.  Although just lately slam is coming back, but this time in the French culture.   By slam I mean poetry contests where each poet has three minutes to say something to an audience, and one of them is judged as the best performer.

Could you tell me about the collaborators on this project?

Most of the people on the CD are people I've done shows with in the past.  That's how I met the Diviners, who were doing haunting blues harmonies.  The first track with them, What is this Place?, represents the first completely imagined project I've ever done.  I heard their voices, and imagined in detail what a project with them might be like, and then built it.  That was really exciting.  There's 24 tracks of multiple vocal harmonies in that piece.

Shows are also where I met Normand Guilbeault, Jean Derome, Pierre Tanguey, Gordon Krieger and Kathy Kennedy.  Sam Shalabi, André Asselin and Jay Scodnick—who play on Blue Train—all worked on my first CD.  I worked with sax player Bryan Highbloom for years. His horn appears on three tracks of the new CD.

The major new work has been the improv work with Pharmakon.  This all arose out of meeting Kris Mah at DNA Studios.  I guess he'd heard some of my work being mixed there, and he suggested getting together with the rest of Pharmakon. 

That was a complete rush.  The 2nd tune on the CD is the first tune we ever did, from our first live show at Casa del Popolo in Montreal.  NOBODY gets a CD quality tune from their first live show!   The other Pharmakon track is an improv that's gone through Jon Stein magic (he mixes for Pharmakon) and come out the other side.  What we're doing in these tracks is creating and then looping multiple melodies together in real time. 

You mentioned to me that Robbie Robertson is a significant influence. Could you expand a little about how he figures on the first track of your new CD?

I think it was specifically from listening to Peyote Healing on his Contact from the Underworld of Redboy CD. That gave me the idea that you could repeat a long poetic line like a mantra, and then modulate it as you went along.  So that each repetition added some variation or some layer of meaning to the line….

This is dangerous ground in poetry, how to work with repetition and retain meaning at the same time….

"This Fire" is a video component on your new CD (with Marlene Millar). It features dance, and sculptural installation.  How do these elements outside of sound, written or spoken language alter your work and your perception of the possibilities of Spoken Word?

I first went to college with artists, dancers, musicians—all working in the same program.  So I'm quite comfortable with ideas from other disciplines, and very happy for the chance to collaborate with other artists. 

As to that particular piece, everything I do is about motion.  Life is motion.  That's what allows us to watch TV for hours.  We're hard wired to watch things move.  The only thing screens cut out is the part about us moving too. 

So in that video, everything's moving.  The piece itself is about passion against the motion of snow, so the installation's red velvet and white porcelain shards are not much of a stretch. Nor is the work of Peter Trotszmer dancing, or the nice editing by Marlene Millar.  I love working with dancers.  They hardly ever say a word…so that leaves me lots of room in the score.

How do voice, intent and language change when you apply a musical score?

Music is so attractive that unless you're careful it can be a real crutch.  Think of analyzing the words to your favourite songs.  Now think of saying those words without music….Most of the time you'll find they're complete crap.  

I want the words to be just as strong as the music.  That's been the core aesthetic all the way through.  The pieces work like a film in a way….the story and images are projected by the words, and music provides the environment and the ambience.  One thing music does is it allows you to shut up from time to time…which is an excellent thing for a poet to do.

You explained to me that you want parts of What Is This Place? to resemble a voice whispered in the listener's ear as they lay their head on a pillow.  What or who's work does this for you?

Nobody's. That's why I did it. There's some early work by Tricky that resembles what I'm looking for.  But the major impetus comes from childhood I think.  Lying back on a pillow and being transported by the stories my father told.  Or later in my life, lying back with a woman in the dark, and creating a world from touch and from voices in the dark. 

I still find voice to be the medium that most transports me. Much more so than film or music. That's why spoken word has worked so well on radio. You'd be alone in your car, or studying late at night, and a spoken word piece would appear without any introduction or context. Nobody said it was poetry, so it just sounded like somebody speaking about their lives….And many listeners found that experience to be completely transporting.  Because oops the medium forgot to tell you it was poetry.  And in doing so it totally bypassed the worst of your literary education. 

I remember one really nice example of this.  We were putting on a show at the Yellow Door in Montreal.  Heather O'Neill was supposed to appear and for some reason she couldn't make it.  So when it came to her place in the show we left the stage empty, introduced her, and played the amazing piece she recorded for Millennium Cabaret over the sound system.

And the whole audience just disappeared into that piece.  I'm sure it's still one of the most powerful performances she's ever done.

What is gained and/or lost when Spoken Word is recorded?

It depends on the performer really.  Some people's work so relies on their presence that it doesn't translate to CD.  Others sound like they're born to be recorded. 

As to the medium itself, CD does for spoken word what Gutenberg did for writing.  It gives us an archival medium for our work.  It allows us to present works that only unfold all their content after being heard many times.  And, now that it's part of the digital age, it allows us to transmit this virus all over the planet via the internet.  One track on the new CD—Fire Hot are the Deserts of Men—is being released on CD in Australia as we speak.

What is you next CD about?

The amazing thing about this project is how it was built.  A huge slice of the content comes from taking a house on the West Island in Montreal and wiring it for sound for three months.  We had drums in the basement, a guitar amp in another room, vocal booth upstairs, and 16 tracks running to computer.  When we had the whole house on a headphone mix we started improvising, and we did voice and music improv for three months. Voice appears in a lot of different contexts, and sometimes you can barely hear words.  They just catch on the edge of consciousness.  So there are numerous pieces where voice is much more of an instrument. That's the work we're mixing now, and it will join work already mixed from our first studio session in 2006.  I've never heard anything like it.






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