Cool woman, hot words

“Don’t ever stop, Taqralik Partridge, your poetry is hot”


When Taqralik Partridge performs, you can never tell what you’ll hear next: an amusing satire perhaps, a delicate lyric, or a raucous barrage of high-speed lines, delivered straight from the gut.

“Big Mary’s ghost is waiting/at the bus stop on the corner/of Victoria and 33rd Avenue/and the streets are all /layered like threads in a bathmat/and accented with stop signs.”

Partridge, who works for Nunavik’s Avataq Cultural Institute in Montreal as director of communications, practices an art form called “spoken word,” a melding of poetry and rap in which writer-performers recite poems, lyrics and stories for live audiences.

Spoken word has its roots in the nearly-forgotten poetry reading fad of the 1950s and early 1960s, when writers like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti took their work into coffee houses, night-clubs and concert halls. In Canada, poets like the late Al Purdy and Milton Acorn took a similar route — but the movement faded.

But in the early 1990s, a younger generation, influenced by rap and hip-hop, revived the idea of turning poetry reading into a performance art.

“If you go to a regular poetry reading, it’s kind of sedate. But spoken word is lively,” Partridge says.

Though she’s always been an avid reader with an interest in writing, Taqralik said her moment of inspiration came about a year ago, at a hip-hop concert in Toronto. There she heard Kamau, a spoken word artist who performed with k-os, the Juno award-winning rap artist.

A seasoned throat-singer who has performed many times before live audiences with her singing partner, Nina Segalowitz, Partridge saw a form of expression that combines her love of words with her love of African-American and African-Canadian cultures.

“I was completely swept into it,” Partridge said.

So she did her first performance this past June at the WestFest arts festival in Ottawa, where she shared the stage with Nordine Beason, a Toronto spoken word artist who performs as “The Storm.”

That led to a gig in July at Ottawa’s East African Restaurant, which hosts an “urban poetry” night every week at its Golden Star Lounge, organized by Anthony Bansfield, a well-known spoken word performer and promoter who performs as “nth digri.”

Taqralik made a lot of new fans that night.

“The lyrical portrait she painted at the Urban Poetry Night in Ottawa was unforgettable. She was like a train that you didn’t want to get off anytime soon!! So, don’t ever stop Taqralik Partridge, your poetry is hot, hot hot,” Nordine Beason said in a review posted in her blog.

More recently she performed at a benefit concert in Toronto organized by Spirit magazine to raise money for the people of Kashechewan.

Much of Taqralik’s work draws its energy from the gritty street experience of Montreal’s urban Inuit, and from childhood memories of life in Kuujjuaq, Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit. One piece is inspired by the plight of Charlie Adams, the popular Nunavik singer who recently ended up panhandling near the old Montreal Forum:

“Charlie you sang for us/when we were kids. So Charlie/we’re paying you now.”

Taqralik is also fond of irony and topical satire. “Debbie Does the Pow-Wow Circuit” mocks the hypocrisy of a middle-class white woman who attends pow-wows in search of an aboriginal man to seduce: “she was tired of being just plain white/she wanted to be/spectacular.”

She writes some pieces for spoken performance only, and others that are intended for the printed page. But whatever she does, she uses simple, blunt, concrete words and does not shrink from harsh realities.

“I don’t particularly like the use of high and mighty vocabulary just for the sake of using high and mighty vocabulary.”

She says her next step will be to make a demo CD of her spoken work, and to find ways of publishing her poems in print.

And she’s sure of one thing — she’ll continue to write, because it’s an urge that she can’t resist: “Yesterday’s/dead self mourning/and reborn/in script.”

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