Etobicoke’s Assembly Hall hosted an unusual poetry reading last Thursday.
The audience interacted with artists and performers at Lexicon, an event organized by Diaspora Dialogues, an organization that supports Toronto writers.
“The whole concept is based on . . . what is Toronto talking about?” said Andrea Thompson, a spoken word artist and poet who participated in the event. Thompson performed alongside musician David Celia and actors Beryl Bain and Ash Knight. Naomi N. Abiola, a writer, performer and youth facilitator, hosted the event.
Lexicon debuted as an interactive installation at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche this year, at the Metropolitan United Church. Diaspora Dialogues has since held two other Lexicon events in the Regent Park community, at Daniel Spectrum on Nov. 20 and at the S. Walter Stewart Library on Nov. 28.
Diaspora Dialogues took all the text from their seven-book anthology series TOK: Writing the New Toronto and, using Wordle.net, generated a 20-word lexicon of the most frequently used words. The lexicon contains everyday words like mother, father, home, life and bird.
“As somebody said tonight, you realize that so much of what we talk about or what matters to us most is relationship to people,” said Helen Walsh, president of Diaspora Dialogues.
At Thursday’s Lexicon event, the artists wove those 20 words into their performances. Celia played songs on his guitar that he had composed using the words in the lexicon, while Bain and Knight acted out skits using some of the words to illustrate how intention changed their meaning, and invited the audience to experiment with them in word association games. Thompson performed a poem that used all 20 words in the lexicon.
“Each event is different depending on who’s in the audience,” said Zoe Whittall, artistic director at Diaspora Dialogues.
Thompson recalls preparing to perform one of her poems about autumn as a metaphor for change at the Regent Park event. “I ended up switching it and adding Rob Ford and how I thought he should leave,” said Thompson.
Actor Rhoma Spencer, who hosted the Lexicon events in Regent Park and at the S. Walter Stewart Library, said she asked the audience one night to describe what was happening in Toronto. This was soon after the tumultuous council sessions that saw the mayor stripped of much of his authority.
“I didn’t even have to say Rob Ford,” said Spencer. The audience came up with words like sorry, chamber and inebriated.
“How we feel about Toronto has kind of shifted since this happened,” said Whittalll, referring to the recent Rob Ford controversy. Despite that, though, she described the Lexicon events as “very playful and optimistic.”
The 20-word lexicon is based on words from stories with diverse cultural contexts, Walsh said.
“The fact that the most common words were the most common to us, to me is the beauty of a place that works together peacefully,” she said.
“Community informs language and language informs community,” said Thompson.