Inspired Word Café (IWC) has played an essential role in fostering the writing community throughout the Okanagan for nearly 12 years. Founded by self-proclaimed “business-man-turned-hippie-poet” Rawle James in 2009, the collective is an almost exclusively volunteer-run, not-for-profit society that organizes literary events including open mics, poetry slams, youth mentorship, workshops, and a monthly podcast. Seemingly against all odds, the tight-knit team at IWC, led by Erin Scott and Cole Mash, have managed to expand their reach and offerings over the past year with a poignant documentary, a new website, a podcast, and a dedicated focus on one of IWC’s key tenets: arts accessibility for all.
I sat down over Zoom with one of IWC’s collective members, producer, Shimshon Obadia (they/them), in order to learn more about IWC’s mission and future.
Arts Editor: I can remember going to the IWC a couple of years ago and it seemed like a really small, informal thing compared to what it is today. Tell me about how the IWC has evolved in recent times.
It’s really been a community mentality where more and more people in the writing community in the Okanagan have wanted to see more of this kind of stuff, and we knew we could be the ones to make it happen—because if we don’t do it, who else will? From an outsider’s perspective, it might look like it’s happened suddenly, but really, from within we’ve been building up to this for a while.
We have a really great core group of people at IWC that was built starting with Rawle James, the founder, who then passed the reigns off to Erin Scott, our current executive director, and Cole Mash, the managing director. In keeping with the community aspect of it all, they started to bring more and more people on board who were keen to help out in any way.
AE: Tell me about your new podcast.
Our idea was that by doing a podcast, we could increase accessibility to IWC to folks who might not necessarily be where we are, due not only to the pandemic, but also due to personal constraints. For example, as a disabled person myself, it was important for me that we got in touch with people in the disability community who expressed to us the many barriers that were often preventing them from physically showing up to our past events. You know, if someone is having a bad day physically or mentally, it can be very exhausting, or sometimes impossible, to have to be at a certain place at a certain time of the night. So, we thought, let’s meet our audience where they’re at because these folks are a big and important part of our community. And through that, we can spread our reach and create something that keeps everyone grounded and connected. In a weirdly fortuitous way, the podcast has, throughout the pandemic, been our main way of connecting to folks. They can listen to it and still feel connected in that way, and we’ve had some incredible local writers on with some amazing conversations.
AE: Why do you think poetry is still important today?
Oh my goodness, so many reasons. I mean, when someone has the opinion that poetry is somehow irrelevant nowadays, my approach is not to argue, but it's to introduce them to poetry that they might not have been exposed to. Often times it’s about something as simple as representation and hearing a voice like your own. And that goes, I think, for many forms of art. If people can see, read, or hear things that represent thoughts or experiences that resonate with theirs, that can really affect them in a deep way so that they feel heard or seen, and then I think they’ll be more inclined to appreciate poetry.
Poetry has the ability to speak to very specific moments, and through the specific you can of course, tap into the universal—I’ve never seen anyone successfully do it the other way around. It weaves the fabric of our culture of communities. And, in that way, I think it’s just such a wonderful and powerful form of expression.
AE: Can you tell me about a really special moment at IWC, just off the top of your head?
Hmm, I can’t narrow it down so I’m gonna have to tell you about two special moments. The first was recently when I was sharing a poem online with the IWC community about my lived experience as an autistic person. I had been a little nervous to share that, even though I often write about my experiences. I focus a lot of my work on my experiences as an autistic person, but also how that intersects with my identity and experience being a trans, non-binary person of colour. And I was still a little nervous to share that. But I did, and I started reading it, and I fell into this rhythm. And that felt really good, but afterwards I started hearing some really wonderful responses from folks who've been coming to IWC for a long time and from others who were part of the collective. There were a lot of voices I didn’t expect to hear from. And you know, we were talking about representation and feeling that resonance and how that can have so much power. And it had clearly resonated because a lot of people, for days afterwards, were responding so positively to it—even people I really did not expect it to resonate with. So that experience is one that really sticks with me.
The other one I wanted to share was just more of general feeling that I experience at IWC. Whenever I'm doing one of these events, whether I'm producing the audio, visual, technical stuff, on Zoom, or taking photos—whatever it is—I find myself having these moments of, not quite epiphany, but just inspiration. And these moments have really helped me to want to keep writing. There's something really special about going to a live reading, whether it's over Zoom or in person. You know, I’ll just be multitasking, setting up the audio at a live event that I'm also photographing, and I’ll just hear this one line, or a whole stanza, that just picks you up, and I have to stop and put the camera down for a second to jot a few words on paper. And that may or may not turn into a piece of writing later, but it’s important to capture those moments of inspiration.
Margaret Atwood recently said something in an interview about her new poetry collection, Dearly, that went along the lines of “a poem is something that comes to you.” You can’t sit down and think, today I’m going to pump out a poem, sometimes you have to wait for it to come to you. And I’ve found those moments coming to me, more often than not from an IWC event. I think that’s something that keeps people coming back—it's not just about being entertained, it’s also about being inspired. And that inspiration gives you a sense of connectedness, and a real motivation to contribute to and connect with your community, which is what has built and inspired IWC to the point we're at today, and I think that ultimately provides us with real, tangible hope.
AE: Do you ever plan to open an actual café?
Ha ha, no. No plan yet. But hey, maybe one day, it’d be wonderful to have a physical space for our community!
Find out more about the IWC and their upcoming events at http://www.inspiredwordcafe.com/