Small but Mighty

The Words Aloud Spoken Word and Storytelling Festival is a small but mighty regional event held in the southwestern Ontario village of Durham (pop. 2500), about an hour-and-a-half north of Guelph.  Co-founded in 2004 by Liz Zetlin and Dawna Proudman, in response to a suggestion from Durham Art Gallery curator and executive director Ilse Gassinger, for the last twelve years the festival’s mandate has been to showcase the spoken word in all its stylistic and cultural diversity. It does this by way of a revolving roster of coordinators, artistic directors and volunteers who maintain the festival’s basic structure while venturing into new programming territory every year. Since there are many opportunities for local poets to read locally, the emphasis in Words Aloud has been to bring in accomplished, diverse, professional practitioners of poetry and spoken word, to inspire, educate, and widen audiences’ understanding of these literary practices.


To that end, Words Aloud has brought page and slam poets, spoken word artists, storytellers and songwriters from across Canada (and sometimes beyond) to the region to read, recite and perform their work for the region’s keen and lively patrons. Words Aloud also offers workshops, spoken word in the schools, a family theatre event, and storytelling for children, and also partners with other community organizations on special events and programming. (See below for the festival’s programming history.) Since 2007, Words Aloud has maintained a valuable archive of several hundred performance videos on our YouTube channel. As of the summer of 2020, the YouTube Channel had 2.1 million views and over 3,000 subscribers.

Education and Outreach


Education and outreach has always been a part of the Words Aloud tradition. In addition to our workshops, Liz Zetlin in collaboration with Words Aloud produced a Study Guide which was developed to assist English literature educators in teaching poetry and spoken word. This online guide features videos and lesson plans which meet school curriculum expectations of Canadian content, oral language, reading, writing, poetry types, dramatic arts and media arts.

The Movie

Also in 2007, Words Aloud commissioned the Words Aloud documentary, directed by Liz Zetlin. The film features the performers who attended the 2007 festival, with Ian Ferrier as the narrator/interviewer. It has been screened at the Commfest Global Film Festival (Toronto, 2010), the Killington Film Festival (Killington, VT, 2010), the Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library (Owen Sound, 2010) and the Words Aloud Festival (Durham, 2009). In addition, CBC featured it as a series of webisodes in 2011. The film was awarded Second Place for Best Feature Film at the Killington Film Festival.

Generous Supporters

In addition to ticket sales, the Words Aloud Spoken Word & Storytelling Festival flourishes with the support of host organization the Durham Art Gallery as well as public funders, foundations, private donors, corporate sponsors, and the enthusiastic efforts of a team of volunteers and a seasonal part-time organizational committee.

Past Festivals


  • Artistic Director: Richard-Yves Sitoski
  • Main Stage, September: Gary Barwin, Kevin Andrew Heslop, Daniel Scott Tysdal
  • Main Stage, October: Barry Dempster, Kim Fahner, Penn Kemp, Janice Jo Lee, Sarah Lewis, D.A. Lockhart, Stuart Ross, Brandon Wint
  • Workshops: Penn Kemp, D.A. Lockhart
  • Poets in the Schools: Janice Jo Lee and Brandon Wint at Georgian Bay Community School, Stuart Ross at Grey Highlands Secondary School


  • Artistic Director: Kaitlyn Neath
  • Main Stage: Ruth Daniell, Coco Love Alcorn, Estafania Elfonso Falcon (yes – the poet), Lorri Neilson Glenn, Lishai Peel, Charlie C. Petch, Greg Santos, Prufrock Shadowrunner, Buddy Wakefield
  • Workshops: Buddy Wakefield, Charlie C. Petch, Prufrock Shadowrunner, yes – the poet
  • Poets in the Schools: Charlie Petch at St. Mary’s in Owen Sound
  • Poetry Contest: Fundraiser, Music and Poetry, Coffin Ridge Winery


  • Artistic Director: Dawna Proudman
  • Main Stage: Rebecca Thomas, Wes Ryan, C.R. Avery, Kat Kidd, Tanya Evanson, Anne Michaels, David Sereda, Steven Heighton
  • Workshops: Rebecca Thomas, Steven Heighton, Tanya Evanson
  • Poets in the Schools: Wes Ryan, C.R. Avery, Tanya Evanson


  • Artistic Director: Terry Burns
  • Main Stage: Carolyn Smart, Bruce Meyer, Jillian Christmas, Sue Sinclair, Janet Rogers, Kate Cayley, Angeline Schellenberg, Brendan McLeod, Aaron Bushkowsky
  • Slam/Spoken Word: Peterborough Poetry Collective (Jon Hedderwick, Kay’la Fraser, Elizabeth Jenkins, Philip Kienholz)
  • Children’s Storytelling: Marta Singh
  • Special Events: “Speaking of Home” with Janet Rogers and Marta Singh, Owen Sound Library; appearance by Janet Rogers at Saugeen District Secondary School (Ojibwe Language class) in Southampton; appearance by Janet Rogers at M’Wikwedong Native Cultural Resource Centre in Owen Sound


  • Artistic Director: Terry Burns
  • Main Stage: Sue Goyette, Brian Henderson, Evelyn Lau, Tanya Neumeyer, Ian Keteku, Hugh MacDonald, Joan Crate, Amani, Mark Abley
  • Slam/Spoken Word: Guelph Slam Team (Eitan, Fannon, Erratic and Elise)
  • Children’s Theatre: Steven Morel and Jenny Parsons with Silent B
  • Children’s Storytelling: Joseph Naytowhow, Cree storyteller and drummer
  • Special Events: Onstage interview with Sue Goyette and Brian Henderson; Michael Crummey reading and interview at Coffin Ridge Boutique Winery; Wrestling with the Angels with Charles Fernandes; drum and storytelling workshop with Joseph Naytowhow at M’Wikwedong Native Cultural Resource Centre.

Non-Festival Words Aloud Events

  • Presented the film Al Purdy Was Here in partnership with Scenic City Film Series, Owen Sound, ON


  • Artistic Director: Arabez D. Smith
  • Main Stage: Fortner Anderson, Dennis Cooley, Charlie Demers, Veronica Gayle, Naila Keleta-Mae, Susan McMaster, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Carolyn Marie Souaid, Mark Truscott
  • Slam/Spoken Word: London Poetry Slam Team (Inali, Eric Trudell, Jayme, Samra, Emma)
  • Children’s Theatre: Steven Morel and Jenny Parsons with Ghosts of Grey County
  • Children’s Storytelling: Bob Bainborough with Jake and Jack and the Mystery Train
  • Special Events: Screening of Carolyn Marie Souaid and Endre Farkas’ Blood Is Blood; collaboration with the Owen Sound Alzheimer’s Society to present Susan McMaster’s Crossing Arcs: Alzeimer’s, My Mother and Me

Non-Festival Words Aloud Events

  • Poetry reading for National Poetry Month at Bicycle Café in Flesherton, ON with the 2013-2015 Poet Laureate Terry Burns along with Rob Rolfe and Larry Jensen (later appointed 2015-2017 Poets Laureate)


  • Artistic Director: Hazel Lyder
  • Main Stage: Karen Connelly, Sheniz Janmohamed, Mary Dalton, Giles (Mitikomis) Benaway, Tanya Evanson, Shane Rhodes, Katherena Vermette, For Body & Light featuring Ian Ferrier, Charles Hamilton
  • Slam/Spoken Word: Burlington Slam Project (Dan Murray, Bassam, Aria “Ambrosia” Tesolin, Jaded)
  • Children’s Theatre: Duffelbag Theatre with The Three Musketeers
  • Youth Workshop: Collaboration with M’Wikwedong Native Cultural Centre to host Giles Benaway

Non-Festival Words Aloud Events

  • Presented C.R. Avery outside of festival weekend


  • Artistic Director: Meaghan Strimas
  • Main Stage: Phil Hall, Stephanie Bolster, Catherine Kidd, Priscila Uppal, Christopher Doda, Moe Clark, Gary Jones, Andrea Thompson, Lorna Goodison, Jacob McArthur Mooney
  • Slam/Spoken Wor:d Toronto Poetry Slam Team (Optimus Rhyme, Kiggy, IF, Philosofly, David Delisca)
  • Children’s Theatre: Little Red Theatre with The Case of the Twelve Dancing Princesses
  • IFOA @ Words Aloud: Guy Gavriel Kay

Non-Festival Words Aloud Events

  • Presented a poetry series at three different venues around Grey County, Ontario, primarily featuring local writers as well as John Terpstra


  • Artistic Director: Liz Zetlin
  • Main Stage: Barry Dempster, Christian Campbell, Corin Raymond, John Terpstra, Kateri Akiwenzi-Damm, Lara Bozabalian, Meaghan Strimas, Olive Senior, Tanya Davis, Terry Ann Carter
  • Slam/Spoken Word: The Guelph Slam Team (Beth Anne Ellipsis, Jaded Macer, Sean, Fannon, Blaze) 
  • Children’s Theatre: Little Red Theatre with The Elves, a Shoemaker and His Wife
  • IFOA @ Words Aloud: Tim Bowling, Tamas Dobozy, Rawi Hage, Alix Olin, Nathan Whitlock for Linda Spalding


  • Artistic Director: Liz Zetlin
  • Main Stage: Lillian Allen, Ronna Bloom, Marilyn Dumont, John Giorno, Ariel Gordon, James Gordon, Steven Heighton, Ayub Nuri, Anne Simpson
  • Slam/Spoken Word: BAM! The Toronto Youth Slam Team (Henrik “Shoolie” Sales, Sheila Brewster, Kurt Davidas, Marcus Lomboy, Yehuda Fisher)
  • Children’s Theatre: Rag & Bone Theatre with The Wind in the Willows
  • IFOA @ Words Aloud: Clark Blaise, Madeleine Thien, Meg Wolitzer

Non-Festival Words Aloud Events

  • Presented C.R. Avery outside of festival weekend


  • Artistic Directors: Carole Warren & Liz Zetlin
  • Main Stage: Derek Dawda aka Drek Daa, bill bisset, Robert Priest, Evalyn Parry, Taqralik Partridge, Ronna Bloom, C.R. Avery, M. NourbeSe Philip, Brian Brett, Jeanette Lynes
  • Slam/Spoken Word: BAM! The Toronto Youth Slam Team
  • IFOA @ Words Aloud: Sandra Birdsell, Charles Foran, Andrea Levy, Miguel Syjuco


  • Artistic Director: Liz Zetlin
  • Main Stage: Issa, Paul Dutton, John B. Lee, Barbara Adler, Taqralik, Jemeni, Adeena Karasik, Drew Hayden Taylor, Hilary Peach
  • Slam/Spoken Word: Toronto Slam Dream Team & Local Slammers
  • Children’s Theatre: Threadbare Theatre (Ron Schweitzer & Joel Brubacher)


  • Artistic Director: Liz Zetlin & Claire Fanger
  • Main Stage: David Bateman, Ayanna Black, Klyde Broox, George Elliott Clarke, Marlene Creates, Don McKay, Rahul Gupta aka That Brown Bastard!, Sheng Zue, Molly Peacock, Neal McLeod
  • Slam/Spoken Word: Last Call Poets (Amanda Hiebert, Valentino Assenza, Kevin Fortnum, TBB, Lara Bozabalian)
  • Children’s Program: Kitchener Waterloo Symphony String Quartet performing Peter & the Wolf


  • Artistic Director: Liz Zetlin
  • Main Stage: Louise Bernice Halfe, Ivan Coyote, Lorna Crozier, Rukhsana Khan, Amatoritsero Ede, Robert Priest, John Steffler, Clifton Joseph, Shane Koyczan
  • Special Program: PEN Taxi Project
  • Slam/Spoken Word: Toronto Poetry Slam (Arianna Puzzuoli, Krystle Mullin, White Noise Machine, Amanda Hiebert)
  • Children’s Storytelling: Tanya Coulter


  • Artistic Director: Liz Zetlin
  • Main Stage: Carolyn Souaid, Goran Simic, Wayde Compton, Susan Stenson, Ian Ferrier, Brendan McLeod, Gregory Scofield, Michael St. George, Erika Ritter & Carole Warren


  • Artistic Directors: Liz Zetlin & Dawna Proudman
  • Main Stage: Marion Frances White, Roger Bell, Victoria Stanton, Rienzi Crusz, Daniel David Moses, Saghi Ghahraman, Leslie Robbins-Conway & Paul Conway, Queererne Kirk aka “Q”


  • Artistic Directors: Liz Zetlin & Dawna Proudman
  • Main Stage: Segun Akinlolu, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sheri-D Wilson, Wendy Morton, Wendy Brathwaite aka Motion, Mary T. McDonald, Jon Radojkovic