Days 10-12: The Southwest Ontario Slam Circuit

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I roll out of the GO train, the commuter transit system for Greater Toronto and Hamilton, and have no idea where I am. I’m in a vast parking lot and it looks nothing like on Google Maps. I’ve got some walking directions and ask someone about to get on a bus to be pointed in the right direction; as it happens, she sends me the wrong way down a highway. Fifteen minutes later, a suited car salesman (quick to tell me of his Scottish ancestry) sends me back the right way. Then I have to find my way across one of the biggest intersections I’ve ever seen, which takes at least 20 minutes to get over, and finally I’m at the Black Bull: a side-of-the-motorway bar with a couple of big function rooms. There’s going to be a slam here later.

*

I’m an hour or so early, and as the poets trickle in the bar’s restaurant slowly transforms into a slam venue. The tables are spun round, rows of chairs set up, the stage lit. Slam takes over spaces like that. We can do it anywhere and we know what it takes to get audiences to enjoy poetry.

*

Tomy Bewick, who set up the slam six years ago, rhapsodises to me about the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. It’s a week-long celebration and meeting place for the spoken word community, built around the national slam championships. He shows me a bilingual best-of book from last year’s slam: it’s amazing, filled with Canada’s slam greats. In the UK we’re used to individual slam being the main thing, but here (as in the US) it’s team slam that rules: each regular slam night sends a team of five poets, who prepare a repertoire of solos and team pieces together, ready to deployed in a series of intense (and intesnely tactical) bouts. All these regular slams (including the three I’m going to) are selectors for the nationals, with cumulative scores and final events determining who gets on the team. Tonight Burlington has a slot open, so there are poets here from other cities too, hoping to win the chance to be part of it. That’s normal: these slams are intensely interlinked, with teams trading members year-on-year and regularly competing in each other’s slams. I’m going to see some of the same faces each night for the next couple of days, as well as new folk every time. The stakes are high, but also approached joyfully; I’m glad I don’t have that extra stress, but delighted to ride the energy.

*

Each slam has its own call-and-response chant. Tonight, Dan Murray has us shout “Bring Shit?” “PROPER!” for each poet. In London, they raise their hands and call “Show the Lo-o-ove!” for every performer, and in Guelph it’s “GPS?” “Where you at!” And after every poem, after the scores have been cheered and booed, it’s always “Applaud the poet, not the points!” This is ritual and theatre and community: most folk here know how it goes down, and newcomers are swept up in the energy of it anyway. Whereas in Scotland I’m used to open mics being the place where new poets are supported and slams being mostly for more experienced performers, here the dominance of slam means that it’s where new poets cut their teeth: finding these celebratory ways of supporting every poet (and getting them through the nail-biting scoring process) is a huge part of what the night is about.

*

Each of the three slams I go to has its own character. Burlington has a small but awesome audience of 40 or so: mostly poets in their 20s and 30s with some older faces. The slam has been a big part of building an arts scene for the city, and the organisers are now just beginning to set up schools workshops. The London Poetry Slam is in the London Music Cub, a well-known venue in a mock-Georgian mansion; they pack it out with around 150 souls, including loads of high-schoolers, testament to the work they’re doing in spoken word education. (I’m one of the older poets in the slam, which has many excited young voices: whereas 27 is still very young in page poetry terms, in slam I’m fast approaching middle age.) Guelph Spoken Word, meanwhile, is in a very trendy bar above a bookshop, and being a University town has a big student audience — but also one of the most diverse, demographically. Even though each night runs on the same format and rules (unlike the very diverse range of approaches in Scotland), each feels very fresh. I’m sad not to make it to the other events in the circuit: St Catharines, ARTiculated Noise and YorkSlam.

*

Having a slam circuit is really important for these events: it’s enabled them to put in joint bids for funding, and to secure bigger feature acts through offering multiple tour stops. For Burlington and London, it’s Sean O’Gorman, an Ottowa poet who’s visiting after a year of teaching in career, and wow, audiences and organisers are glad to see him back. In Guelph, Komi Olaf drops all our jaws by doing live painting as he performs his extraordinary poems.

*

And the slam poems? What are they like? As at the Nuyorican, I’m taken aback by how personal everything is, but it seems even more intense at these events, with many more younger poets and first-timers trying out raw material. The vast majority of the poems are in the first person, many of them combining stories of suffering, abuse and oppression with intense political commitment. Without wanting to get too much into stereotypes of British and North American character, it’s definitely unlike most slam poetry in the UK, where I think we’re less likely to put our own stories into our politics, less likely to open up our wounds so visibly on stage, more likely to deploy artistic artifice to get our points across than straight talking. It’s not better or worse either way — just different, with different opportunities and different risks. Sure, to me there’s something scary about opening up so much on stage, and I’m worried about what it means to perform pain for points, but at the same time it’s so clear that slam here is also about political community and personal recover. And sure, sometimes artistic artifice feels like hiding, and the voices in UK slam often ring false to me, but at the same time I’m delighted by the range of styles you can find at UK slam and how unpredictable the results can be. We’ve got a lot to learn from each other. I hadn’t expected it all to be so different, truly.

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At the Guelph Slam, Holly Painter – who’s also the organiser of the London Slam – performs a team piece with TedO called “PSA”. It’s a tribute to the power of slam, especially for youth: its lines head of the criticisms of slam poetry with ringing endorsements of slam as a route to empowerment, as a way youth write to right wrongs and fight for their rights (I paraphrase). I’m gutted I can’t find a video of it online to show you, but her Find Your Voice comes close. Check it out.

*

Riding back to Toronto from Burlington at midnight with Ritallin, who won the night and the spot on the team, we swap slam stories and promise to support each others’ future tours. We’re keen on trading between poetic cultures. He’s a veteran of the Canadian scene, and set up many long-running nights, now co-ordinated through his Cytopoetics project. “The sign of the success of a night,” he says, “Is when it can carry on without you. The nights I’m proudest of are those that have run for like six or seven years after I’ve passed them on to a new collective. That’s what it’s really about. It’s about the community, about making spoken word happen for everyone.”

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