Slam Poetry is poetic pugilism! That’s right, a tour de force, smack-down battle of words performed by a group of competing poets. Each is hell-bent on artfully entertaining and sharing creatively crafted ideas in poetic form. The prize money is barely enough to cover a few rounds of beer and there’s no real fame from winning.
Instead, the poets crave intellectual camaraderie, learning and the spirited challenge of wowing an audience. Their equipment – an impressive styling of verse, alliteration, couplets, spondees and a rich cadre of other poetry tools. But when I attend the 38th International Festival of Authors (IFOA) Slam Poetry Event in Toronto, Canada, I’m not sure about what to expect. Let’s just say, pun intended, that I am slammed. Slam poetry takes poetry to new heights as a living, evolving art form filled with exciting possibilities and insight.
My Slam Poetry Experience
Here at my first slam poetry contest, I learn thirteen poetry-creatives will each have 3 minutes to perform an original poem. The crowd is boisterous as I scan the room for poetry newbies like me. I wonder if this will be an intellectual sparring of words as a young couple behind me keeps kicking my chair legs like impetuous children. Thankfully, the moderator Dave Silverberg (pictured above) takes the stage and explains the contest rules.
Five randomly selected judges from the Toronto audience will score each poem out of a possible 10. And get this, the verbal-gymnastics style Dancing with the Stars contest encourages audience participation! We’re told to snap fingers, stomp feet or yell “hell ya” if we want to cheer on the contestants. The highest and lowest scores from each round are thrown out, and the final score is the sum of the three remaining scores. The top six performers advance to the finals and perform a final poem to determine the winner.
Before the slam begins, the audience is directed to an empty chair on stage. The face of an imprisoned writer from somewhere in the world is taped to the backrest. It’s meant to honor the pursuit of truth and remind us to cherish freedom of speech. This year’s photo chosen by PEN Canada recognizes Azeri writer and blogger, Rashad Ramazanov. PEN is a premier sponsor of the IFOA and this year’s Slam Poetry contest, and one of 148 nonprofit PEN organizations advocating for justice in the world.
The slam starts with a bang, as Aton speeds through the story of his father who drank so much he decided to throw himself in front of a truck. The auditorium is stunned. Anton artfully twists his words like a surgeon doing open heart surgery until we exhale with relief. His father survives and celebrates his second chance at life.
Tonya follows Anton with a “I’m so gay” poem. It’s both funny and disturbing. You feel the painful and dehumanizing ways the world chips at her right to be loved. I begin to suspect all of the young poets will strut their disappointment and angst with the world. When Lottie reads “Her sister’s boyfriend” poem, she confirms this fear. My stomach aches from her sister’s spiralling drug addiction, and things get worse until the boyfriend dies.
Every story is riveting but I’m admittedly shocked at the creativity and brilliant wordsmithing. Halfway through the program Ola and Thunderman Robin each take the stage, and a rainbow appears. They are more than their courageous stories and social commentaries on addiction, sexuality, and sad familial conditions.
Ola’s poem is constructed like a Spotify playlist with each song dissecting her emotional sensitivities and philosophical musings. She moves from nihilism and Nietzsche to deeper existential questions. Ola is learned and insightful beyond her years. She shames my ignorant heart and unfounded concerns about slam poetry.
When Thunderman Robin follows Ola’s performance, the dust lifts from the cover of my beloved Yeats, Whitman and Dickinson. Robin lifts his head slowly and begins with, “Can we win?” After a pause he repeats the line with ferocity. What follows is a race by the audience r to keep up with Robin’s lightning-fast tongue. We see the challenges of being black on the corner of his neighborhood, where “criminals should be brothers.” Images of Martin Luther King, slaves rowing and Chicago street gangs blend into one artfully told story. It ends with “when we win.”
The Traditions of Poetry Continue
Slam poetry is relatively new, with humble beginnings in 1990 Chicago. The first National Poetry Slam was held in a bar with a team of poets from Chicago and San Francisco. Today over 80 teams from the US, Canada, and Europe compete around the world through Poetry Slam Inc. Despite having a set of performance rules, the same traditions of poetry dating back to ancient times still apply.
These traditions include a focus on recording history, genealogy and law, and poetry that’s often set in musical verse. Enheduanna, the first female poet of 23 century B.C., was a high priestess in the Sumerian city of Ur. She wrote forty-two ancient Mesopotamian poems as hymns and her accounts have survived as historical documents in modern-day Iraq.
Most of the slam poets I watched at the IFOA were millennials who crafted fast-talking verses that also sounded like song. They spoke to topics that have stood the test of time; from our beliefs and history, to concerns about injustice and love.
In fact, the art of slam poetry provides a window into our culture and history just like Enheduanna’s poems did. Slam poetry provides young people with an opportunity to be heard in a modern and intellectual way. It’s arguably more entertaining and takes poetry to new heights, beyond the borders of rap music and country and western songs.
I predict its popularity will grow as more people enjoy this new art. I even discovered a 2018 Women Around the World Poetry Slam in Dallas, Texas. What I do know is the audience jumped to its feet at the poetry slam in Toronto when two British poets performed after the first round of poems. Dean Atta did a piece from his new book of poems, I Am Nobody’s Nigger. It’s uplifting words of truth have graced major British museums and garnered national acclaim.
Likewise, Deanna Rodger is another popular British slam poet to watch. Her sharp wit and social conscious make an entertaining plea slam poetry and social justice. Politicians could learn a few things about affordable housing her her Landlord YouTube video. She challenges Baby boom landlords to offer affordable rent and fair living conditions. Similarly, her I Tell Her video attacks the cultural malaise of young people whose voices “get hung while her heart falls through the cracks of (their) broken esteem.”
This is the first time IFOA has done a slam but I plan to be back next year to hear more from these poetic new voices and brave performers. Shining a light on this artful poetry is important even if it seems like they are “working in the dark [because] it’s a work that must be done.” (Julie Cameron Gray)