Slamming in the spotlight

Poetry is often thought of as something to be read and savoured in private, but there is also a kind of public oetry known as “slam” or “spoken word”. The movement is growing and very much alive—at least in Toronto, like at the Drake Hotel, where competitions are held twice a month.

A “poetry slam” is a performance art competition in which poets present their poems to be rated by judges. The poets range from first-time performers who write as a hobby to seasoned veterans who have taken to the stage at local, national, and international levels. Anyone who wants to try their hand—or rather their voice—is welcome.

As an element of surprise, the MC chooses five judges randomly from the audience—regardless of whether they have previous judging experience—who are responsible for scoring each poem from 0 to 10, based on both content and performance. At the end, the lowest and highest scores are dropped and the remaining three are totalled out of a maximum of 30.

Of course, without rules, there can be no competition. The poems are expected to be no more than three minutes, with an additional 10-second grace period. If a poet goes over the grace period, a full point is deducted for every 10  seconds over the limit. And while the use of performance aids such as props or musical accompaniment is prohibited, other poets may join the performer for what is called a “team piece”.

A far cry from laid-back coffee houses and their accompanying snapping fingers, slam incorporates a strong element of crowd interaction, which may be surprising for those who are unfamiliar with spoken word poetry. The crowd commentary ranges from the heckling of judges for poor scoring to foot-stomping, standing ovations and cheering as if it were a major league sporting event.

In the face of this, the poets make themselves completely vulnerable, offering stories that can be very personal (and therapeutic, almost, for both the performer and the listener), cultural, political, humorous, absurd—the list goes on. They allow the listeners to witness and experience poetry in a unique and refreshing way.

The winner of the Drake Hotel’s poetry slam receives $80, and two runners-up are granted quirky prizes, which in the past have included dill pickle lip balm and fridge magnet checkers. The winner also gets a spot in the semi-finals at the end of the slam season in April and can advance to the finals to become a member of the Toronto Poetry Slam team for that year. With this comes the privilege of performing at local slam competitions, as well as at national and even international ones.

At a slam I attended on October 14, both veterans and slammers relatively new to the scene graced the stage. In the first round I heard poems about family and the nostalgia of a home in Italy, seeing the world through mushroom-induced visions, absurd metaphysical ramblings, and “wrong place, wrong time” family shootings, to name a few. Poetry slams have been the host to perhaps the most pure and genuine entertainment I have ever seen. The competition can be fun, but it’s important to remember a saying respected in many spoken word communities: “The points are not the point; the poetry is the point.”

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