Nov 2012 11

Vancouver Poetry Slam: Not a Con and Not a Scam

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Vancouver Poetry Slam Vancouver Poetry Slam

“That was very powerful. Thank you. It moved me,” nutmeggie37 said in her post.

“Wow, left me speechless,” Quinette Irabor followed.

OUCH! Thank you for your courage!” LoveChildLives concluded.

They were commenting on Lisa Slater’s reading of her winning poem, This Body at the Vancouver Poetry Slam, narrating a story of a young woman struggling with challenges of being overweight, emotionally and physically abused, trying to cope with wounds inflicted upon her and eventually resorting to eating more because “eating is the only comfort my body has ever known.”

The Vancouver Poetry House and Poetry Slam

Lisa Slater is an author, activist, and the president of the Vancouver Poetry House,, an umbrella organization “bringing more poetry to more people in more places” via the Vancouver Slam and other festivals and activities dedicated to the development of the literary and poetic arts in Vancouver. She is always happy to discuss her mission to introduce other people to the world of poetic expression.

“The poet must perform a poem of their own creation, in any style — it could be anything from traditional sonnets through raps and rants and any monologues to clowning — within the time limit and without the aid of props or music.”

The Vancouver Poetry Slam is a weekly event. The general participation slam takes place on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Monday of every month, with the 2nd Monday being the Alternate/Themed Slam and the 4th Monday the Youth Slam for poets 14 to 22 years old.

“It happens in the Café Deux Soleils, a vegetarian eatery in the Commercial Drive area. Anybody can bring their work and perform it right there in person. So it’s a live performance. Spoken word poetry is moving people and making them excited about writing and listening at home. One of our favorite sayings at the poetry slam is: ‘Poetry is the lowest paid artistic profession in Canada. Even mimes make more and they have nothing to say!’ Until this changes, poets do and will need support to continue producing great poetry.”

What Is a Poetry Slam?

Slam Poetry
Poetry Slam

A poetry slam is the competitive art of performance poetry. It was Marc Smith, a construction worker and poet in Chicago, who began a poetry reading series in a jazz club and laid the foundation for the art form that would later become popular globally. It has renewed public involvement and interest in spoken word performances and provoked poetry writers to strive for artistic excellence.

The Vancouver Poetry Slam is the longest-running poetry slam in Canada, and over the years the Slam has accommodated poets, storytellers, clowns, and comedians from all over the world. That may sound a little strange but there are no restrictions regarding a participant’s home or background. The poet does not need to live in Vancouver.

Lisa confirms this information: “He or she can just show up on Monday night. It is an open sign-up.”

Just recently, Joel Mckerrow, who came from Australia, charmed the Slam audience in the Café.

Poetry Competition? There are Some Rules.

Competitive art: it sounds a little strange when discussing poetry. Can there be any strict rules for poetic text or poetic performance? Apart from those that Lisa already mentioned, the Vancouver Poetry House website states other rules very clearly.

- No performance should last longer than three minutes.

- Poets are allowed to use their given environment and the accoutrements it offers — microphones, microphone stands, the stage itself, chairs on stage, a table or bar top, the aisle — as long as these accoutrements are available to other competitors as well. This rule concerning props is not intended to squelch the spontaneity, unpredictability, or on-the-fly choreography that people love about the slam; its intent is to keep the focus on the words rather than objects.

- No costumes.

Judging Poetry

Van Slam Van Slam T-shirt

Fair enough. But how do we judge poetry?

“We select five random audience members as they walk in,” Lisa explains. “Basically, anybody who walks through the door can potentially become a judge. They are given score cards to score the poet from zero to ten. We drop the highest score, drop the lowest score given by two of the five judges in the first round. The top five poets move to the second round. The cumulative score from all rounds is what counts and the poet with the highest cumulative score wins. It’s quite a competition! It really removes that feeling of poetry being something for the high and sophisticated crowd. Poetry is for everyone. So it’s a much more democratic approach to the performance of the poetry — accessible to everybody, very inclusive.”

Of course, you have to wonder what’s in it for winners apart from the good feeling and personal satisfaction on winning night or charming the audience in the cafe. Posting on the Vancouver Poetry House’s own YouTube video channel?

Since the House strives to support poets and aspiring authors materially, too, for all weekly slams the champions are awarded $35.00 for the winner, $25.00 for the first runner-up, and $15.00 for third place.

For the Winners: Poetry Festivals and Slams in Canada and the U.S.

While the little money is certainly appreciated, Lisa thinks the real attraction lies elsewhere: “The money is just a little token of our appreciation; however, people who win during the season can qualify for one of the major poetry tournaments. There are several big tournaments in Canada and in the U.S. where we sent poets so we have playoffs a couple of times a year. There we select our representatives. So when people win a slam, then they have an opportunity to compete in those playoffs and potentially go and represent Vancouver in one of those tournaments.”

Vancouver Slam Poetry Vancouver Slam Poetry

The individual championship is one of the two big Canadian competitions taking place in April, the poetry month, at the Vancouver International Poetry Festival. That is the true highlight of the year for both poets and the audience because it crowns the national individual champion. There is a team tournament as well called the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. That one rotates in three different Canadian cities.

Now that is intriguing! How does a team contest work? How do you team up in a poetry reading?

“They can write poems together,” says Lisa, “and they can perform as a group, so they have an option to do either or combination.”

You probably have to watch a poetry team perform to understand all the fun, power, and charm that comes with such a performance.

Maybe it is best said by another YouTube visitor, Vancariad: “Freaking absolutely brilliant. I adore you guys.”

It may sound like a lot of organizational work and rivalry out there in the poetry world. Lisa partly rejects this notion: “Well, the competition is a little bit of gimmick! It is really important to get people listening to the poetry and making responses to other people and not responses to an elite class of poetry appreciators. Making it really open and democratic and approachable for the people.”

For Next-Generation Poets

Then there is WordPlay, a program designed and run by the Vancouver Poetry House and established for students across the Lower Mainland to help them understand the world of poetry and spoken world as well as to bring out their own creative skills. It consists of several choices of interactive workshops designed specifically for English, Drama, and Creative Writing classes. Most of them are suitable for grade 8 to 12, although there are some available for elementary school students, too. WordPlay works equally well for established poets themselves because it brings together the authors with their potential audience. It also enables them to understand the psyche of future generations of readers and listeners.

And that is important: to keep poetry in our world, in our lives.

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