Poetry slams have held a certain level of mysticism in popular culture. There are also a lot of misconceptions about the poets and participants. To many, these events are for those who believe themselves to be culturally or academically elite and often involve a lot of ‘feels’. While these events can definitely be a ‘feels’ zone, the atmosphere is welcoming and relaxing and while finger-snapping is optional, it’s often apt after a particularly relatable or insightful poem.
To understand poetry slams and their role in modern culture today, we need to take it back to its conception in the mid-eighties. Poetry slams started in Chicago in 1984, with the goal of moving poetry from academic spheres to a more popular and easily accessible stage. What makes this type of poetry especially different and appealing is its competitive aspects.
A number of poets perform in front of a live audience with five judges chosen at random. The rules are simple and enticing: each poem is a performance of an original work written by the poet with no props or musical accompaniment. The poets have three minutes plus a ten second grace period to perform before points are deducted from the overall score. The selected judges give each poem a score from one to ten, the highest and lowest of the scores are tossed and the middle three are added for their poem’s score. But, in the words of author and poet Allan Wolf, “The points are not the point. The point is the poetry.”
On Thursday November 22, Sadleir House hosted the Peterborough Poetry Slam, a collective of poets and poetry enthusiasts that meet monthly. The group provides a local stage for aspiring and veteran poets to share their words and build confidence in their performance. The highlight of this month’s meeting was the monthly slam that crowns one poet, winner for the month. The contenders for this month’s crown were Simon and Nick.
After a nail-biting rock, paper, scissors match, Simon emerged as the victor and chose to perform his piece first. His poem was an artistic description of the good poet and the good poem. He constructed a variety of vivid examples of these generally vague and abstract ideas of a poet and their poem. “In this world there is a stranger we are searching for, a stranger we know only as ‘the good poet’, and the good poet shall be known by the word known as the ‘good poem’, and this much we know.” The three-minute instalment described various examples of these good poets, crafting an identity for each one, the adversity they face and the circumstances surrounding them.
Up next was Nick Taylor. His performance was focused on the similarities between home and conflict. He poetically described a home as a four letter word that slowly became more synonymous with the seven letter word conflict. His poem detailed the conflict in a family, leading each character in a different direction, each with their own evolving ideas of what home was and what it was becoming. “If my father still wrote poetry, he would say home is a four-letter word whose vowels and consonants are etched in the foundations of a farm house somewhere between highway seven and the middle of nowhere.” After his performance the host for the night, John asked the audience to “applaud the poet not the points.”
Before the second round of the slam, guest performer Isaac Bond from Saskatchewan took the stage to share some of his poetry, his experiences as a writer and the sources of inspiration he had to create his art. He is well-versed (pun-intended) in not only slam poetry, but spoken word and hip-hop, and has been a performer for over fifteen years. He shared some of his poems, raps, and told stories of his time touring Canada -from stages to classrooms.
After a short intermission, the battle of the poets was on again, this time with Nick performing first in the second round. This time his poem focused on the terrain and landscape of Peterborough and the spots that held meaning to him and held memories. His understanding of the significance of these places to who he was and who he is now was evident in the poem’s lyricism. He took the audience through these personal landmarks from the floor of his bedroom where pictures lay strewn to the forested areas of the Drumlin, marking the memory each one held until he took us back again to his floor of his bedroom. A cyclical journey that showed change and growth – this is where the feels come in.
The last performance of the night was Nathan’s. His poem was a poetic take on an instructional for breaking his heart: “Choose your tools with some care, for my sake – whatever that’s worth to you. The table saw, the guillotine, the wide and cleaving blade, no patchetts, no garrets, and for God’s sake, not a parring knife.” The imagery was vivid as he addressed the audience, taking great care to let them know how best to dissect his heart. After his performance, the points were added up. While a close match, Nick won the title of Slam Poet of November for his performances.
But remember: applaud the poet, not the points.