Monday, December 27, 2010

Regarding Poetry and Slam in Ottawa

I am thankful for the work of Ottawa Citizen arts journalist/blogger Peter Simpson. I had a chance to have a conversation with him at the 2010 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, held in Ottawa. He was sitting directly behind me in the second row at Finals Night inside the Dominion-Chalmers United Church. When he wrote about the ten best things he saw all year, he listed the Ottawa Capital Slam team's performance of their poem Wizard of Love at #10. In the lead-up to the festival he posted three videos of local slam artists to help promote the show. Over the years he has written about our scene, and the exposure in the capital's largest newspaper has always been appreciated.

But the year-end What was hot (or not) list published by the Citizen on Christmas Eve has struck a discordant note locally, as the occasional sniping between local "page" and "stage" poets got a sugar shot of journalistic energy from Simpson. He lists "slam poetry" as HOT and "other poetry readings" as NOT. In explaining this choice, he says of the non-slam events:
"Traditional poetry readings bring to mind the Rolling Stones' phrase 'dismal, dull affairs.' The atmosphere doesn't have to be so raucous that it distracts from the verse, but do they so often have to be funereal?"

As you can probably imagine, this has not gone over well with the page set. Amanda Earl, editor of, posted her thoughts on her blog, as well as through her Facebook account. There is some slam-bashing in the FB comments (not from Amanda, but from others). This is unsurprising to me, because there are some out there who think slam is terrible poetry. And some of it is. But there's lots of page poetry that's unreadable tripe too, so I'm not sure what those comments are trying to prove.

I think it basically boils down to what's good. As Amanda has said, there are some forms of poetry (i.e. sound poetry) that cannot be translated both on the page and on the stage, and there will always be some forms of expression that are unclassifiable. But in general, great poetry sounds great when recited aloud and looks fantastic on the page, all at the same time. I live for poetry like that. 

I'm also not a slam artist, and even though I've participated in and organized many slams in the past I've never considered myself a "slam poet".  I am a spoken word artist who occasionally attends slams (rarely to compete, but to watch and learn). Every exposure I have to poetry that I didn't write is a learning opportunity, whether it's from an amazing poet reading work of extraordinary polish or the brand-new slammer sharing their poetry on stage for the very first time. Approaching poetry from this perspective enriches my life and my art. It also allows me to understand that no one has all the answers in poetry. It's the diversity of voices and forms that makes literary expression so powerful.

I just wish those who are too snobbish to even try listening to the lyricism and beauty of spoken word with open ears, or the slam lover who disparages the craft of highly skilled "page" poets, would get over themselves already. People are watching, they are forming opinions, and those perspectives based on stereotypes and B.S. reflect poorly on all of us poets.

Get over yourselves already, and support Ottawa poetry -- in all its forms!

No comments: