The first time I performed at a poetry slam, my hands began shaking the moment I stepped onto the stage and didn’t stop until the car ride home. I was out of breath as I recited the last lines of my poem, and continued to sound as though I had ran a marathon until well after my piece was over. Yet, this was one of the most prolific experiences I’d ever had and did not deter my interest in the world of spoken word.
Due to my longstanding interest in spoken word, I was thrilled to hear that the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW) was going to be hosted here in Montreal this year. The CFSW is an annual celebration of spoken word and poetry featured in various cities across the country. In past years, it’s jumped from Ottawa to Vancouver, Toronto to Halifax, and Calgary to Victoria. Divan Orange, Cabaret du Mile End, and a handful of other venues—which usually hold slams and showcases throughout the year—welcomed 44 spoken word artists from all across Canada this past week to share their work with other spoken word enthusiasts. This year, the CFSW was directed by Moe Clark, who coordinated programs, panels, and an array of workshops such as “Safer Spaces in Slam” and “Career and Community in Spoken Word.”
Spoken word is often defined broadly as a word-based performance of storytelling, or more frequently, of poetry. Although similar perhaps to the term ‘slam poetry,’ spoken word differs in that it encompasses poetry as well as multiple other forms—including but not limited to rap, stories, and monologues. Unlike spoken word, slam poetry originated from the ‘poetry slam,’ which focused on a competition of prop-less, music-less performance poetry.
GAINING POPULARITY ONLINE
Although spoken word is by no means a new art form, it has recently garnered a great deal of attention on the internet, with spoken word performance videos passed around on some of the most viral networks used today. These videos have gained traction on sites like Youtube, Facebook, and Upworthy, a site that curates specific videos almost destined to go viral.
Adam Mordecai, an Editor-at-Large of Upworthy, explained that the first time he realized the virality of spoken word was when he posted a poem written and performed by Shane Koyczan called “To This Day,” which is an autobiographical recount of being bullied as a child.
“Once it gripped me, I was in complete thrall, and didn’t even realize what I had while I was tearing up and watching it on repeat,” Mordecai said. “If I were to tell people they were watching spoken word before they clicked it, they would run screaming to the hills [….] It’s only when they see it, […] the humanity, raw emotion, and powerful words combined into an amazing performance do they understand what they just watched was powerful [….] Authenticity is what makes it shareable.”
Though Mordecai explained that there hasn’t exactly been a conscious decision to share more spoken word videos, he noted that once shared videos receive a lot of attention, and a curator will “try to recreate the magic. Once a curator has success with spoken word, they hunt down more.”
“We just love that it resonates and performs well,” Mordecai emphasized.
Jeremy Loveday, a performance poet, director of Youth Outreach for the Victoria Poetry Project and Concordia graduate who helped run Youth Roots Day during CFSW, said that people who had not been previously exposed to spoken word can easily be drawn in by these videos.
“I think it’s so rare in your day-to-day life that you hear people eloquently speak their truth,” Loveday said. “I think that that’s what these spoken word videos allow—they allow for people to poignantly speak their emotions.”
Chris Masson, who performed at CFSW and is a member of the Throw Poetry Collective, a Montreal organization dedicated to celebrating spoken word, explained how people’s interest in spoken word is often piqued by a thirst for a more genuine voice.
“So much of the poetry you hear […] is so sincere,” Masson said. “There’s a hunger for that in our lives today. We’re much more accustomed to irony and sarcasm—some sort of meta-commentary—than we are to sincerity and metaphor.”
Loveday attributed the length of these videos to their viral nature as well. “In the poetry slam format, [the performances are] three minutes. A viral video is usually a short video. That [short length] really lends itself to people listening to the message [of the performances.]”
Masson noted that he was by no means surprised by how much attention spoken word and slam poetry has received.
“I think [slam poetry] really speaks to people,” Masson noted. “To me, it’s no surprise that these things are getting shared. This is the point of why they’re made—to say things that matter in an artful way that just amplifies their meaning and their impact.”
For many, just watching the videos is not enough once they’ve been introduced to spoken word. A more engaging way to expose yourself to even more great performances is to see a live show.
With spoken word festivals—such as the CFSW—and regular poetry slams and showcases, the focus is at a much more personal level, with viewers sitting in the audiences as the performers on stage bring their carefully crafted words to life through a potpourri of slant rhymes, alliteration, and blank verse. Most believe that a live experience is much more electric than just sitting in front of the computer.
Patrick Ohslund is a performance poet from Oakland, California and is currently working toward his MA here at McGill on spoken word and its ability to create culturally relevant curricula. Ohslund reflected on the unmatchable atmosphere that exists in a venue during a slam.
“[The audience feels] like they had a really genuine experience with humanity that wasn’t pre-planned, pre-packaged. [It is] much more a synthesis of what was in that room in that moment,” Ohslund said.
Jonah Himelfarb, a U2 physiology student and spoken word artist who performed this past week at CFSW, explained the uniqueness of a live show.
“The electricity from the audience and the other poets [is] distinctly noticeable [….] It’s impossible to attend a poetry slam and not feel moved,” Himelfarb said.
But it’s not just the meter and rhyme of a spoken word piece that makes the audience erupt with snaps and murmurs of agreement. Perhaps the largest contributor to the ‘buzz-worthy’ quality of spoken word is the theme of each particular piece. The focus is often to provide a personal perspective on issues at large in society or to recount an experience that holds a substantial amount of meaning to the performer.
ENSURING A SAFE ENVIRONMENT
Due to the volatile nature of many of the topics presented at these performances, the question of ‘safe space’ is often discussed both within and outside the community. Performers and poets deal with heavy and frequently controversial matters that can both spark interest in some audience members while troubling others.
Ohslund explained that the definition of ‘safe space’ comes with its own set of complications.
“The concept on safe space in slam is flawed,” he said. “It’s a free speech space, which is categorically not a safe space. [But] there are some times where free speech […] can cross over to a place where it’s just blatantly disrespectful. [So instead,] it’s a free speech space with a notion of mutual respect.”
Masson explained the way he starts off each of the workshops he runs in order to foster that sense of respect.
“What I always start out with is saying that this is a space of acceptance. And if someone is sharing something, you need to respect that,” he said.
Loveday believes that showing everyone that he too is willing to open up and share helps to create that space of acceptance.
“I start every classroom workshop with a performance,” Loveday said. “[It shakes] things up a bit, showing them that this isn’t a normal day in the classroom. You’re creating an atmosphere where you’re showing a vulnerability, which will allow them to feel safer to do that as well.”
With such an intimate setting for these performances, it’s natural to find spoken word enthusiasts cultivating a tight-knit sense of community amongst themselves.
“There ends up being a community around the event and that ends up being really valuable and what keeps a lot of people coming back,” Masson said. “And since it’s a community based on expression, inclusion, acceptance, [and] mutual encouragement, it ends up being, almost always, a really wonderful community to be a part of.”
Montreal in particular, for a variety of reasons, helps to foster an even more unique flair within this community. Throw Poetry Collective embraces Quebec’s bilingualism in their slams. As an English speaker with less fluency in French, Masson explained how something that might be conceived as a burdensome language barrier is actually quite valuable to a slam listener.
“The bilingualism forces me to hear other things that they’re saying,” Masson said. “Even if I miss some of the literal meaning, I can pick up on emotion and body language.”
Beyond the city’s bilingualism, Montreal also boasts another unique aspect in its slam poetry scene.
“Montreal seems to have less of an established slam culture compared to Toronto or Vancouver,” Masson said. “There’s less of a defined genre or style that exists, so there’s a lot more experimentation, a lot more variety of what you see up on stage.”
McGill has also done its part in promoting the spoken word scene on campus. Coffee houses and open mic nights have featured poetry readings, and students like Himelfarb have reacted positively to the increased interest.
“I hope that more McGill students become involved in the spoken word community [….] I think it’s fantastic that people are taking initative to organize spoken word events geared toward McGill students.”
The last time I performed at a slam, my hands were no longer shaking the way they had before. I was still out of breath, but this time, from the sheer exhilaration I felt over being able to share my poems. Both during my performance and after the event, it was immensely rewarding to hear the audience’s reactions to my pieces. It was incredible to be able to have conversations with all the other poets who had just shared a piece of themselves by being up on that stage. It has only made me realize that whether you are a writer or a listener, whether you attend slams every other weekend or post riveting performances on your Facebook news feed, you will likely find spoken word and the community it fosters ready to welcome you with open arms.