Grand slam

Poets from away pit literary wits against Halifax word-slingers at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.

Wordsmiths Local poets will lob couplets in the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. photo Aaron Fraser

On the small porch outside of Steve-O-Reno'son Brunswick Street, Andrew Abraham recites his tongue-twister of a poem, St. Bullshit College. Two minutes in, he pauses. "See, if I choke like that at the slam I'm fucked," he says, before continuing with his poem.

The slam—a competition for spoken word artists—is one highlight of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, in Halifax for the first time from October 10 to 13. The artist-run festival has brought together spoken artists from across Canada for the past three years.

Abraham is one of four poets selected to represent Halifax as part of our city's slam team. Team members were decided at a mini-slam last spring and this is the first time any of them have competed in the national competition. Poets from local spoken word collective Word iz Bond usually represent Halifax, but since they're running this year's festival, it's up to this fresh generation of poets. "We've got a strong team," says festival director Shauntay Grant. "They're all wonderful artists and they're all folks who come to open mic regularly. They all command attention."

The monthly SPEAK open-mic night at Ginger's Tavern is where the slam team got their start; three of the four members have been reading spoken word for barely a year. In the three-round slam, each poet will recite at least two poems. Each individual performance is judged out of 10, and is added to a team's overall score. The judges are selected from members of the crowd.

"People who hate poetry can sit through slam," says team member Ardath Whynacht.

And they do. The open mics are often standing room only. The bar was even packed during a blizzard that delayed a visiting poets' plane for hours.

"It's not English class," says slam member El Jones. "It's a gong show." El was the top scoring poet in the Halifax team trials. A tutor at the University of King's College, she thinks for most of the year spoken word is overlooked. At least there's one day where people care about what they're doing, she says.

"We live in a society where people think they know you. Spoken word lets them know who you are on your own terms."

The expressive power of spoken word is often just as much about style as it is content. Many cities have their own style of spoken word. But don't try to find a local one: You can't tell from Halifax's team that they are from the same city. From Lionheart's smooth accent and preacher-like intensity to El's zero-energy maternal lullaby tone, each poet has their own style.

One downside to slam competitions is that poets will copy whoever gets the most points—something that concerns the Halifax team. "We're not at all competitive," says Abraham. "At the qualifying rounds we all were shaking hands. We were artists supporting each other, not competitors."

Luckily for the team, Halifax isn't expected to be competitive. Although Vancouver has dominated, Halifax is notorious for not playing to the judges. Two years ago one member read a crowd-pleasing, 10-minute-long poem even though it gave the team negative points.

Organizers hope visiting poets will understand the festival's perennial wildcard a little better. For many of the poets, like festival founding member and poet of honour Darek Dawda, it will be their first time in Halifax. "I hope Halifax comes out to see this," says Dawda. "We've been doing this for a few years now and each one is the most amazing festival you can see."

Visiting poets will be introduced to Halifax at the festival's opening night gala when Word iz Bond members will recite poems influenced by the city. There's also a guerilla street-poetry event, to show poets the city, on October 12 starting at 3pm.

Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, October 10 to 13, Ginger’s Tavern, 1662 Barrington, 8pm, $5-$8,

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