The Halifax slam team is tense. It's the last day of the 2008 National SLAM Competition in Calgary, and the returning champions just squeezed into the finals in last place behind Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto.
Sitting around in their hotel room, Andrew Abraham brings up a possibility none of them had considered. "What if we win?" he says tentatively to his five teammates. Shauntay Grant stands up and walks away. El Jones stiffens up and says, "SHHH!" Both are unable to think beyond the poems they'll perform later that night.
Back in Halifax, Jones is relaxed about their November 8 win at the National SLAM. "Scores don't tell the whole story," she says. "It's about how many poets come up to you after and say, 'That was amazing.'"
In the spoken word community---a form of poetry that combines dub, hip-hop, beat poetry and jazz---a win is a funny thing. Over three days, 12 teams from Canadian cities made up of five poets perform and listen to more than 56 poems a day.
The judges---randomly selected from the audience but cannot be related to or be a friend of the performers---often don't know anything about spoken word. One night, scores started as low as three out of 10 until audience members booed the judges into giving higher marks. So what does it mean to win within a somewhat arbitraryscoring system?
Jones sums it up well: "It means everything and nothing."
The Halifax Slam team---Jones, Grant, Abraham, Reed "iZrEAL" Jones and Verena Rizgy---are an anomaly in the Canadian spoken word scene. Their second win in a row, if nothing else, is a testament to how they do things. The bigger cities hold monthly or weekly slams, a competitive form of spoken word used at the nationals where each poem has a three-minute time limit and is rated by judges. In Halifax, the spoken word collective called Word Iz Bond holds a monthly night at Ginger's Tavern called SPEAK!, half of which is an open mic, half of which showcases two featured artists from around Canada. They hold one slam a year to determine who goes to the nationals.
iZrEAL and Grant are founding members of WIB and have been on the slam team for four of the five years the festival's been happening (they didn't go to the second held in Vancouver). The Hali team won third in the first national slam, held in 2004, without having done one before. Jones and Abraham, on the team for two years, both got their starts doing open mics at SPEAK!, which iZrEAL says are less intimidating than slams, where the atmosphere is more competitive.
When Rizgy started coming to SPEAK! last year she sang at the open mic before trying spoken word. "I never would've got involved if it was all slamming," says the team alternate and self-proclaimed rookie. "I would've hid behind my guitar."
As a result of the open mic, the Halifax slam team has a unique style. They don't write for the judges or the audience. They are unapologetic about their content---often about growing up black in Nova Scotia. On the final day of the competition iZrEAL steps up to the mic, shoves it out of the way and spits his poem "Dogwalk Park," expressing his anger about a part of Africville converted into a park.
"What comes across is passion," says Grant, turning to iZrEAL. "People see you do that and see it's right in your heart. That's what sells it."
So what's a win for the Halifax team? It's poets coming up to them afterwards saying they're inspired to visit Africville. It's proving that a team from a small spoken word scene can compete in the big leagues and still do things their way.
It only means nothing because winning is not the point. iZrREAL calls it a "speed bump" before the rest of the night where poets gather until five in the morning outside the competition spitting whatever poem they want, for as long as they want.
When she heard their name called Rizgy shrieked. iZrEAL thought he heard wrong, and Abraham remembers a lot of photos and congratulations. The team basked in the glory for 10 minutes, had a drink, then went out on the street, where a crowd was already gathered, ready to hear the next poem.