Monday, September 19, 2005

Observations of an Ottawa spoken word artist

I have read Max Middle's posting with increasing interest several times. He makes some very provocative statements about the state, purpose and effectiveness of spoken word poetry. I'm going to share some of my reflections here as a practitioner of the form. Hopefully my words will stand as a stimulating counter-point to Max's comments.

First of all, I think it necessary to make the strong distinction between spoken word as a full genre of literary art and poetry slam as a subset of spoken word. The things that many people dislike about slam -- their competitive nature, the prize money often associated with "winning" the slams, the strictures of time limits, the unwritten conventions that often prize performance over literary merit of the work being recited -- all these are valid criticisms. However, not all spoken word is presented in this way, and not all spoken word artists participate in slams.

This may seem like a relatively straightforward thing to say. However, there are many who do not understand that most spoken word does not rely on rhythm, message, story, regular metre, etc. to get its message across. No, let me restate that -- most spoken word does not rely on rhythm, message, story, regular metre, etc. any more than "traditional" page poetry does. To criticize the false dichotomy between 'page' and 'stage' poetry without then accepting that the conventions of both forms are actually similar is to reinforce as fact what is ostensibly being dismissed as fiction.

There is no substantive division between poetry meant for aural enjoyment and writings meant to be consumed by your eyes. However, there are very different ways for presenting such information.

What makes slam poetry so compelling is that the energy expelled by artists and audiences alike delivers the outcome people want at a slam -- to be entertained. Many people want to think about what is being said as well, but the slam poet's primary objective is to entertain through the clever (and sometimes formulaic) use of words. This is no different than other art forms that primarily seek entertainment as the means of sustaining themselves (such as theatre, radio, movies, television -- even books). Slam poetry uses a particular methodology to entertain that does not appeal to everyone, in the same way that boxing is disgusting bloodsport to one observer but a lifelong passion for another.

There is a powerful diversity of voices, styles and content in Ottawa spoken word that is reflected at poetry slams. Those who choose to slam take on a variety of topics in ways that are both familiar to slam observers everywhere and also unique to our community's poetic culture. Many of our best slam poets locally would not do well at an international slam precisely because we do not, as a group, subscribe to the broader conventions of slam. There is a worldwide movement that includes Ottawa slam poetry but the way we do it would not be considered "mainstream" in most places.

I do not feel sadness at this fact. Indeed, I wear it as a badge of pride. Ottawa spoken word artists provide a breath of fresh air when others who have been bombarded with conventional slam poetry hear our artists recite their work. It is interesting that in the aftermath of this year's Toronto International Poetry Slam (on Labour Day weekend) that people were not only talking about the winner (Jamal St. John from New Jersey, an unconventional performer reciting about conventional topics) , but also about Kevin Matthews, an Ottawa poet whose poem "Love Song of Roy G. Biv" is a literary tour de force that received lousy scores from the judges. Stepping outside the norm has consequences with the judges but still leaves an indelible mark on the listeners.

Ultimately, that is the purpose of slam -- to affect the audience. The judges are just five people randomly selected from that grouping and may not reflect the overall view of the crowd. The feedback received by people who are moved by your work usurps any negativity you receive from your scores. A poet participating with the real purpose of slam in their hearts will always seek this outcome.

But money corrupts, and just like with actors, singers, athletes and others who require a public stage to utilize talents that ultimately pay their bills, there are some arrogant, greedy, gluttonous vultures who feed on the system for purely selfish purposes. But people will always be people. There are unpleasant authors who write books of poetry, too. That should not be permitted to detract from the overall beauty of the expression.

Spoken word is a big tent. I personally prefer to participate in events that allow for the free flow of my work, which usually means a featured set rather than slam performances. In those moments I use my methods and personal conventions of writing and performance to move the people in the crowd, to have them think about issues I believe matter in this world. People leave inspired or with the desire to let off steam in much the same way as the slam. But I don't believe the release of such positive energies is ever a negative thing, whether that energy is directed towards an identifiable goal or not.

Spoken word is more than slam. Slam cannot be more than spoken word. And poetry lives in your ears, your eyes, your heart and your mind -- no matter how it is delivered.