Content Warning: this piece mentions mental illness, sexual harassment, and an eating disorder.
Discovering My Voice
I remember how nervous I was before my first poetry slam.
Palms sweaty? Check. Knees weak? Check. Arms heavy? Check. I finally understand how Eminem felt when he wrote “Lose Yourself.”
But I’m not Eminem, I think to myself.
I’m not a rap god. Hell, I may not even be a poet yet. I’m a lanky eleventh-grade girl standing in front of a crowd, and I’m about to tell the world I have depression for the first time. Awesome.
I look at the panel of teachers sitting at the back of the dim drama room. They pass a stack of scoring sheets down the line until all five have a page in their hands. The large red numbers of a digital timer flash as Mrs. Reimer, my homeroom teacher, sets the clock to three minutes.
“Please state the name of your piece,” she says.
One hundred pairs of eyes stare at me. Some I recognize from my English class, but the rest are new. They belong to students from neighbouring high schools who’ve come to showcase their work.
The muscles in my throat tense as I approach the music stand on stage. On it are two white pieces of paper with stanzas scrolled down their left sides. From where I stand, they look like hieroglyphics.
Panic sets in as I try to remember the words. But how could I forget them? These words, thoughts, confessions are ingrained in me. They have been for the last three years. I press my lips to the edge of the microphone.
“Introducing my lover,” I say with a quivering voice. “A conversation.”
I exhale and start to speak to the audience, visualizing them as my mother and father. Through a string of strategically placed metaphors and rhymes, I introduce these “parents” to my fictional boyfriend. He’s the one they don’t approve of. The one who continues to stick by me during the dark days. The one who helps me get out of bed each morning. His name is music.
The flood gates open and all the anxious feelings built up from years past flow from my mouth. I’m surprised by how good it feels to just let go.
I let out the final line of my poem. The storm passes and a sense of calm washes over me as I leave the stage and sink into my auditorium chair. I hear voices reading out my scores but don’t catch the numbers. I’m still in a daze. My friend Tanner shakes my shoulder and informs me of the final tally.
“8.7! You got an 8.7! Congrats!”
Slam poetry became a creative safe haven for me in 2014. It provided a platform where I could vent my frustrations and reinterpret high school heart breaks in a constructive way. By sharing my own experiences on stage and listening to the experiences of others in the community, I not only found a way to voice my internal struggles, I found an encouraging support system of other like-minded artists.
Setting the “Scene”
Since the 1980s, slam poetry has evolved into many diverse and abstract performance styles, making it particularly hard to define. In essence, slam poetry is the convergence of pen and performance, combining written prose, spoken word, facial expressions and physical movement to create a living embodiment of an idea, critique, or story.
While open mics serve as the most accessible platform for local artists to share their work, a competitive stream of slam poetry also exists across Canada. Here, poets recite multiple poems and compete in timed, tournament-style bouts where aspects of their performance are ranked from one to 10. Categories include memorization, stage presence, voice and articulation, evidence of understanding, and interpretation. In the end, the poet with the highest score wins.
Slam capitalizes on audience participation and encourages active listening from audience members by allowing them to give feedback through claps, cheers, and snaps. This is crucial for making participants feel safe and allows for a two-way conversation between the poet and audience. Slam poetry is confessional, meaning many of the poems are spoken from a first-person perspective and unveil inner emotional truths about an individual.
According to Dr. Sherry Beaumont, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, forms of “expressive writing” like slam poetry can be therapeutic. They allow artists to connect with lived experiences, reflect on traumas, explore aspects of their personal identities, and validate their voices.
Winnipeg’s poetry scene is relatively small compared to Canadian creative meccas like Vancouver and Toronto. You won’t find any elaborate downtown clubs doubling as speak-easies hosting themed poetry readings every night. What you will find are humble gatherings of 10 to 20 people in local coffee shops, auditoriums, and multipurpose rooms where slam poets help others explore their poetic potential through workshops and exhibitions.
Speaking Crow, a monthly open mic hosted at the Millennium Library, has remained a staple of the Winnipeg slam community for over a decade. This is largely thanks to non-profit organizations like the Winnipeg Poetry Slam who fight to keep poetry slam programs alive in the city.
Including Diverse Perspectives
Larysa Musick, a well-known poet and former participant in the competitive slam circuit, acted as the Winnipeg Poetry Slam’s director for two years. There, she organized regular poetry slams, networking events, and educational outreach programs in schools around the city. The overall goal: help new and underrepresented poets in the scene gain exposure.
“I felt this huge responsibility to dig up and unearth the voices that weren’t at the surface of the community,” she says. “Inclusivity starts by giving everyone a seat at the table.”
Black Space Winnipeg, an organization which seeks to empower Afrocentric identities in the city, began hosting its own poetry slam three years ago. The event, known as Nuit Noire (a project presented in conjunction with Nuit Blanche) has now become a fundraiser for the organization with attendance and participation increasing each year.
In a similar vein, The Winnipeg International Writers Festival created Voices in the Circle in 2018, a platform for Indigenous spoken word artists to come together and share in traditional methods of oral storytelling.
Théâtre Cercle Molière has also invested in a number of multilingual poetry performance programs to teach foundational poetry skills to newly immigrated Canadians – helping them network with others and cope with traumatic experiences.
Amber O’Reilly, a multilingual spoken word artist, often volunteers with Théâtre Cercle Molière and hosts a series of poetry events through Alliance Française du Manitoba’s SPOKEN WORD PROJECT. Since moving from Yellowknife to Winnipeg, she has been working to bridge cultural divides between the city’s French and English communities and encouraging other local francophone poets to tell their stories.
She agrees to meet me at the Winnipeg Art Gallery to discuss some of her latest projects.
“I’ve focused my efforts on writing and performing in French as much as possible,” she says as we stroll through the gallery. “I feel like my voice stands out more in my mother tongue, but it’s also a political choice regarding our history as a country. I want to honour my heritage and ancestors through my voice.”
We stop to appreciate one of the large paintings.
“What’s been the most meaningful performance you’ve had?” I ask.
“Probably the one from yesterday actually,” she says nonchalantly. Well this is convenient.
We sit at a table in the gallery and Amber recounts the events of Une pelletée de poèmes, a special performance held at the Université de Saint-Boniface. There, she and a group of local actors organized a dramatized reading of popular French-Canadian poems. Reza Rezaï, a prominent spoken word artist from Calgary collaborated with her on the project and the two traded lines from the other’s poems in a vignette-style show.
According to Amber, the most emotional part of the evening was when she stepped off stage and became a spectator. She says she nearly started bawling as the three actresses on stage presented their interpretation of her poem, “nightwalk.”
“There’s this underlying feeling of dread experienced by many women when walking home alone,” she says. “We hear footsteps behind us or see a strange shadow on the sidewalk and live in a constant state of fear. There was this wonderful sense of female solidarity in the room and many people in attendance came up to me after the show to share similar stories.”
In a shadowy corner of Forth Café, I sip on a chai latte across the table from Tiana Northage, a former member of the Winnipeg Poetry Slam Team and a former high school classmate of mine. As she takes a sip from her mug, I catch a glimpse of a small microphone tattooed on the side of her wrist.
Alongside Larysa, Tiana competed in several regional poetry slams from 2015-2017, including Canada’s highest-level competition, Spoken Word Canada (formerly Canadian Festival of Spoken Word). Although she has multiple championship bouts under her belt, Tiana says the most valuable thing slam poetry gave her is a sense of empowerment.
In high school, Tiana started using slam poetry as a way to work through her own traumas. This included an eating disorder at 16, a miscarriage in her first year of university, and the childhood estrangement of her biological father from whom she inherited a borderline personality disorder.
“I feel like I can’t bounce my inner feelings off of friends because it’s too much, so this is how I process my negative emotions” she says, reflecting on what led her to start writing poems in the first place.
I think back to my own open mic performances at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café for a moment – performances I’d kept private from my family members for fear of exposing my own ugly truths.
“Do you find it’s easier to speak about serious things like that in front of people you don’t know?” I ask.
Tiana blurts out a resounding “Yes.”
“I started doing poetry in warehouses downtown where I knew I wouldn’t be running into anyone from school,” she says. “The people at the shows were always so supportive. There’s something about the audience not being able to respond with criticism that creates a comfortable distance. Most times people just want to check in and make sure you feel heard.”
Like Amber’s “nightwalk,” Tiana also explored similar themes of sexual harassment and fear in her poem “Canada Day,” – a piece inspired by a walk through a Canada Day street festival in Osborne Village. In it, Tiana examines the ways women are continuously objectified and victimized by men.
“I was on my way to work and these guys started cat-calling me because I was wearing a red dress,” she says. “I didn’t have time to scold them, so I wrote my feelings down. I started thinking of all the negative things people associate with the colour red, specifically in relation to women’s sexual freedom.”
When a video of her slam performance surfaced online, Tiana received an overwhelming response from people throughout Winnipeg, including her uncle.
“He messaged me on Facebook and told me I’d given him a lot to think about,” she says. “That meant a lot.”
Although poetry has played a huge part in helping build her confidence, Tiana says the overly political atmosphere of the competitive slam circuit is what ultimately pushed her away from the scene.
“Comparison was detrimental to what I was trying to do, which was heal,” she says. “It gets really hard having someone rate your pain. You can have what you think is a really good night and still get a lower score than expected.”
Sitting in the Judge’s Seat
I arrive at X-Cues’ Cafe and Lounge to take in the Winnipeg Poetry Slam’s first qualifying bout of the year. Whoever wins this event will represent Winnipeg at the 2020 Verses Festival of Words in Vancouver later in April.
The glow of artificial tealight candles flicker across a set of tables beside the stage.
There’s roughly 15 people in attendance but the majority are poets themselves.
Within ten minutes of sitting down at a table in the back corner of the hall, a bearded man in a fedora wanders over to my seat. He introduces himself as the MC and asks if I’d be interested in judging – the very thing I’d hoped to observe.
Shit, I think to myself. I don’t know if I’m qualified enough to do this.
I smile up at him, politely decline and look around the room for someone — anyone — who I might be able to pawn the responsibility off to. But there’s no escaping it. I’ve officially been “volun-told.” Before I have a chance to object again, he tells me to relax and give a rating based on the way the poem resonates with me. He hands me a stack of large laminated cards, each with the numbers one to 10 scrawled across them. I take a large swig of my rum and Coke and nervously flip through them.
The number one card is particularly ominous.
The stage lights dim, and the MC takes his place on stage. I soon realize his true identity – Winnipeg Poetry Slam’s current director, Mason Kanne. This isn’t just his event. This is his world. I hope I didn’t make a bad first impression.
He outlines the slam’s program and rules. It’s the usual: work must be original, no musical accompaniment, don’t go past three minutes. Have fun.
A woman with a ponytail and glasses emerges. She’s introduced as Noelle Grace, the “sacrificial poet.” I’m still not sure what this means, but assume it has something to do with the fact she’s the first to perform. She steps up to the mic and states the name of the piece: “One Polished Finger.”
The poem, framed as a conversation with a wealthy businessman, explores themes of arrogance. There are swears scattered throughout it. Each time one pops up, I sit up a little straighter in my seat. She has my attention. She’s fired up – you can tell by the way the piece escalates. I smirk and raise my fingers to snap in appreciation for her use of my favourite word – “ostentatious.” Do I award her bonus points for that?
I give her an eight and wonder if I shot myself in the foot by doing so. Was that too high of a score to start out with? I glance at the scores given by the three middle-aged women sitting at a table in front of the stage to see where I stand. Thank God. I’m not alone.
Four rounds of competition pass and only two of the five poets remain after the eliminations. The first, a young, soft-spoken woman named Azka Ahmed, details her family’s journey immigrating to Canada. In her poem, she paints crystal-clear pictures of the haunting violence she experienced in her home country, and the safe haven of a new but unfamiliar land.
The second finalist, a burly man in a sweatshirt who goes by the moniker Winnipeg Wallace, walks audience members through his years growing up with a white father and an Indigenous mother. He discusses the internal conflict of trying to appease the two sides of his family and the pain and confusion he felt as an outsider in both cultural communities.
I nod my head along with him as he asks the audience, “Is my body 50 per cent oppression or 50 per cent surrender waving a white flag?”
After a short deliberation, the other judges and I hold up our final set of score cards for the evening and determine a winner.
I sit down with a cup of Earl Grey in my living room and mull over the events at X-Cues’ Cafe and Lounge. Pretty soon I’m steeping in my own self-doubt, replaying the performances in my head over and over again, desperately trying to justify the scores I dished out.
Nobody handed me a printed copy of the artists’ work to analyze. There were no detailed, criteria-filled score sheets with words like “dynamic movements,” “articulation,” or “tone” for me to fall back on. Yet I raised up a set of numbers after each performance and judged them. As instructed, my scores were solely determined by how “authentic” I believed each poem to be.
But authenticity, much like the subject matter of each slam poem, is subjective in nature and laced with a subconscious bias. In “Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity,” University of Texas professor Susan Somers-Willett says that identities presented in slam poetry often have cultural and social histories attached to them. As a result, these histories influence how we perceive and accept certain identities when they are performed.
She suggests that psychologically, we are inclined to side with and celebrate marginalized voices simply because they are different than the ones we’re used to hearing.
I think back to Azka and Winnipeg Wallace, the night’s two finalists. Both told incredibly personal and important stories. In the end, only a few tenths of a point separated the two poet’s scores and Azka came out on top.
This idea that one voice is dubbed “more authentic,” and in a way, more important than others is what makes judging in competitive slam poetry tricky, especially if certain voices are consistently scored higher than others.
Competitive slam has been a controversial topic for years. Some poets argue that competitions help advance the artform and push artists to produce work outside their creative comfort zones, while others argue that giving low scores to poets can trivialize people’s personal traumas and perspectives.
According to sociologist Dana Nell Maher, who spent months immersing herself in Sacramento’s poetry community, the participant number in slam scenes tend to fluctuate over time. In her findings, Maher says that although some poets returned to the scene after long periods of being away, most only spent a few years or even months in the community before leaving it altogether.
While both Amber and Tiana say they’ve noticed a similar turnover in the Winnipeg slam community, they’re still optimistic about the scene’s future and impact.
“I’ve always thought of the slam community as a transitionary place,” says Tiana. “It’s a place where you can learn about yourself and then take what you’ve learned from others and use it to move on.”
It’s been approximately four years since I last performed a spoken word piece in public. As I transitioned into my first year of studies at The University of Winnipeg, and as other creative interests like filmmaking and advertising became a priority in my life, my devotion to slam poetry faded.
I’d be lying if I said a low score never got under my skin or made me consider leaving the slam community. As I reflect on my experiences now however, the numbers are not what I remember. It’s the small, emotional moments where I overcame my fears and allowed myself to be transparent that stick out to me – moments where I found strength in my vulnerability.
Sometimes I miss the euphoric adrenaline rush of being on stage and speaking my inner truths to strangers in hip cafés, but I take comfort in knowing should I ever need it again, the Winnipeg poetry scene will be there, ready to listen.