Of all the annual Festival of Words events, the Poetry Slam is the most exuberant. It’s also one of the most unconventional. Where other poetry readings are held in quiet spaces by often untheatrical speakers to an audience of engaged but humble listeners, slam poetry is heavy in the dramatic and audience participatory enthusiasm. The readings, or recitations are delivered with passion, humour, and brutal honesty, unrestrained in their content and pointedness. It’s poetry made for those who think it’s all just Shakespearean sonnets, Byronic elegies, and Frostian musings.
The audience at the Mae Wilson Theatre for this event July 20th was sadly smaller than last year, even for a show that was accessible by donation. But the poetry was no less impressive. Hosted as it has been for a number of years by Shayna Stock, the slam saw six spoken-word poets, three from Edmonton and three students from Regina, compete for a chance to highlight their own session the following day. Beginning with the practice “sacrificial” poet, Beth Goobie, each poet gave a timed performance while five judges scored them from one to ten (this being Moose Jaw, no one dared dip below a six). But it would’ve been difficult to judge these contestants against each other given how varied their presentations were in tone, subject matter, and voice.
Andy delivered a harsh indictment on the culture of school shootings, mass violence, and sexism, while Austin expostulated on Indigenous issues and racism. Kazmanic used an interactive preacher demonstration to comment on religious disillusionment, as Marina Reid refreshingly shook things up with positively oriented pieces on her sexuality and body image. Nisha expressed a unique perspective on her own feelings concerning racial prejudice, and Charlie laid bare a slew of personal anxieties. The common link between all these poets is their desire to speak out some form of personal truth backed by subtle or open indignation, and hopefully impart a new perspective on their audience –hence why slam poetry in general is very diverse. The star of the show though was feature performer Kai Cheng Thom, author of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir, as well as the poetry collection No Homeland. Informed by her feelings and experiences, sense of humour, and style, she performed a series of poems: some insightful, some powerful, some delightfully off-colour, most of them all three.
This exhibition ended a little after 11. Not bad for an event pushed to a 9 p.m. start time. And though the three winners were declared, all participants had proven themselves intelligent, talented, and bold, especially the teenagers. Slam Poetry doesn’t have the same traditionally authoritative educational discourse as a writers’ session or workshop, but it is a uniquely important means of expressive art. And a necessity at any literary festival. Thom revelled in the opportunity it gave her to cut loose, and the dialogue it fosters is just as significant as any author with a podium could convey. It celebrates the fluidity of poetry, that’s the real point, and if you missed out, be rest assured you can increase the numbers by coming next year.