When asked about slam poetry, local poet T’ai Pu’s response is simple: “People really need to know how exciting this shit can be.”
“It can really be stimulating. It can be real-ass funny. It can be real friggin’ strange, but it’s always exciting.”
The culture of poetry slams is picking up momentum in North America. Comedians like Dave Chappelle, and R&B musicians like Saul Williams, headline popular events such as the Def Poetry Jam.
But, is the scene in Winnipeg keeping up?
Winnipeg Poetry Slam (WPS) is a series of monthly competitions that qualifies performers for the National Poetry Slam, which takes place each year as part of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.
Monthly competitions are set up just like an event in any other city: Each performer has three minutes to present an original piece of work that is judged out of 10 by five randomly selected members of the audience.
The highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the remaining three scores are totaled out of 30 for the performer’s final score.
Performers at the slam come from a diverse array of backgrounds and poetic styles.
“All of the writers [in Winnipeg] have a very unique poetic voice,” said poet and WPS organizer Andrea von Wichert.
Because the only limitations at slams are no props, no costumes and a three-minute time limit, the pieces range from beat-style poetry, to hip-hop influenced rap-style poetry, to spoken-word storytelling.
Topics at the March slam, held, as always, at the King’s Head Pub, included political critique, spiritual healing and love – depicted as both beautiful, and also awkward.
Although the Winnipeg poetry scene is reputed for diversity and quality, it’s having a hard time keeping an audience. The March slam was scarcely populated, especially compared to West Coast events.
“In Vancouver, they have packed houses every time,” said poet Paul Friesen.
“And there’s multiple venues,” Pu added. “You can go down the strip and hit up two or three spots.”
So why isn’t the Winnipeg scene as established as Vancouver’s?
“Winnipeg has a very fragmented scene,” von Wichert said. “It’s very cliquey.”
Friesen thinks it’s the performers that bring the audiences out – so expanding the amount of performers will naturally expand the audience.
“We’d love to have more people come out and write,” he said.
“Words have an incredible amount of power, and the easiest way to understand it is if you become someone who uses it yourself.”
Why should people consider performing?
“The person who is doing the slam is trying to sell the audience of their ideas and their words,” Friesen said.
“There’s an instant feedback to your work,” von Wichert added.
The Winnipeg Poetry Slam is held the last Thursday of every month. The May 28 event will determine the Winnipeg team that will be sent to the National Poetry Slam, which is in Victoria, B.C., this year.
“It’s about introspections that create this whole communal vibe,” Pu said. “There’s some powerful shit going on here, and it isn’t getting the recognition that it deserves.”
Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)