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Friday, 15 September 2006
Capital Slam Is Back!
Topic: slam

Season three of Capital Slam kicked off last night at the Thirsty Scholar on York! And in case, like many people I've spoken to, you're saying, "Where's that?" . . . well, that's pretty much what I said. But it's a great venue, size- and shapewise. It's next to the Natural Food Pantry - walk down York a little past Dalhousie. I don't think it's been there long in this incarnation, but I could be wrong. 

The venue is much more audience-friendly, with a large stage and an empty floor in front of it: no pub-style tables and chairs, so seating can be arranged in rows. There are small floorside tables at the back and space at the bar for those who'd rather lurk (or for the scorekeepers to sit at: I was manning the stopwatch, so I got a great view) and the sight lines are generally pretty good, despite four large pillars at the corners of the audience floor. The sound system is great, and the layout works well - bar off to the side, bathrooms at the back, so no one has to walk in front of the performers. Holds about 200 people, as well, which will come in handy as the season heats up. It was more than comfortable for the 50-75 that arrived last night. I like the look of it, too - lots of dark red paint and wood, nice lighting, and bookshelves all over.

The only problem I have with CPC's new home is that the bar only had two kinds of beer on tap, and they're Blue and Canadian, and only three or four in bottles, and they cost $6 apiece. I saw martini glasses happening, so I assume the mix drink menu is okay, but with the beer prices so high, I'm wondering how much the bar will be able to make off a crowd made up entirely of, face it, poets. But then, the bar, and the bar staff, seemed new, so maybe that'll pick up. And they were friendly enough. Plus, the bar is enough out of the way that you could be sure everyone coming in was coming for the show. We weren't going to be handing an unpleasant shock to someone coming in thinking they were going to watch the game, and getting charged cover for 'some weird-ass poetry show.' Giving it a couple of points over the Gap of Dunloe, although I will miss the availability of both Guinness and food. 

And the slam... New this year the show's being hosted by Elissa Molino and Steve Sauve, who tag-team nicely. Looked like the crowd was a nice mix of Slam vets and newbies, so those of us who'd been there before could put in the energy to boo or cheer for the marks - because a certain amount of audience energy really helps the poets. There were a bunch of new and visiting poets too, and it was really good to see a couple of the new poets make it into the second round. New blood! 

The feature, Dwayne Morgan, was someone I haven't seen before - although I have the nagging feeling I might have seen him at the WordLympics two years ago. Nice stuff, funny and passionate and really well delivered - and he arrived able to take debit and visa for his books and CDs, which was, as someone else mentioned, most un-poetlike, but very smart. 

So, it looks like slam's off to a good start for the year. The next show is on Oct 19th, delayed a bit from the usual second Thursday because of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Toronto (go if you can!)


And while I'm here - This Saturday SAW Gallery is holding a fundraiser, paying tribute to the Le Hibou cafe! $15 to get in ($10 for gallery members), or $30 for a year's membership and free admission to the concert - which features Sneezy Waters, Vince Halfhide and a bunch of other special guests. It's at 8:00 at SAW Gallery (67 Nicholas Street). I'll be out of town, but I think a few other Dusty Owls are going to be there - Le Hibou being our spiritual parent after all.... for more info, check out


Posted by Kathryn Hunt at 11:06 AM EDT
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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Democracy and judging poetry
Now Playing: absolutely nuthin
Topic: slam
So as you may likely already know, the Slam Team for this year was chosen last Friday at the Velvet Room, and I'm pretty happy with the results (although I might have issues with the judging.) I suppose that the format of slam necessitates the sort of judging you get.... but before I get into that whole discussion, here's the team roster:

Jim Thomas
Kevin Matthews
DJ Morales
and, because Jim's not going to be able to make it to Toronto for the Nationals:

I like this team. I like the diversity of it and I like the personalities of the poets, and I'm glad they're representing Ottawa.

What we're bringing to TO (in my humble opinion):
- Kevin Matthews's fast and virtuoso wordplay, his love of play and nonsense combined with his painfully well-put political clarity;
- Ritallin's rhythm (ever powerful) and solid rap grounding, not to mention his stage presence and passion for the spoken word community;
- DJ Morales' rapid-fire, never-stumble flights of fancy and the way she literally dances her poems;
- Festrell's uniqueness: no one else that I've heard in spoken word is anything like her, and her passionate poems are capable of silencing a room to listen to her whisper.

And Jim: sorry he can't be in the nationals, because I decided I liked him as soon as I heard him: metaphor and language nicely married up in a really engaging performance - and that cool English accent doesn't hurt either. Catch him at "Britpoets" - seriously, don't miss this - on July 13th, 8:00 at the Gap of Dunloe.

That said... the judging. The way poetry's judged at a poetry slam is one of the things I'm pretty much of two minds about. One the one hand, I'm happy with the democracy of a poetry slam. I'm glad that it takes the appreciation of poetry off the pedestal your high school teacher put it on, back when you learned to hate it. It says, poetry talks to your guts, first and foremost. And poetry slams have allowed people who would normally have said, "You're going to a poetry show tonight? Wouldn't you rather have a nice root canal or spinal tap?" to suddenly say, "Wait, I get it! This is fun!"

The mantra I learned at the first Spoken WordLympics, when I discovered slam poetry, was "the points are not the point, the poetry is the point!" Which took me up entirely. I loved the energy in the room, the way a lecture theatre full of people could surge to their feet, screaming and cheering, for freakin' poetry. And I've heard many times that people think appreciating poetry is an acquired taste, something only for the specially privileged and properly educated, something for those who know the difference between iambic and trochaic meter. And I always rebelled against that. I thought, poetry should be accessible to people whether or not they've studied scansion. So part of the appeal of slams for me was watching all the people who'd never written poetry before, or even liked it, being granted access to this art form for the first time in their lives, and suddenly going from "I don't get poetry" to "I can write poetry."

Here's where it gets tricky though... when you choose five random judges from the audience, assign points, and then assign real values to those points, like a monthly Slam Champion cash prize, or the chance to go compete at the Nationals, it gets prickly. At the Slam semifinals, and again at the slam finals, I found myself frustrated by the judges. In the semifinals, I found them erratic and irrational, swinging from damningly low marks to incomprehensibly high marks from poem to poem - for the same poet. In the finals, I found them timid, marking everyone laughably high, regardless of the value of their performance. It reminded me a little of the Olympic example: after Nadja got the first perfect 10, suddenly everyone was scoring 10s. And when there is something as valuable as the Slam Championship and a chance to compete at the Nationals at stake, that becomes more than just an annoyance. It's a lot harder to say, "The points are not the point, the poetry is the point."

I guess I always want the poetry to be the point. And the fact stands that I'm very happy with the team chosen by the judges, even though at the time I was iffy about their criteria. Maybe it's just that I'm feeling the uneasy coexistence of art and competition, and that has always existed in some form or other. As it is, I am still happy with the fact that Capital Slam and other slam organizations are out there turning so many people on to poetry who might otherwise have thought it was all about memorizing what Frost might really have meant when he included that hemlock tree, or being able to recite "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud."

Posted by Kathryn Hunt at 1:10 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 15 March 2006
Ottawa Poetry Faceoff 2006
Topic: slam
Last night was the Ottawa CBC Poetry Faceoff.

I love this stuff - something about a room full of a wide range of people who are all there to have fun and hear poetry. It just gets me wired. It's a pretty big event, too, so you get to see some people who might not have heard the poets before, and that's always fun. I got to bring a friend who had never been to a poetry slam and who was clearly blown away by the evening's winner, DJ Morales. It was fun to see her reaction.

I knew three of the poets competing - I had never heard Doretta Charles or Colin Vincent, but I met Jacqueline Lawrence at the workshop with Kwame Dawes a while back, and Steve Sauve and DJ Morales are really familiar from Capital Slam (they've also both read at Dusty Owl).

I think experience with doing slams has got to be a major advantage - it gives you some practice at recovering if you slip or drop out a section. It's a theatrical skill, and one I'm pretty envious of. And I think one of the more amazing moments of the evening was the entire audience pulling for Jacqueline Lawrence when she started to stumble, had to restart the poem a few times, and still managed to fight through, stumbling but recovering, and keeping her cool, which really impressed me - I'd have been off the stage and shaking somewhere. She stayed up there and finished the poem, with a couple of shouts of "You can do it!" and "Go for it, Jackie!" from the audience. The whole room was just pulling for her to make it through. And the poem was gorgeous.

DJ, who took home the Poetry Crown and the Cup of Minutiae, is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. She might have stumbled once. Maybe. She's just tiny, and her delivery is rapid-fire and really dramatic. And she's 19. . . I also knew, as soon as Alan Neal pointed out that he couldn't use the word "fuck" on the radio, that they were going to have to bleep DJ. When she had to pull her number for the performance order, she said, "I don't want to go second," pulled her number, looked at it, and just burst out, "Fuck!" . . . and Alan and the audience all yelled back, "Eff! You have to say eff!"

Oh, and I love the fact that the CBC, the national broadcasting corporation, the Official Canadian Media, has such a weird-ass sense of humor. The Cup of Minutiae? Alan Neal's Velvet Suit Fund? CBC golf balls?

Posted by Kathryn Hunt at 1:09 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 15 March 2006 12:48 PM EST
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Saturday, 22 October 2005
Happy Birthday, Capital Slam!
Now Playing: Coffee, Dead can Dance, light rain
Topic: slam
Friday night was the first anniversary and the official opening bash for Capital Slam. It's astounding, heartening, and possibly just a little intimidating that a series that started just a year ago can pack a pub the size of the Gap of Dunloe on Bank so full that latecomers were stuck standing at the back by the merch table. On a Friday night. On Bank Street. An entire pub, packed to capacity, tuned in on a stage with a poet on it. It's a surprising achievement.

One of the great advantages of having the place packed was that by the time I got there, ten minutes before the show, there were no unoccupied tables. So you have to pick a table and sit at it, and you have a chance to meet people you might not otherwise have spoken to. And everyone had come out of the woodwork - with university back in session, and the fall season in full swing, there was a real sense of "hooray, slam's back!" Luckily, with the usual crowd of regulars at Capital Slam, your randomly selected tablemates are usually friendly. I was glad to get a chance to finally meet both Matt Peake and Owen Hewitt, who were both on the 2004 competitive team, and to talk to Eric Rosenhek, who hosts the Thursday Special Blend on CKCUfm.

For anyone who hasn't been to a poetry slam - these events are astounding. At least, I usually find them astounding. For one thing, having survived high school poetry class where they did their best to grind poetry into a dry, dusty pulp that sticks to the roof of the mouth, it's wonderful to see people - quite a few of them still in high school - having so much fun with it.

And it's fun poetry - not always technically interesting, but usually exciting. The slam works like this: there's an open mike with a handful of poets who want to read but not compete. Then there might be a featured reader, and a break, and then the slam, in which the poets who want to compete get up and have three minutes to strut their stuff. The time limit and the competitive spirit call for poems that are punchy, emotional, often incendiary or sexy or funny or all three at once if you can handle it. The judges have to be swayed to the high score, and generally the more fun they have the better. (Downers often don't score well, as Owen Hewitt found out in round one with his wake/elegy to his cousin Sandy.) Then there's a break, and maybe a second feature, and then the top-scoring five poets duke it out with a second poem. Then the prizes are handed out, everyone grabs a last pint, and the show's over.

This evening's first feature was a poet called Katalyst, a member of the Kalmunity Vibe Collective, a group of artists creating "live organic improv" in Montreal (they look really interesting). She brought along a trumpet player, Jason "Blackbird" Selman, and as far as I can tell, most of their set was, if not completely improvised, then formed and framed on stage. I think that the most improv part was the more 'talky' segments between poems, but even those were rhythmic and aware of the sound. The connection between music and poetry is made absolutely clear when you bring a musician up there to perform, and Katalyst and Blackbird did some really neat trading off of rhythms, picking up on each other and doing counterpoints. It starts really bringing home that parallel I thought of when I first discovered slam, between spoken word poetry and jazz. (I also really enjoyed the spoken piece that Blackbird performed - a very angry poem spoken in a voice like a quiet grave.)

The slam was as fun as ever - a lot of new poets who hadn't been up before. Like I said, often slam poetry isn't technically interesting, and falls more into the category of dramatic monologue - which isn't a negative observation, by the way. And sometimes the technical stuff is so intricate and speeds by so fast that you wish you could learn to listen faster. The slam had the usual wild range of styles, from Steve Sauve's humourous monologues to a classically hip-hop piece by Toronto's Tommy Buick, to Ritallin's rhythmic virtuosity (is that an unspoken samba beat he's usually got playing under the words?) and Owen Hewitt's toast to his cousin. I think the nicest surprise was Jim Thomas, a poet from the UK who's apparently going to be moving to Ottawa this winter - keep an eye out for him. Big guy, looks just a little like Tim Currie, British accent. Going to be a really interesting new voice in the mix - I loved his piece in which he confessed that he was an (insert deep and ominous voice here) android - and has apparently been hosting slams in Oxford with a group called Hammer and Tongues, who look a little like the Ottawa crowd.

The second feature of the night was Brendan McLeod, from Vancouver, who was a lot of fun. Definitely a contrast to Katalyst, in that he wasn't as much focussed on rhythm and more on surprising images and impact of his performance; he bent his voice and gestured and moved around the stage and ranted and speedtalked, and got wholly wrapped up in passionate delivery. (In particular, I couldn't tell if he really got choked up at the end of his furious poem about high school shootings, but the emotion in his voice certainly locked me in.)

And then there was the final slam - in which I was pretty happy to see the top marks taken by Festrell, a young and original writer. I've known her for a year or so, and both her writing and her presence in the scene have just been skyrocketing. Her performances are usually much quieter than most of the others, and yet when she started her first poem, the whole bar shut up to listen. It was eerie. Festrell also runs Nekusis Press and co-runs the Ravenswing Craft and Zine Fair.

And after that there was nothing for it but to eat the last of the delicious Capital Slam birthday cake, and start slowly trickling out (when I left around 1:00 a small core of the Capital Slam collective was still in the corner with a pitcher... but I had a bus to catch.)

If, on a Friday night, you see a huge crowd of people spilled out onto the sidewalk outside the Gap of Dunloe, rivalling the crowds standing outside Barrymore's Music Hall, then it's probably Capital Slam between rounds. Walk in, grab a drink, and find a seat. You won't regret it.

Posted by Kathryn Hunt at 9:24 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 23 October 2005 1:36 PM EDT
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