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Spoken-word artists drop the gloves in audience-fuelled poetry competition

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/1/2013 (1673 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One is meant for the page, the other for the stage.

A poem by any other name is still rhythmical composition, but when it's part of a "poetry slam" or a "Haiku death match," there's certain to be less reading and more performing. Not to mention some heated competition.

Spoken word, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

"It can comprise everything from hip hop to standup comedy to dramatic monologues, with all manner of rhyme schemes and poetic devices," says Steve Locke, a local writer and recent co-winner of the city's first-ever winner-take-all poetry slam.

Locke, 30, along with Steve Currie, 25, who also won the title of 2012 Winnipeg slam poetry champion, have been chosen to perform in the Victoria Spoken Word Festival. The five-day "ensemble festival" will bring 12 of Canada's hottest young spoken word artists together to collaborate and perform new and experimental works.

To support Locke and Currie, members of Speaking Crow -- Winnipeg's longest-running poetry reading series -- and the Winnipeg Poetry Slam will be hosting a fundraising night at the Free Press News Café on Jan. 22. Steve and Steve Slam Victoria starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.

Slam poetry, for the uninitiated, is the competitive art of performance poetry. At a slam, a maximum of 12 poets perform two original pieces -- three minutes each -- per round. No props permitted. Performances are scored by five judges, chosen randomly from the audience.

Unlike "page poetry," which people may associate with such greats as Robert Frost or Sylvia Plath, slam poetry is more dramatic and high-energy, seeks an immediate and direct rapport with its audience, and often refers to current events and issues that are relevant to a contemporary audience.

"You could say that slam was invented as an emotional appeal to audiences to listen to the words that they weren't likely to read -- a kind of leaping off the page and onto the stage, says Paul Friesen, a veteran Winnipeg spoken word performer. He'll act as host for the city's competitive slam season, which gets underway Jan. 31 with the first preliminary bout at Frame Arts Warehouse (318 Ross Ave. Subseqent bouts will eventually determine the five-member team that will compete in the nationals in Montreal.

Many slam poets claim to have drawn influence from the Beat Generation, a group of American post-Second World War writers who rose to fame in the mid-1950s and 1960s. Beat poets, most notably Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, were famous for their free-form style of writing that promoted individualism and rejected mainstream values.

"The Beats were talking about some heavy stuff," says Locke, whose own poems touch on social issues, such as poverty in Winnipeg's North End. "I don't go outright and preach," he says. "I just try to make audiences aware of the issues."

Locke, who has a degree in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, says he had to "unlearn everything" when he entered the spoken word scene. He echoes Friesen's sentiment about delivery.

"The poetry doesn't come from the page, it comes from your body. You almost have to act it," says Locke, who listens to music with a steady, four-four beat when he writes. "You want people to groove with it."

Aaron Simm (from left), Bruce Symaka, Steve Locke and Matt Moskal hold up score cards that will be used during the upcoming spoken word event called Steve and Steve Slam Victoria.


Aaron Simm (from left), Bruce Symaka, Steve Locke and Matt Moskal hold up score cards that will be used during the upcoming spoken word event called Steve and Steve Slam Victoria.

(Performance or slam poetry is designed to elicit active audience participation, in the form of cheering, hissing, foot stomping and finger snapping. Audiences often do the latter when a poet "drops" -- that is, forgets the next line. The snapping is said to be a sign of support, and can help the poet get back on track. It can also be a subtle hint from a bored audience to "hurry up.")

Matt Moskal, singer-guitarist and 2012 Haiku-death-match champion, says he felt "naked" standing on stage wielding only his wit when he made his slam debut last year.

"People are naturally inclined to applaud a musician, but if you go up there and just start talking, you get a lot of puzzled looks," says Moskal, 25, who likens haiku to being a "poetic sniper."

Technology has extended its digital reach to every form of expression today, and spoken word is no exception. It's not unusual for poets to compose on mobile devices, which they bring onstage. (Moskal won the haiku death match with iPhone in hand.)

Unless you're a purist, like Aaron Simm. The 25-year-old sometime rapper, who has been on Winnipeg's slam poetry team for three years running and placed second in the 2012 championship, says he will "never" bring a tech gadget onstage. He rehearses a lot instead.

"That takes you out of the poem," Simm says. "And you really want to know the poem. And feel it."

Speaking Crow will be having its next open mike poetry event on Feb. 5 at the Free Press News Café.


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