A Cure For the Lost and the Lonely

Chris August likes to go barefoot on stage. He jumps from the couch in the second row, out of the dark, into the single spotlight, and yells into the microphone “TORONTOOOOOOOOOO.” The crowd eagerly snaps, whistles and claps.

“May I cuss at you for three minutes Toronto?” August asked slyly, and the crowd laughed. “But wait, first, a poem for mama,” he proclaimed. August flailed his arms like they’d gotten an electric jolt, silenced the crowd and read from his pamphlet of poems.

August was the 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion who made a special appearance on Sunday night at the Toronto Poetry Slam bi-monthly event. Besides a slew of poems, August brought the word artists a wealth of energy from the minute he bounced on stage like he was rockin’ moon boots. But that didn’t come from his ‘mama,’ he pointed out, and neither do all the recessive genes he’s got: redhead, gay, non-athletic with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Many artists feel isolated because most societies don’t understand the value of art,” he said. “The process of being an artist is accepting the things that are different about yourself.” August flashed down the stairs to discretely sprinkle a few more pamphlets of his on the back table with homemade CDs. The proceeds help pay for his tour to cities across North America performing poetry, by request.

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Chris August during his set

The underground level of the Drake Hotel on Queen Street West was like a humble version of hell – if hell were for poets and not sinners that is. The red-curtained stage was shadowed with goblets of wine, plaid shirts, foldable chairs, and deep-seated couches in the front row. The disco ball spun to the tune of “A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3,” remixed into a hip-hop beat about making someone sweat? Okay, so maybe not hell but there was a chant to start the show.

David Silverberg, Ryerson University graduate and founder of Toronto Poetry Slam competitions, stood centre stage and summoned the energy of the audience for the Slam Chant.

“I say spoken, you say word,” he yelled into the microphone and the crowd followed. “I say Mitt Romney you say, most likely going to be on the next season of dancing with the stars.” The crowd burst into abrupt laughter. Silverberg summoned the audience again – it was time for the draw.

The competition works like a democracy: the performance poets, judges and one sacrificial poet are plucked at random. Poets are then judged on a 0-10 point system from the five chosen judges into the audience. That defines who goes to the next round. The rules are simple: no props, no costumes, no music.

It’s not like other open-mics, musical or comical, because it’s simply open; artists have three minutes with their words, their voices and the energy of the crowd, and that’s it. Poetry slams, or spoken word competitions, are urban storytelling. They popularizes old-school language devices like alliteration, syntax and suffixes with events like ‘Haiku Death Matches’, which bring poetry into public spaces beyond the institutional and literary realm.

Silverberg says poetry slams strip the “turtle-neck sweater, candle and tea” poetry readings and turn them into raw experiences. “Poetry can capture a moment, something as ephemeral as seeing sunshine or as momentous as seeing a friend waste away from illness, and those can all be under the poetry umbrella,” he said.

Word artists come together on dark underground stages or national and international scales from Toronto to Bosnia. The seven-year-old Toronto Poetry Slam community sends a team, who spawn from Sunday events, to the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word every year, held in Montreal in 2013.

Shayne Avec I Grec, a traveling poet from British Columbia, stepped into the spotlight and pulled the microphone towards his blond corn-rowed beard and fogged spectacles.

“This is not a revolutionary poem,” Grec began, the crowd snapped with approval. “This poem does not evoke or create change.” The audience waited in silence. “This poem is not about Stephen Harper masturbating in his office to pictures of himself.” The audience whistled and laughed with snaps as he continued on with his poem.

Spoken word performances have a history of being politically and socially charged. Poetry slams specifically date back to the 1980s in Chicago, but spoken word performances have existed long before that.

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Andrew Prefontaine getting into his performance

Dale Smith, Ryerson’s English Departments designated poetry expert, does most of his research on the links between poetry and activism in our culture. Smith says the cultural habit of understanding poetry is different than the active existence of it in the world.

“Poets don’t stop wars from happening.” he said. “Poets are small, like word of mouth messengers, but even marketing students know word of mouth is the strongest way to sell a product.”

Poetry is not just a snotty pity party for literary academics talking about meanings of things buried deep somewhere in wrinkled pages. What interests Smith are those who use poetry to address the beliefs and desires in our culture. The difference in performance poets versus page poets is they “make someone see it, feel it, understand it, and then it has a different type of engagement.”

Most wine goblets were nearly empty at this point. The final performance of the night was Andre Prefontaine from Calgary, who in the first round twisted himself into a pretzel while he spoke.

Prefontaine didn’t step into the spotlight, instead, he began to shout his words from the back of the room. The crowd was snapping with spurts of silence and spurts of laughter. Every neck was twisting to watch him gallivant up and down the centre isle. “I’m stuck trying to piece myself together,” he said and tiptoed onto the stage, tapped the microphone and said, “but the unifying factor is that we can all do so much with our voice.” The crowd snapped loudly together.

Prefontaine got a perfect score from the audience judges, a tie with the other finalist. Each artist won $40. “Applaud the poet, not the score,” Silverberg reminded the crowd one last time.