My Night at the Slam

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Two months passed since attending my last poetry slam event, so I decided I was due.  This past Wednesday in Toronto Bill Brown’s 1-2-3 Slam was at Waterfalls Indian Tapas Bar in Kensington Market, so I headed down.  I wasn’t planning on performing, but just in case a change of heart came over me, I had a collection of 3-minute poems in my bag and also a chapbook with 14 poems which I made in MS Word last December.

I entered the Kensington Market restaurant around 7:30 and looked around.  Immediately when you walk in you see a glass pane in front of you with water running down it from the ceiling to the floor.  This simulated waterfall is what gives the restaurant its name.  It’s a darkly lit place with round tables, a stage, and a bar.  I was greeted by a chipper, young blonde girl asking me if I’ll be having anything to eat.  I tell her no, but I’ll take a drink menu.  She hands me one and then I run into a familiar face in the slam scene.

Alessandra Naccarato, the night’s featured poet was already there.  Sitting at tables against the wall with two chapbooks and a notebook, she was penning her thoughts and preparing for the stage.   I stop and interrupt her to say hello, and we have a conversation about poetry, performances, and chapbooks.  She’s a pretty girl with a broad smile who makes spoken word her life.  Hailing from Montreal, she’s traveled across Canada and the US performing her work and competing in slams.

She’s made a name for herself here in Toronto.  Back in March she earned the chance to compete in the Women of the World poetry slam held in Denver, CO, beating out twelve other contenders in the qualifying round in February.  When she takes the stage a transformation takes over and she becomes a different entity.  She inhales deeply and her voice takes on a resonant, commanding quality.  Her delivery is striking and powerful.   You wouldn’t expect such verve from this unassuming young lady, but that’s always where the surprises are when you go to a poetry slam.   You never know what to expect.

Shortly after I arrive they start taking down names for the slam.  Anyone can sign up, and it looked like a small crowd that night so after some consideration I decided to go for it.  I said, “Yeah, sure! I’ll sign up.  Why not?”

It was a small turnout, but I’ve never been much on performances.  I’m more of an observer that likes to stay on the edges and take everything in.   I’ve done open mic performances before, but never a slam.  I had several three minute slam poems, but I’d never performed them or even rehearsed much at home.  My performance was going to be a raw one.

This wasn’t an ordinary slam.  Instead of firing off three minute poems in each round, you do a one minute poem, then a two minute poem, and then a three minute poem in each round respectively.  I looked over what I brought and made a few changes to meet time constraints.

Looking over the drink menu thoroughly I decided to order a little something to get started.  Lately I’ve become interested in trying an old-fashioned cocktail, but it wasn’t on the menu and neither of the servers that worked the bar that night knew how to make it.  “How do you make it?” the blonde server asked me.

“It’s complicated,” I said.  “If you don’t know how to make it don’t worry about it.  I’ll just have a Singapore Sling instead.”

“A Sling?  No problem.”

As I waited for my drink I picked out what poems I’d be performing and began timing myself as I read them under my breath.  You get a penalty for going over the limit barring a grace period of 10 seconds.  I had to master the correct pace in about 15 minutes before show time.  It started to become clear that I wasn’t well prepared at all for this, but it was too late to turn back.

My drink came.  It was a pink liquid served in a tall, narrow glass like a big test tube with a straw and lime wedge on the rim.  It tasted like pineapple and I knew there was gin in there somewhere but I couldn’t taste it.  It would be a good drink for sitting on a hot, balmy beach in the tropics somewhere.  Sipping it slowly I mentally rehearsed my poems with my watch in my left hand for timing.

Eventually, the host of the event took the stage and explained the rules for the evening.  I thought that Bill Brown was the name of the organizer of the event.  This is not so.  Bill Brown is actually the $100 bill that is awarded to the winner of the event.  Clever.  (In Canada, $100 bills are brown.)

Once there’s money on the line I get competitive, but this night I was competing against seasoned slammers with years of experience.  They were veterans and I was a noob.  In the first round I was the last of the seven poets to go up.  Save the best for last, maybe?

I read my poem Good Ol Days which was posted on here several weeks ago.  It’s written for the page rather than performance but it was the best one minute poem that I could deliver for the first round.  It’s a fine poem, but the judges didn’t seem to think so.  I scored lowest out of everyone on the first round.  People booed and jeered the judges.

After the first round the featured poet claimed the mic and did her thing.  Again I was struck by how dramatically Alessandra voice and posture changes when she performs.  This is more than just poetry to her: it’s a way of life.  The fact that anyone can make a living from being a travelling poet is remarkable and she pours herself into every syllable.   In between poems she reverts back to her normal self to engage the audience. “Soooo, how are you guys doing?” she intones before sliding into a preface for her next piece.  “You know, I could just stand up here all night and talk!”

She did a half dozen or so poems then we had a short break and I conversed with some other poets there.  It’s good to be a part of something and it’s even better to be a part of something where you are with people of the same mind as you.  I don’t have any writer friends and this is something I hope to remedy through becoming involved with this scene.  For any writer’s development it’s essential to be surrounded with other wordsmiths who have a positive effect on your growth as a writer, nurturing your inspiration and creativity.  It’s uplifting to be able to talk about my craft with other people who understand it and can offer insight, or just an attentive ear to my own endeavors.   I met a guy named Andy and I told him about my plans for writing a novel, my work as a freelancer, and my strange combination of degrees.  It isn’t often that I feel like I’m in my element, but this place provided that.

Eventually the second round came and I went up first with Scientist of Words.  With paper in hand I took the stage and read the rhymes, hoping not to go over time which I did in the end.  At one point in my performance I lost my place and it took me a few seconds to find it. I went blank for a second which felt like a fortnight.  This is why rehearsal is important.

In the end, I didn’t advance to the final round where just three of the seven poets were chosen. In fact, I think I had the lowest overall score of anyone there.   What matters is that I tried and got to share my words with someone.  Those poems had never been shared in a public space so the slam was a good litmus test.

I didn’t win the $100.  No big deal. It ended up going to a seasoned spoken word poet who ended up scoring 9.1 or higher on all his pieces that night.   His delivery was flawless and went completely on memory, but to me it seemed like all his poems were kind of the same.  All three were in the same rap lyric style.  That seems to be what works in the world of slam poetry, but I think it’s good to have many different styles and techniques to perform.  A varied arsenal of tricks is something I’m trying to accumulate in my poetic stylebook.

I’ll keep going to these slams for sure but if I ever take the stage again, I’ll need to be more prepared.  Some rehearsal time at home would be a good idea.

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