Art out loud: poetry that’s meant to be heard

Slam poetry is meant to be heard. The slam, a poetry competition judged by the audience, emerged in the 1980s. According to Canadian poet Johnny MacRae, slam began as a rebuttal to the then-common theory that the best voice for a poem was the one most distant from the human experience, thus allowing the poem to be the only vehicle for communication. He says slam’s creator, Marc Smith, aimed to give poetry back its vibrancy by involving the audience in actively scoring poets’ work. Since then, slam has grown globally, including in Victoria.

MacRae, 26, is a poet — equal parts Vancouverite and Victorian — who, since 2008, has grown from the seeds of slam that Smith has sown. He has a degree in literature from the University of British Columbia and a firmly established identity within the provincial and national slam communities (he won the Vancouver Grand Slam Championship in 2010 and the Canadian Underground Individual Champ title in 2011). MacRae says many don’t give slam credit for what it has to offer. “One of the criticisms levelled against slam is that we use humour and irony and emotion in our voice in the performance, and that this is seen as a drawback,” says MacRae. He explains placing scorecards in the hands of audience members forces the poet to acknowledge that the audience is there and to make them pay attention.

A major difference between slam poetry and poetry for the page is how one measures success. In slam, there is no board of editors, no subscription fee (unless you count the venue’s cover charge) and no cheque for publication. MacRae says interaction with an audience overrides publishing success. He says he has performed his poetry for as many as 10 000 people over the years. “No way in hell I would get read by that many people,” he says. “Even if I had success in publishing, even if I was a lauded poet, I very highly doubt I would reach that many people.”

The oddity of mixing scorecards with art is apparent to the slam community. “There is a pretty widespread understanding in [the slam community] that the slam is itself a giant joke on the audience,” says MacRae. He believes slam is a tool to draw an audience in with the promise of competition and then hook them with the rawness and energy of poetry. “If you tell people that they’re coming out to see a slam and that it’s a competition, they’re like, ‘Ooh, is it kind of like rap battle?’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, you’re just going to have to come out and see,’ ” says MacRae. “That gets people excited. That’s sexy. That’s cool they want to come out and watch it. And then they come out and see it and say, ‘I had no idea something like this existed.’ ”

Another well-spoken poet who believes in slam for its interaction with audience is Matthew Davidson, 34, who recently opened for one of spoken word’s greats, Buddy Wakefield. He and local poet Jeremy Loveday performed under the moniker the Roadside Dogs. Davidson believes spoken word has a greater potential for engaging human beings than that of music. “I’m a jazz musician,” he says, “so I can really dig into music and analyze it, but I can tune it out. Spoken word really requires you to stop what you are doing and listen, so presence is really important. There is this kind of feedback loop that happens between audience and artist.”

Slam has its critics, the crux of whose argument rests in the movement’s lack of history and lack of proofing process by which performers become recognized — a marked difference from the publishing industry. Simply put, without a solid literary tradition to grow from and lacking anything but itself from which to learn, how can slam progress? MacRae sees mentorship and honest critique as an answer to this problem. “We need poets within our community to say to the younger poets, ‘Don’t be lazy writers, challenge yourselves, write interesting things, stop ranting onstage.’ ” He believes he and other more established poets in the Victoria community should mentor less experienced poets.

Slam continues to play through the pain of its genesis, writing and rewriting its identity in the face of critiques in the literary realm as well as its own internal struggles. At the very least, if slam is a joke, it is one worth being in on.

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