There are a few simple rules to slam poems, in case you were wondering: no props, no costumes, no musical instruments, and nothing over three minutes. Beyond that, anything goes. “Someone could do a haiku, or a hip-hop piece, a rant, a lyrical love poem, or a mix of comedy and poetry,” says RC Weslowski, founder of the Vancouver Youth Slam and c0-creator of Hullabaloo. “By definition, there isn’t really a type of poem called a slam poem.”
So what distinguishes a slam poem from the garden variety? Apparently, it’s not about the poet so much as the audience. Weslowski is wary of laying down any definitions (“there’s a bit of an argument between the poetry slam circles”), but tells me, “What the poetry slam does is encourage poets to engage with the audience. At the Youth Slam we have poets getting up and talking about the teachers’ strike– they are talking about stuff that’s relevant to an audience, and relevant to their audience, the youth of today. You’re not just dong it for yourself, you’re trying to avoid being self-indulgent and appealing to your own tastes, you’re attempting to make a connection with the audience.”
A little history of the slam poem.
The origin of slam poetry dates back to the 1980s, when American poet Marc Smith realised how bad poetry readings could be. “He was going to readings and poets were just getting up and reading into their papers, and not paying attention to the audience,” says Weslowski, “And they were boring the people who were there.” He devised a different method that would keep the audience interested and provide a new challenge for the poets.
A poetry slam revolutionizes not only the poetry reading, but the universal competition metric of a scoring system. Instead of experts or trained individuals, the judges are five audience members, picked at random. They get cards with scores from 0 to 10 (10 remains the highest score) and vote for their favourites based on whatever criteria they decide matters, be it style or content.
“Everybody acknowledges that it is a gimmick, and it’s entirely arbitrary, because the next night there’s five different judges and the poem that won the night before won’t win. That’s why we encourage people to experience in style, in writing and performance, and not to talk it too seriously. Only take seriously working on your skills as a writer and performer,” explains Weslowski.
Hullabaloo and the Vancouver Youth Slam
Weslowski has been mentoring young poets for years, including as the founder of the Youth Poetry Slam (A Vancouver Poetry House project), now in its fifth year. The Poetry Slam convenes every fourth Monday at Cafe Deux Soleil for a slam. He also works with Wordplay, another Vancouver Poetry House program, that sends poets into schools to do poetry workshops with students and introduce them to slam poetry.
A few years ago, he and fellow Vancouver Poetry House member Chris Gilpin were watching Chicago high school poetry-slam competition documentary Louder Than a Bomb and decided to emulate it in Vancouver. The result was Hullabaloo, a competition inviting teams from around BC to compete in Vancouver and as a by-product building a provincial community of young poets. Impressive for any new arts venture, the first year was a success, which Weslowski attributes partly to the “critical mass of interest” generated by the Vancouver Youth Slam and Wordplay.
What does Weslowski hope the competitors, from Grades 9–12 around the province, will get out of the experience? “They’ll be encouraged to continue their writing. To know they have lots of peers within the province who are into the same thing that they are. If you’re into poetry and writing and books, you can often feel alone and isolated, like a big geek. And maybe you are a big geek, but then you come to this event and find out that there are other geeks just like you out there, and they’re totally into poetry as well.
“I hope they’ll keep on writing and be inspired by the other poets, the featured performers. And they’ll know that if they chose to, this is something they could keep on doing. This is something they could do with their lives.”
And what of the slam poetry neophyte who attends Hullabaloo– what can they hope to get out of it? “They’ll get to see that the kids of today are able to speak for themselves. They’re smart and articulate and they know what’s on their minds. They don’t need interpreters to speak for them. The audience can get inspired and feel a sense of pride about kids. It’s great. That’s kind of what we’re in it for—all the mushy reasons.”
Sounds pretty good to us!
Check back at the end of March for full details about Hullabaloo 2012, or for info and advance tickets to the semi-finals and finals now, visit their website!