September 30, 2020

BY RYAN BOWMAN

Much like the leaves changing colour or the scent of pumpkin spice latte, Kitchener’s Word on the Street festival is a sure sign that summer has begun its annual surrender to autumn.

The 12th edition of the city’s literary celebration, which drew hundreds of people to its new downtown location, was held Sept. 23. Despite a bitter breeze and temperatures around 11 C, event co-ordinator Julie Marshall said the turnout was comparable to last year’s – a feat she attributed to the festival’s change of scenery.

“Having it right at city hall made it really accessible,” she said. “We thought it was a great way to engage the downtown businesses and add a bit of an urban feel to the festival.”

According to Marshall, that desire for an urban feel also spawned Word in the Alley, a new, “edgier” component of the festival which featured a workshop on how to DJ, a Q and A session with a DC comic book artist, and a panel discussion on digital storytelling.

The final performance at Word in the Alley, and perhaps the most unique, was a poetry slam featuring local group The Flying Vs.

Poetry slamming, which is gaining popularity among urban communities across the country, is essentially competitive spoken-word poetry. Contestants are given three minutes to perform a poem, often from memory, on which they are rated by a panel of judges and audience reaction. Scores are based on everything from rhyme and rhythm to tone and syntax to diction and delivery.

The Flying Vs, who are preparing to represent Kitchener-Waterloo at next month’s Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Saskatoon, Sask., say they hope to redefine the landscape of poetry slamming across the country. For starters, said group member Lindsay Jack, they want to change some of the stereotypes associated with slamming.

“Slam culture is male dominated,” said Jack. “The content we bring to the stage is considered pretty unique, and our approach to running the events is really different from what you would see at a run-of-the-mill slam.”

Team member Janice Lee said the all-female group also hopes to make the art form less about competition and more about communication.

“It is not first and foremost a competition with us, it’s a community-building poetry event,” said Lee. “It’s freedom of speech with accountability to your community.”

One way for the community to get involved, said Jack, is to give members of the audience a voice, even if they don’t have a microphone. The group does this at their own events by promoting a type of audience feedback known in slamming circles as “pissed hissing,” where audience members hiss at the poets when they disapprove of either the content or its delivery.

“We have given our audience tools to negotiate their experience, which is part of community care and keeping it democratic,” Jack said.

“If you’re spouting stuff people don’t agree with, they will let you know,” added group member Beth Murch. “So if you’re gonna speak your truth, you better be prepared for some feedback.”

According to Lee, who has been writing poetry seriously for six years, it can be difficult to decide whether or not your truth is always worth speaking.

“The big question you need to ask before you write a poem for the stage,” said Lee, “is, ‘Am I comfortable sharing this?’”

Given the different personalities and life experiences of the Flying Vs, whose ages range from 20 to 32, the group’s content varies greatly; one of the member’s poems tells a comical tale of her “breakup” with gluten and dairy due to a dietary intolerance, while other monologues explore more serious issues such as body image and capitalism.

And while all five members of the group have significant portfolios of poetry and a general sense of which pieces they will recite at any given competition, they say they need to have the flexibility to adapt.

“If the poet who went right before us did some patriarchal bullshit poem, we’re gonna pull out a really hard-ass feminist poem to respond,” Lee said.

Wordsmiths at heart, all of the members consider slamming an art form in and of itself, but agreed it is not one they want to be defined by.

“I don’t consider myself just a slam poet,” said Jack. “I consider myself a storyteller.”

For more information about The Flying Vs and poetry slamming, visit kwpoetryslam.com