September 23, 2020

BY CASEY SCHELLENBERGER

What slam poetry is varies from person to person, even between Kitchener-Waterloo Poetry Slam organizers Henry C and Janice Lee.

“It’s a political venue to rhythmically say any qualms you have with society,” said Henry, who uses just the letter C as a last name.

“It’s interesting that you would say that, Henry,” Janice said before giving her own definition.

“A spoken word competition where original writing is judged by the audience. Slam poetry is not a kind of poetry, it’s just poetry that’s performed at a slam.”

“At a spoken word event, the words become embodied and alive because the performer puts that kind of high energy into it,” Janice, who is the slam’s artistic director, continued. “I think it’s very empowering for people to be able to share their own words on a stage where it will be heard.”

After attending several political spoken word events in Kitchener-Waterloo, Janice and three other people founded KW Poetry Slam in 2011.

“There was a demand for a stage and there were four of us who decided that we were going to write the grant, get the money and make it happen.”

And since then its audience has, according to Janice, “consistently grown” over the years.

“We used to be in the Silver Spoon in downtown Kitchener, which at 25 people was pretty full,” recalled Janice, “but, we would sometimes pack 60 people in there.”

The Little Bean, located at 417 King St. in Kitchener, has become the home to the organization’s monthly slam which has an audience of anywhere from 50 to 100 people.

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“There’s definitely a huge demand for it and we’re just trying to balance having a venue that is a good atmosphere for the poetry and one that is affordable and accessible,” Janice said.

Henry, who is the marketing assistant, thinks the current popularity of slam poetry has to do with the Kitchener-Waterloo area becoming more refined.

“I’ve been in the area my whole life and it seems like the area’s getting more cultured, whereas maybe five to 10 years ago there wasn’t so much of an arts or music scene,” Henry said.

The KW Poetry Slam has a strong focus on creating an inclusive and accessible space. Part of this is done by ensuring venues for slams and workshops are physically accessible to everyone.

Another part of the organization’s attempt at creating such an environment is changing how the poems are judged. Until recently, performers at the KW Poetry Slam were judged using numbers, now the judges leave comments for the poets on whiteboards.

“At the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, it’s scored with numbers,” explained Henry, “but we’re trying to make it so it’s more about constructive criticism.”

“It makes it about the poetry and not the points,” Janice said. “People don’t like competition, people just want to hear poetry.”

Performers are still judged numerically at the finals so that the top five poets can be determined for the K-W team and go to a national competition.

Janice, who was on the first K-W team to go to nationals, describes the experience as one of her best with the slam so far.

“The sheer energy and support we had from that crowd was crazy,” Janice recalled.

“That’s when I knew that kind of energy and love for poetry was possible. That has always been a goal, to bring K-W’s love and energy up to that kind of passion, because people lose their shit for poetry.”

“It’s really exhilarating being on stage,” Henry said after being asked what his best experience with the slam has been so far.

“Just the interaction with the crowd, it’s better than a beer.”

The organization hosts a poetry slam on the first Saturday of every month, with the next one being on March 1 at 7 p.m. in The Little Bean.

Another big slam poetry event happening in March is the Spoken Word Showcase on March 11 at 7 p.m. in The Little Bean featuring El Jones, Lady Sin Trayda and Beth Murch.

“It’s a lineup of three amazing, powerhouse poets,” said Janice with an emphasis on amazing.

“You’ll cry and laugh and it’ll be a poetry explosion of goodness.”

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