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Toronto's spoken word scene signals poetic resurgence with Toronto Poetry Slam

By David Silverberg, special to YongeStreet

Any given day in Toronto will provide literary fans with an energetic offshoot of poetry gaining impressive momentum: spoken word, and its cousin poetry slams.

Spoken word is poetry intended to be performed

To say Toronto is the spoken word capital of Canada might irk the fun-loving slam poets in Vancouver and Ottawa (two other hotbeds of spoken word talent) but just look at these events and groups that have been incorporating spoken word into their programming: The Luminato Festival of the Arts, Word on the Street, Toronto Public Library, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Pedestrian Sundays at Kensington Market, and the upcoming Reelworld Film Festival.

Those on ground level of the spoken word movement in the city can attest to how fast this poetic resurgence has grown. In such a connected world we live in where Facebook posts and retweets glaze over our eyes, there is something so raw and simple about watching a poet share her story on a stage, just a voice and a microphone. Poetry grabs life by the throat, as Robert Frost said, and we all want to hear that brutal honesty from our artists, whether it’s wrapped in serious tones or playful humour.

Toronto Poetry Slam, a spoken word competition takes over the Drake Hotel Underground twice a month and attracts an average of 150 fans per show. Dwayne Morgan’s When Brothers Speak and When Sisters Speak, two annual showcases of spoken word stars, sell out at the gorgeous St. Lawrence Centre. Poetry slams and performance poetry showcases dot venues along Queen Street West, the Danforth, the Annex, and in nearby regions such as Mississauga, York, Burlington, Brampton and Etobicoke.

Patrick de Belen, the director of BAM! Youth Poetry Slam in Toronto and a full-time poet, embraced spoken word because it made him feel welcome. “To me, spoken word was a genre of art that depended on YOUR voice - YOUR story. For a young Filipino kid, there weren't many popular artist-role models in the urban art scene. The fact that spoken word was still - in ways – kind of young in this city, made me feel like I could pave my own lane.”

Other poets find the community an attraction, since the spoken word scene is still quite intimate compared to other genres such as music, theatre and film. Cathy Petch, a poet and founder of Hot Damn It’s a Queer Slam, says, “Many people in this community are a part of my chosen family and everyday life. Being around creative, passionate and brave voices is an incredible thing.”

Beyond the poets embedded in the poetry world, spoken word fans hunger for that #realtalk coming from a nice array of backgrounds. At any given spoken word event, you’ll see Muslim teens on stage just after a 70-year-old grandfather performed a love poem to his grandchildren.

Cesar Ghisilieri who has been going to Toronto-area poetry slams for the past two years, says, “I love the wide diversity of performers and audience members. As well the atmosphere is much welcoming compared to the art school scene here in Oakville.”

He is confident the spoken word scene in Toronto is only going to continue to flourish. “I feel that the poetry scene can maintain its authenticity no matter how popular it becomes as long as the content and roster of talent stays strong, vulnerable, and uncensored.”

But it’s not all sunshine and finger-snaps. Dwayne Morgan, who has been involved running poetry shows and performing in Toronto since 1993, is concerned about a racial divide in the poetry world. He explains, “The fear, as with many genres, is that as spoken word moves closer to mainstream acceptance, it will look more and more white, while those whose cultures are rooted in the oral tradition take seats on the sideline and watch what is happening.”

If spoken word does bubble from the underground to better engage with key decision-makers in the Canadian arts industry, expect Morgan’s concern to be echoed by others in the space who treasure its scrappy position. After all, we all saw what happened with hip-hop.

Until then…may the metaphors be with you.
David Silverberg is a Toronto-based journalist and enterpreneur, as well as a co-producer of Toronto Poetry Slam
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