It’s a hipster hangout like many others in Victoria. The walls are rustic, exposed brick. The menu is elaborately chalked by hand on a blackboard. The beer is local, and so is the bright, eclectic art on the walls. The real ambience, though, is provided by the fascinating wealth of people who are filling up the place, a veritable Where’s Waldo scene where each human is more interesting than the last. Men and women both sport buns and partially-shaved heads. I can spot a fedora or two, and a few thick wool scarves and bulky sweaters not entirely appropriate for the mild Victoria weather. Thick-framed wayfarer glasses are ubiquitous. A woman I do not know slides into a seat across from me at the picnic-style table where I’m sitting. “Are you slammin’?” she asks me, noticing the notebook on the table in front of me.
She’s asking me if I’m competing in tonight’s slam poetry competition, the event all these young people have shown up to watch tonight at Lacey Lou’s Tapas Lounge. I blanche in terror at the thought of getting up in front of the microphone and baring my soul in front of these strangers. I don’t have the glasses or the hairstyle or the courage. “No way,” I say. “I’m just here to watch.”
This is Vic Slam.
It happens on the third Thursday of every month here in Victoria, when the local slam poetry scene congregates and the best poets face off in front of a jury of their peers. The emcee starts off by announcing the rules, which most of the audience is familiar with. “You can say whatever the fuck you want,” says our host, and then the whole room chimes in to finish off the line: “but leave your hate at the gate.” The event will start with a “sacrifice,” a poet who performs first to calibrate the judges’ scoring but who isn’t actually competing tonight. Then, poets will take the stage and perform for no more than two minutes each; there are penalties for going over time. After each poet, judges in the audience will hold up placards with scores out of ten. Tonight’s competition is one of several that will rank local poets and determine who gets a spot on the Vic Slam team to compete at regional or national competitions.
Tonight’s performers are full of fire. The crowd is more diverse than I tend to see at Victoria’s cultural events. I notice a woman in a niqab take a seat near the front of the room, and when she comes up to the mic and lays out a passionate denunciation of Islamophobia and racism, I can’t help but scribble in my notebook: HELL YEAH! A fresh-faced first-year university student takes the stage and rhymes with pain and anger about the possibility of pipelines in her home of Haida Gwaii. I love how political these poems are.
Some are more personal. (Many are both.) “This poem is called ‘Holy Fuck, or Things That Go Through My Head When We’re Making Out,” announces a bearded guy in a toque. Another poet speaks plaintively about her freckles, and there is, of course, the requisite poem about a love that turned into heartbreak.
When these poets start slamming, I think of music. They spit out sharp staccato notes and counter them by repeating soothing phrases. Many poems have a part that builds—accelerando, crescendo, the sheet music would read—and then breaks, the moment in a piece where the symphony stops, holds back its breath while the conductor waits with his hands raised before continuing.
I want to do this, I think to myself.
I have written poetry for a long time, though I rarely share my poems. They are scribbled in notebooks and sometimes on the backs of receipts, while at coffee shops or at beaches. They are saved on my computer in files with ambiguous names. Sometimes I think in poetic feet and a line reverberates in my head until it is committed to paper. I love poetry and I love music, and I must admit I love being in front of a microphone. But I’m pretty sure I don’t belong here.
Sitting in the crowd, the sharp edges of my squareness stick out awkwardly. I feel like I have always been this way: not normal enough to fit into mainstream culture; not cool enough to be alternative. More than style, though, I am unsure that I could summon and display the same raw emotion, the pain and hurt and anger, that these poets seem to draw on. They are breathtakingly vulnerable on stage, offering up their most intimate feelings for the audience to receive. My skin crawls at the thought of revealing such a private side of myself in public.
For that reason, I’m in awe of those who stand behind the microphone. Slam poetry, at its best, is not only an expression of art–it’s an act of bravery.
This is an article I wrote in 2014 — locations and dates of poetry evenings have since changed. For more info, check out http://victoriapoetryproject.ca.