A small dimly lit room beneath the Drake Hotel quickly filled on Sunday night with a sharply dressed crowd sipping imported beers and red wine. The room buzzed with anticipation as more patrons filed in by the minute. By the time the show began, the room was packed so tightly that even if you were lucky enough to get a seat, you’d miss half the show trying to get to the bar and back. The stage wasn’t set for an indie band, underground DJ or rap artist. This was a Toronto Poetry Slam.
In a three-round playoff-style competition, twelve poets competed for the highest score. Five judges were randomly selected from the audience after an open mic to warm up the crowd. They performed original poems or ‘slams’ lasting up to four minutes and could not include props or music.
The slams themselves are often very personal for the poets. When the spotlight is on and the crowd settles down to listen the poets bare their souls to the audience. Thematically it varies from poet to poet as Toronto has a widely diverse range of talent.
Recent political events and contemporary social issues are often included in the subject matter of these slams because this is a reflection of how these events impact the lives around us.
“Poetry slams have almost always had political undertones, but a lot of what we talk about in contemporary society is. It’s all around us,” the night’s host Rahul Gupta said “but you’ll find that subjects range from poet to poet and often include a lot of variety outside politics like love, satire, comedy and other things.”
Audience members are encouraged to vocalize their opinions of the judge’s scores while judges are reminded not to be swayed by the crowd. This interplay is a reminder that despite the serious or emotionally heavy subject matter of the poetry, the night is about fun and supporting local performers.
“Get it right judges! I don’t cry for anything less than a 10!” an audience member yelled out after a particularly riveting slam by one of the second round contestants.
The crowd is often vocal and rowdy and despite being neatly dressed, carry an unmistakable and unique energy. But this is no surprise since the poets themselves often put out so much raw emotion on stage it’s nearly impossible not to get swept up.
“I got tired of just watching these things online,” said Colin Richards, first time attendee and audience judge.
“It’s even more exciting than I thought it would be. Being exposed to so much talent and feeling the tension of the live performance is amazing. But even with the ‘pressure’ of being a judge made me really pay attention to what I was watching and I really think it heightened the experience.”
Toronto poetry slam has been around since 2008, when David Silverberg began hosting events with a small group of poets that included Gupta. Since then, they have become an important stop in the circuit that leads to the national championships at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.
The night’s feature performer was former national champion, Fannon. This past year, he won the title as a part of the Guelph team.
By the third round only three poets were left: Londzo – explicitly exposing the less than tender side of the feminine role in relationships, MC Fraser – promoting the power of positivity and the importance of perspective and Na Na – exploring the nature and hearts of men from where we was born to the places he’s been lately.
At the end of the night it was Na Na who came out victorious by a margin of .2 points and claimed the cash prize.
As Rahul handed out the awards, the finalists laughing and congratulating each other on stage, he reminded us one last time of the often repeated mantra that solidifies the kind of competition that took place that night.
“Let’s hear it for the poets, not the scores.”