The slam poetry debate

Slam poetry is a controversial topic in Vancouver’s literary community, with traditional poets unimpressed by slam poets and slam poets accusing traditional poets of elitism.

Sean McGarragle, National Slam Master of the Vancouver Poetry Slam, explains that “the poetry slam is the event in which all poetry is welcome”. He helps run the weekly Monday night poetry slam at Café Deux Soleils, which has two portions. Five poets start off the night in the open mic portion, which is non-competitive, followed by twelve poets competing in the slam. Judges are randomly chosen from the audience and rate poets on a scale of 0-10. To be rated 10 the poem must be absolutely perfect and cause “spontaneous orgasms throughout the room,” according to Sean. He emphasizes that all poetry is welcome, though he also puts high value on the audience deciding what good poetry is.

It’s a competitive sport, basically,” says Reg Johanson, creative writing professor at Capilano. “The kind of poetry that comes across on stage is really quite aggressive... It’s Olympic-type stuff.”

In fact, it is. The slam poet Shane Kayczan, who performed at the Olympic Opening ceremony, got his start at Vancouver Poetry Slam events. “As you can see,” says McGarragle, “He’s pretty big now and doesn’t really need (our event).” McGarragle credits the slam community’s nurturing environment for turning out what he calls “a great artist”.

Johanson, though, completely disagrees. He found Shane Kayczan’s performance at the Olympic opening ceremony to be “a disgusting performance of the worst kind of sentimental nationalism,” and he compares it to the “I am Canadian” beer commercial. Johanson points out the complete absence of aboriginality in Kayczan’s poem apparently referencing what comprises Canadian identity. He also disapproved Kayczan submitting to Olympic censorship, though Kayczan has said in interviews that he only had to cut down his poem for time, not content. Reg’s stance still stands firm. “He read a poem that was full of stereotypes and misrepresentations of Canada and read it inside of a fascist spectacle. I thought it was disgusting.”

Olympics aside, though, where did this feud begin? McGarragle spoke about the Capilano Creative Writing instructors as “elitists”.

Former Canadian poet laurite George Bowering once said in an interview that slam poetry is “crude and extremely revolting”. The comment was blown up in the media and Bowering was made out as the most passionate hater of slam poetry. A simple Google search produces dozens of articles about Bowering’s criticisms of slam poetry. He co-wrote the book Cars with Ryan Knighton, Creative Writing professor at Capilano, and seems to have passed his reputation for hating slam poetry along to the Capilano Creative Writing department.

McGarragle counters with “I find that a lot of academic writing nowadays is for the elite, by the elite,” and he describes slam poetry as “by the people, for the people”. As Canada is producing fewer books every year, McGarragle states “The art of the book is dying.” Poets who are bound to the page are finding fewer opportunities, he says, and “those who can do stuff that looks good on paper as well as perform are having a lot more opportunities.” For example, Shane Kayczan. 

There are, however, alternative publication routes. Reg Johanson is a well-known advocate for self-publication and alternative distribution methods. “You don’t have to go through publishers to produce writing,” says Johanson, “So in that sense I don’t see how slam poetry has any greater advantage over any other poetry.”

“Poets that come out of the slam tradition,” McGarragle says, “Tend to focus a bit on humour, a lot of urban stuff. It’s poetry that is decided by the people.”

Johanson, on the other hand, disagrees. “It’s actually not really 'the people.' It’s a very select group of people who are just as clique-ish and just as narrow and small as any other group of poets you’ll find in the rest of the city.” He describes the social milieu of the slam poetry scene as any other scene where like-minded individuals come together to create something for themselves. “I think that any poetry is prone to that, unfortunately.”

Slam poets describe themselves as entertaining, though some Capilano creative writing teachers would describe them as “a cross between stand-up comedy and college ranting.” Johanson concedes that slam poets can be entertaining, though he says “I would slit my wrists if that’s all that poetry was. If it was just about entertainment.” He explains that poetry is to be read like anything else containing information, and that the emotion conveyed through poetry often cannot be conveyed in any other way. “Its got a whole range of emotional possibilities, from the really exhilarating and exciting to the totally depressing. So I would hate to narrow it down to entertainment.”

In response to being called an elitist, Reg laughs. He admits that his position at the University, which is an elitist institution, often gives him the power and the ability to mediate text. In regards to his poetry, however, “my activity as a poet actively seeks to undermine and subvert and terrorize elitism and privilege constantly.” 

“I think that getting to a poetry reading can be a really alienating experience for some people, though.” says Johanson about the popularity of poetry slams versus traditional poetry readings. “They go and they feel left out. They feel like it’s a hard thing to break into. I think the same is true for slam poetry, it can be just as alienating.”

That doesn’t worry the Vancouver Poetry Slam, which has been going for 14 years and claims to be “The most successful spoken word literary series across the country”. They sold out the Rio last year for their final tournament, and expect the same turnout this year. The Vancouver Poetry Slam is going strong, regardless of criticism from the Capilano literary community.

For more information, go to www.vancouverpoetryhouse.com.

// Sarah Vitet
Assistant Arts Editor

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com