With the eighth annual Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, slam poetry has achieved an impressive visibility on the Canadian cultural radar. This year, twenty teams will be competing. The teams will be representing cities from seven provinces, spanning the country coast to coast. The roster is heavy on Ontario teams, lacks any representation from Canada’s north, and has only one city team to represent the four Atlantic provinces. Still, the size of the festival and the exponential growth in the number of slams taking place across the country point to an extraordinary grassroots cultural energy that has seized the imagination of young Canadian performing poets.
It can be argued that the annual festival has contributed a great deal to this burgeoning slam poetry community. While many cities across Canada embraced slam poetry in the nineties, only Vancouver’s Van Slam managed to sustain its enthusiasm for the form over the past decade and a half. Lack of funding and the logistical difficulties involved in bringing a Canadian slam team to compete in the American National Poetry Slam every year were certainly two factors that kept the Canadian slam community from gaining the kind of mainstream cultural prominence it has held in the United States for more than a decade. With the founding of Spoken Word Canada (SpoCan) as an organization to shepherd the nomadic Canadian Festival of Spoken Word from year to year and city to city, it has been possible to build a sustainable community of slam poets and performers.
David Silverberg, founder of the Toronto Poetry Slam, has been an active member of SpoCan for the past two years, and is the organizer of the eighth edition of the Canadian Spoken Word Festival, hosted this year by Toronto. “Our vision is to give people something unique, something they haven’t seen at the CFSW before. We wanted to create programming that was going to make poets grow as writers, give them a sense of what Toronto poetry has to offer in terms of dub poetry, the Native Canadian showcase, and the Queer showcase.”
The festival features the annual Canadian slam semi-finals and finals. However, it also plays host to a wide variety of events and workshops aimed, not just at the slam poet per se, but at performing poets of all stripes. Daytime events mostly happen at the Tranzac Main Hall, and include skills-building workshops. According to Silverberg, “On the improving-their-skills tip, we wanted to introduce a group piece workshop hosted by the Recipe, an introduction to writing humour poetry led by Sandra Kasturi, as well as an hour-long panel discussion on how to tour in Canada, run by Dwayne Morgan, Brendan McLeod and Sheri-D Wilson.”
Sheri-D Wilson is also a featured performer in the Legends showcase, which also includes Lillian Allen, Andrea Thompson, R.C. Weslowski and Eddy Da Original One. Poets of Honour for the festival are Robert Priest, a performance poet who’s been writing, recording and touring since the early 80s, and d’bi young, the powerhouse dub poet who’s been conducting performance workshops in South Africa at the Pan Afrika Performing Arts Institute (PAPAI), which she founded to facilitate the holistic development of continental and diasporic multi-disciplinary Afrikan artists.
Late-night venues include nightspots like The Drake, The Pilot, The Bowery and Clinton’s, featuring everything from the Underground Indie Tournament, where young slammers battle it out for a share of the $1000 purse, to a poetry and music showcase. Also on the late night schedule, Silverberg said, “We’re introducing hip hop karaoke to our CFSW fans. That’s been going on for around five years in Toronto, it’s a monthly thing run by two rappers here. And in addition to hip hop karaoke, we wanted to do for the first time ever, a haiku head-to-head match. We thought it’s time for us to do a national haiku head-to-head match, much as they do at the U.S. National Poetry Slam.”
Silverberg hopes the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word will find a place within the already well-established Canadian literary culture. “The literary art scene is quite strong and vital – we have great publishers and great book journalists who cover the publishing and writing scene, and we see a lot of writers come out for the Harbourfront Festival of Authors. I think that CFSW will hopefully join that kind of legacy of events that attract a lot of Torontonians and Canadians, because poetry slams are taking off in a way that we haven’t seen before. Its continued significance in the literary scene will only be more pronounced as more and more poets, academics and – for lack of a better term – literati also get wind of the CFSW.”