Johnny MacRae

Photo credit: Nora Smithhisler.
Spawned in the rich slamming grounds of Canada’s west coast, poet Johnny MacRae was the 2010 Vancouver Grand Slam Champion, a finalist at the inaugural Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Championship, and the first-ever winner of the Underground Individual Championship held in Toronto at the 2011 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. He’s a vocal supporter of the slam poetry form and the slam community, but at the same time, his poetry is rapidly evolving beyond slam’s parameters. At a recent appearance in Montreal’s Throw Poetry Slam as feature poet, MacRae performed poems grounded in a mythic cosmology, poems which combine a respect for traditional poetic structure with an impishly postmodern sense of humour.
MacRae’s journey to the slam stage started with a haiku written when he was eleven that particularily impressed his mother, who was a literature teacher. He began to think of himself as a poet, wrote extensively, and eventually came to performance through high school playwrighting and theatre improv work. MacRae said, “When I was in grade twelve we used to write our own plays, and at that point I stopped focusing on poetry because I was doing improv theatre competitively. We had these big productions we’d do every year. Our teacher showed us something from Def Jam with about eight poets, including one named Piece from Seattle who I really got into for a while. It was a group piece, and I ended up writing an eight-person Greek chorus spoken word thing for that play that year.”
He continued writing during his years earning an Honours BA in literature at U.B.C., and after a period of crisis, found his voice on the Vancouver Slam stage. “I wrote a poem called ‘I Love My Vagina’, took it to an open mic because my friend Sasha Langford – I’d coached her in improv in high school, and then she was doing spoken word in the slam in Vancouver – she took me out to an open mic and encouraged me to read the poem. So I did, and people reacted really well and they did a whole fist-pump on the word ‘vagina’ all night ... and I immediately saw that this was something that, with my background in improv performance and the type of poems I’d started writing, I just felt really confident about that stage and stepping onto it. I had a lot of good fortune in the first year and stumbled onto the team, and every since then it’s been spiralling out of control.”
‘I Love My Vagina’ was MacRae’s breakthrough poem, the poem where he found the way he wanted to write. “‘I Love My Vagina’ was something I wrote when I was twenty-two. I’d had friends who were trans and one who got a sex change when I was about fifteen, and all my friends in high school had been queer, so I’d basically spent the last ten years of my life thinking about gender and sexuality and what were the issues surrounding this. I went to see The Vagina Monologues and in it, there was a crack about how the penis is an inferior sexual organ because it doesn’t have nearly as many nerve endings as the clit. [...] So I wrote this tongue-in-cheek poem. I was walking away and I was, 'But, ah! I love my vagina!' All this had been stuff I had been thinking about, it just came out at that point.”
MacRae has an interest in unpacking the mundane cliches of language, in the process turning audience assumptions on their heads and illuminating the world in fresh and surprising ways. “It seems a lot of my poems center around picking on a saying or a cliche – like ‘pigs are flying’ or ‘fish need bicycles’ – starting out with a really absurd premise and then flipping it somehow and bringing it to the audience. In that sense, RC Weslowski’s also been the most dominant influence in my life in the last couple of years. My opportunities to work with him in VanSlam on the team for two years really taught me a lot about absurdist metaphors, surrealist work.”
The mythic quality of MacRae’s poetry arose from his studies in literature. “I started reading a lot of Robert Bringhurst in the last few years in university, and he talks a lot about the myth-tellers. One of his books that really affected me was A Story as Sharp as a Knife, about the classical Haida myth tellers. He looks at what their form is, what their thinking is, and he discusses the way in which the myth teller and the scientist actually do the same work. The difference is that the myth teller operates on the basic assumption that everything in the environment is alive and has a voice.” This study of the tools of the myth teller trade dovetailed with MacRae’s personal development. “My transition into slam coincided with what one of my profs called a spiritual awakening. [...] I definitely woke up to certain things, and wanted to begin working on reconnecting people in our society to our innate animistic relationships with the world around us.”
MacRae’s poetry chops have been sharpened through extensive stagework in the past few years, combined with crucial workshopping experience at the Banff Spoken Word program (where he studied with American spoken word icon Bob Holman) and at the most recent edition of the Victoria Spoken Word Festival, curated by Missie Peters. MacRae said, “She really wants to create something where we’re working on doing collaborative work. We’re getting an opportunity to do workshops in clown and character work, singing, beatboxing, improv, and then we’re working on putting together one big show. Working beyond the restraints that slam format puts on us.”
Currently, MacRae and Victoria slam organizer shayne avec i grec are focused on touring together across the country and into the States in November as 2 Dope Boys in a Cadillac. “We’re working on an hour-long show called The Anthropocalypse Psychedelic Talk Opera. Effectively, it’s about pushing into more of that theatrical form. So what we’ve been doing is we tour doing our half-hour feature set, and it’s The Anthropocalpyse is Nigh: a Prelude to a Psychedelic Talk Opera. I’d like to do our prelude show – the feature set for a slam, for example – and then if time is available for it, set up something a lot more informal, maybe at a venue, maybe just at someone’s place, where we do a demo run of the full hour-length show.”
shayne avec i grec. Photo credit: Aaron Mercer / EyeDropper Photography..