by Rita Neyer
It’s a mild Wednesday evening in October. The heaters on most restaurant patios are already on. Around forty people have gathered at Kasbar, the downstairs Lounge at Yiannis on Whyte on an evening dedicated to the spoken (or sung) word. The sign on the door upstairs says ‘poetry.’ For the performers, it is the second slam event in two days. Their goal is to raise travel funding for an upcoming national slam event; from October 22-29, the Edmonton Slam Team will compete at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Peterborough/ON.
The atmosphere at the location is excited and relaxed, serious and carefree. An improvised stage is set up, distinguishable mainly by the microphone stand and some cables. There is no barrier between artist and audience. The interior is, in lack of a better word, orientalistic – wind lights, palm trees, warm red and ochre walls, and mountains of pillows. It’s one of those few places where you cannot be dressed ‘wrong.’ The crowd is diverse in all possible ways, save age – the majority being in their early 20s.
I set myself up on what must be the heaviest chair in town. The table will soon be laden with Greek appetizers and drinks. Some early birds have already arrived; the artists are on the couch in the corner, waiting and chatting. I decide to join them for a brief interview and they welcome me warmly. One of them, Shima – she goes by the penname Dwennimmen, which is West African and translates to strength, humility, learning, and wisdom –, readily gives me a short overview over the Edmonton poetry community. She has been an active member of the scene for over a decade. Since the beginning, Shima has seen it grow and develop and helped shaping the community herself. Most recently, she’s been organizing community engagement projects, and is finishing her degree in creative writing. Poetry has helped her through tough times, Shima tells me, as a way of coping with a breakdown and mental health issues. The result is a book of 22 poems that was recently published. She shows me her personal copy: “Horn,” it reads on the cover, the edges battered from the many times it must have been drawn out of and put back into bags and pockets. It has history. “Are you a fan of paper?”, I inquire. – “Yes, I like how it is tangible.”
When I ask her about the appeal of slam poetry, Shima thinks for a moment, then says: “The stage is a levelling field. You don’t need much money or education to do it. It is the democratization of poetry.” The artist, she explains, gets the chance to express themselves to the fullest, and the audience will reward them by listening, by giving them their attention. And, as I will see in a bit, enthusiastic finger flipping when something a performer says resonates deeply. Shima tells me that the poets are here because they want to share what goes on on the inside. Winning is just a collateral. They know that on the stage they don’t have to take themselves too seriously. The judges are randomly chosen from the audience.
The show is about to start. I thank Shima for the talk, and she gives me her card. ‘Dwennimmen’ it says in big letters, followed by her legal name, profession, contact information. To the left I recognize the logo from the book cover. Symbols and words have power, I think to myself. A micro-concert opens the show: Selassie Drah, a recording artist and the evening’s MC, performs five original songs. He begins, and I realize once again that poetry can take many forms. There’s an almost tangible connection with the people in the audience. He lets them partake. Then, the grande finale: a song about Whyte Ave, performed on Whyte Ave. The crowd loves him for it, and he loves them back. “This is where it’s at,” they chant in unison, and on the peak of meta.
Enter the poets. Nisha kicks off the show with a socio-critical piece on Edmonton: the crowd is cheering enthusiastically, getting them warmed up for the other Slam Team members – Lady Vanessa, Omar, Faves, and Shima. For the next two or so hours, all eyes and ears will be on the five of them. Their topics are timely and timeless: from racism, politics, misogyny, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to the recent Las Vegas mass shootings. In emotional and powerfully eloquent self-portrays, they tell stories of social injustice, discrimination, suppression, and the still all too tangible aftermath of colonization – but also of love, joy, and friendship.
A short break to refuel at the bar and buy merchandise. It almost feels mundane after the intensity of the performances. A man sitting across from me starts a conversation. His name is Robbie. He tells me that he’s been friends with Nisha for several years now. For him, slam poetry is a window into other people’s life experiences, a way to learn about social injustice, see through another lens. He tells me that he likes to find people who are smarter than him to learn from. I laugh genuinely. How has scene changed over those years, I ask. He hesitates for a quick second, then admits that the high quality of the scene has been a double-edged sword: performers come, grow within the community for a few years, and leave in favour of a professional career. There’s a bit of nostalgia in his voice, maybe a hint of resentment. Or maybe that’s my imagination.
The show continues. Sometimes, I have to listen between the lines to find the message, sometimes it’s blatantly obvious. Faves shares his disappointment and pain over the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases: “It’s a heavy topic, but I had to choose to speak.” Vanessa purveys a piece on the illegal immigration discourse in the US. Omar, with craftily intertwining puns, takes down racism and ignorance. Shima portraits with deeply touching words her experience with suppression and the long inner silence, equally revealing and concealing. They all share the same passion, the urge to air their emotions and opinions, to support each other and draw energy from the experience. Hope lies within all their words. Hope that the words they so painfully created and birthed will grow into more than tears or a fading memory in the listeners’ heads. The emotions fly high. Tears are shed on stage, a poem ends in verse turned speechlessness. Vivid finger flipping from the audience, loud applause after each performance. Vanessa ends the show: no war can be civil – not even a civil war. I nod.
The show is over. It’s not even 10pm, but it feels like a lifetime of experience later. I say good-bye, thank them for the great show. It will not be the last time, for all of us.
Photography courtesy of Robert Fox Photography (Instagram: @RobertFoxPhotography)