Poetry is Still Cool? It Is In London: Alex James on the Road

29 Oct

Okay folks, I have to get this off my chest.
After years of purporting to be a writer of sorts, I’ve got to go on record saying I really, really can’t stand poetry.  Or more to the point, I can’t stand poets.

arrogant poet

Yeah, just like this. Why the turtle? Because it's "art".

I know, right?

But the reason for this hatred is different than the reason why I don’t typically like writers either.  You see, as much as writers in general can be raving egomaniacs, poets inhabit a totally different stratum of lunacy.

When I was younger I fancied myself, as many young writers do, a poet.  And like most adolescents, my poetry started out being fabulously bad, then it got pretty good, and then it got terrible again.  During my “pretty good” period, on the advice of a friend who taught at the University of Toronto, I started attending a local poetry reading in an effort to expand my horizons and grow as an artist.

Note: this is not a "real" poetry reading, because there is sunlight.

Note: This is not a "real" poetry reading, because there is sunlight.

The venue in question hosted the be-all, end-all, walking stereotype of a poetry reading: a bunch of malcontents with cheeky stage-names like “Heroine” (it’s a drug double-endendre — get it?) wearing – I kid you not – berets and black-framed glasses, sitting around a local coffee house, smoking herbal cigarettes and drinking fifteen dollar cups of mocha-java-latte-upside-down-crumb-cake-with-a-hint-of-nutmeg, casting disparaging glances at the spiky-haired interloper with the notebook and the eager eyes.

I never understood the term “circle jerk” until I’d weathered a few trips out to this parody.  It’s one thing to have “fan favourites” at a venue like this, but when the favoured parties are patently bad writers with a penchant for over-the-top gesticulation and Shatneresque evocation, one wonders how low the bar has to sink for this to be considered the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

Needless to say, I lacked the requisite sense of self-entitlement and familiarity with the work of obscure Beat Generation hangers-on, so they really didn’t like my stuff.  I know it probably sounds like I reacted like a jilted lover, but after finishing a poem to be greeted with total silence (as opposed to the finger-snapping required upon a favourite’s completion of their latest mopey masterpiece) I took my metaphorical ball and went home, never to bother with poetry readings again, and harboring serious thoughts about setting fire to the whole place.

burning building

Burn, baby, burn.

Should I have given the whole thing another chance?  Probably, but unlike the overgrown, Bukowski-worshipping adolescents at this reading, I was actually a teenager and therefore had a valid excuse for being a little drama queen.  Long story short, I didn’t attend another reading for almost ten years, instead focusing on becoming a legitimate rock star/blog writer.  If you can use the term “legitimate” in that context.

So I was understandably underwhelmed at the prospect of attending another poetry reading this past weekend while visiting in London with my friend Melissa after the success of the New Quarterly Fall Launch.  She assured me the members of the London Poetry Slam were all fantastic people, and that I’d have a great time if I only got off my high horse and gave it a chance.

A Slam? I queried.  She responded with this explanation.

Essentially a poetry slam is a competition.  Now, I know what you’re thinking – how can you possibly make a competition out of art?  I respond: do you watch American Idol?  Granted, I don’t really agree with the precept that karaoke is art, but it’s all in how you look at it.  It’s entirely possible to ascribe a number value to so-called “art” if you set up certain objective guidelines: with poetry, this might be meter or rhyme, but with performance poetry it’s more often to do with the presentation of the piece, including your ability to memorize complex verse and how well your delivery matches up with the content of the work.

In the case of this particular Slam, judges are volunteers who are given score cards much the same as you’d see in the Olympics: poems are graded out of ten with a possibility of a decimal value (i.e. 7.5, 8.2, what have you).  Judges are urged to consider some of the guidelines I mentioned above, but all in all they’re asked to give their honest opinion on the poem and the performance as a single entity, with little regard to whether or not they “like” the content.

score card

"I'd give it a ten, but you didn't reference T.S. Eliot."

Not being a fan of the culture of competition so prevalent in the art world, I was less than enthused at sitting through what I imagined would be an elitist ego-fest, but I’m happy to say that I was totally, one hundred percent wrong in my estimation of what the London Poetry Slam was going to be like.

london poetry slam

The event was held at the London Music Club, easily the best venue for live performances I’ve seen in a long time.  The proprietors, Pete and Jan Denomme, opened the venue in the interest of promoting local and regional talent from all walks of music – they run weekly open mics spanning the gamut from acoustic and folk to blues and rock, as well as bringing many out-of-town acts in for special performances, and hosting the Poetry Slam monthly.  I didn’t have a chance to meet Jan, but Pete is easily one of the most easy-going, pleasant venue owners I’ve ever known – possibly because he is also a musician, and according to my sources, a damn good one.    I could go on and on about this place – friendly staff, great food, and the most well-appointed stages (from a sound perspective) I’ve come across recently – but it would be easier for you to just check out their website, and if you’re ever in London, go there.  You won’t be disappointed, I promise.

london music club

Two of the coolest people in London. Fact.

After paying my requisite surcharge (to be put towards the winning poet’s prize) I settled in and prepared to be bombarded by coffee-house, angst-fueled horse shit.  Like I said, every once in a blue moon I really love being wrong.

The event’s organizer, national slam-master Elyse Maltin, ran down the important details of the show.  The LPS has three mantras by which they govern themselves: “The points aren’t the point, the poems are the point”, “Speak your truth”, and “Show the love”; the latter is chanted by the audience at the beginning of each performer’s set.  According to many of the performers and organizers, these positive messages represent an attempt to develop an interactive, inclusive community of poets: the Slam is designed to help promote networking between artists, and artistic growth for individual performers.

The audience buys into these premises in a big way: they consistently “boo” judges who give low scores to performers (all in good fun of course) and if a time penalty is awarded to a poet who goes over the three minute limit, the audience berates the time keeper with the words “You rat bastard!  You’re ruining it for everyone!  But it was well worth it!”  Hilarious, and kind of a cool bonding experience to boot.

rat bastard

I always wanted an excuse to use this term in public...

In two rounds the decision-making process is complete: round one affords everyone who’s inclined a chance to get on stage and perform their work; round two takes the best of the first round (percentage depending on the number of performers) and puts them back up for a second poem.  The judges tally their scores and the evening ends with the presentation of third, second and first place scores.  The winner walks away with a portion of the door profits, and in my opinion, everyone walks away better for the experience.

I’m not trying to sound sappy or sentimental at all, and I’m certainly not trying to play grab-ass with an artistic community I haven’t been involved with in years, but believe me when I say the performances I saw were outstanding.  If I had known what I was getting into I would have prepared more adequately to write this post by interviewing performers and getting all sorts of links together, but I was genuinely shocked by the quality of the works and their readings.  This is an extremely talented group of people who consistently defied my expectations by writing moving, funny, engaging pieces and presenting them in a very honest way – I know I keep calling this “performance poetry” but the sense I got was there was very little in the way of “performance” going on.  These people made me believe in what they were saying, and for people dealing with a guy who went in categorically hating poetry, that’s a pretty impressive feat.

In addition to the Slam element of the evening, we were extremely lucky to be privy to a performance by a Vancouver-based spoken word duo that goes under the name “Seven Dollar Bill”.  They were on their way through town on an Ontario tour, so they decided to stop by the slam and deliver two sets’ worth of their unique brand of performance poetry.

seven dollar bill

Best graphic ever. Does it come in a teeshirt?

You can check out this website for the particulars of their biographies, but suffice to say Sean McGarragle and Chris Gilpin are both spectacular poets and performers.
The element of their shared performance that struck me most, I think, was their chemistry on-stage.  It was very clear from their banter and level of confidence with themselves and one another that a) they were born to do this, b) their friendship extends well beyond the stage, and c) high-end performance art still exists in this country.

From the performance I saw, they split their dynamic evenly. Sean’s work fell more into the realm of the serious and political; he works on the lower-east side of Vancouver with the victims of the HIV epidemic (among other things, I’m sure) and many of the solo poems he presented dealt with his experiences in his job.  Far from being sentimental or intentionally heartstring-plucking, his performance was evocative and extremely honest: it was clear from his words and his presentation that he genuinely cares about what he does and the people he works with, and at the risk of sounding like I’m pandering (which I’m not) he made me want to learn more about what’s going on in his part of this country.

seanmcgarragle

Poet and humanitarian? Take a cue, Bono.

Chris, contrarily, dealt primarily in humour.  It’s extremely difficult to get on stage and be funny, as many failed comedians can attest, and trying to do so through the lens of poetry can be even more challenging.  Chris rose to that challenge and exceeded my expectations by a considerable margin.  He wasn’t afraid to poke fun in his own direction (that of a spoken-word artist) and everything he approached was presented in a clever and engaging way.

chrisgilpin

It's not easy to make me laugh. This guy wins that contest.

Oh, and did I mention they’re both really, really nice guys?  Totally approachable, and they dealt with my weirdo fanboy behaviour with considerable grace.
They don’t have their own dedicated URL at this point, so do yourself a favour and check out their personal Myspace pages (as well as Chris Gilpin’s home webpage) and find out if they’re going to be in your area.  If I thought they were this good, chances are you, my valued readers, who are considerably more forgiving than I am, will absolutely love them.

Of all the places I expected to find such a vibrant art community, I have to admit London, Ontario was not the highest on my list (especially I’m supposed to live in this really vibrant, culturally-aware city).  As it stands right now, after this weekend I fully intend to make it a regular stop on my monthly tours of the World Outside Toronto, and I highly recommend you, my valued readers, do the same should you be located in a geographically-convenient locale.

So what’s my final word on this?

Well, as you know, I don’t typically go in for sanctimoniously complimentary posts like this; they tend to lack the vitriol on which I’ve built this site’s integrity.  But as State of Affairs continues to grow and gain readership (thanks to all those who pass my crap on, by the way), I feel like I have a unique opportunity to not only wax philosophic on the sad state of the world, but also to espouse virtue where I find it.  It’s all about balance, folks, and while I’m still feeling that balance out, I hope every so often you might get something out of my writings apart from a suntan courtesy of my white-hot rage.

And to the poets out there who still haven’t gotten a clue?  Take a cue from the real poets out there, lose the ego and just be cool.  It’s not too late for you.  For motivation, here’s a little diddy I wrote just for you:

“Roses are red
Violets are blue
Get off your high horse
Or I’ll burn down your coffee house.”

* snap, snap, snap *

beat poet

And - scene.

9 Responses to “Poetry is Still Cool? It Is In London: Alex James on the Road”

  1. Chris Gilpin October 29, 2009 at 3:34 PM #

    Hey Alex, I would snap for this article except that would probably just lead to you throwing a virtual pepperoni in my face, and justifiably so. Instead, I’ll just say I enjoyed reading this, especially your journey through the hells of super-pretentious café readings. I’m glad you found something more engaging at the poetry slam. What I always tell people is that it’s not what they expect it will be. London has a fantastic scene and I encourage everyone to check it out, and to give Elyse Maltin a big hug for organizing the whole thing.
    Cheers,
    Chris Gilpin

  2. Shayla October 29, 2009 at 4:41 PM #

    I know what you mean about a lot of poetry though. I was in a super bad mood last week because of having a uterus and all this crap that happened at work, and then on the subway I tried to read this book of poetry I took out of the library, but it made NO SENSE. There were lines in it like, “Monkey green sunset existence toothbrush.” Anyway, I got home and cried to Andrew that I was a failure because I’ve been reading/writing poetry for a while and trying to understand it and I still didn’t get this stupid book. Then he told me to throw it out because it was crap. Then I felt better.

    Actually, I wrote a poem about it: http://adelaidepoet.blogspot.com/2009/10/confounded.html

  3. Ryan Duffy October 29, 2009 at 5:33 PM #

    Hey Alex,

    Lol awesome lil poem @ the end. Glad you had an awesome time @ LPS. Most people have similar opinions and preconceptions going into a slam. It’s like Chris says, you just have to say “It’s not what you think!”.

    If there is one thing I’ve learnt in my time attempting to be a poet… is that if it doesn’t speak to you or you can’t even understand it.. then it IS bad poetry. Poetry is meant to be for everyone. Not of a handful of people, reading in monotone voices, spending 5 minutes rhyming with the word “cat”.

    So keep on going and “speak that shit!”

  4. Paul Conway November 2, 2009 at 1:58 PM #

    I am so so disappointed in this article. Everyone knows that any poetry spoken while not wearing a beret is worthless. Case closed.

    PS Why NOT the turtle?

  5. Alex James November 2, 2009 at 2:01 PM #

    Why not the turtle indeed, Paul? I forgot my beret at home, to be honest.

  6. melissa November 2, 2009 at 5:38 PM #

    hey you. a lot of the recordings of the slam are on this radio show: http://chrwradio.com/podcasts/94-9CHRWTue1059.mp3

  7. Kerry Shewchuk November 6, 2009 at 2:43 PM #

    Hey Alex,
    Thank you so much for opening my eyes to the artistic community that is London. Having just moved here, I haven’t really had the opportunity to explore yet. I will be sure to make the LMC one of my frequent stops.
    On another note, I have to say that I really enjoy reading your blogs. They are both entertaining and insightful, not to mention wonderfully written.
    Thank you,
    Kerry

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. STATE OF AFFAIRS VERSION 2.0 LAUNCHED, WORLD REJOICES « State of Affairs - January 12, 2010

    […] to State of Affairs, I will be building on the foundation I created with such adventures as the London Poetry Slam and the New Quarterly Launch and venturing out into the community to try out some of that […]

  2. Poetry is Still Cool? It Is In London: Alex James on the Road | London Poetry Slam - May 4, 2010

    […] I’m not trying to sound sappy or sentimental at all, and I’m certainly not trying to play grab-ass with an artistic community I haven’t been involved with in years, but believe me when I say the performances I saw were outstanding.  If I had known what I was getting into I would have prepared more adequately to write this post by interviewing performers and getting all sorts of links together, but I was genuinely shocked by the quality of the works and their readings.  This is an extremely talented group of people who consistently defied my expectations by writing moving, funny, engaging pieces and presenting them in a very honest way – I know I keep calling this “performance poetry” but the sense I got was there was very little in the way of “performance” going on.  These people made me believe in what they were saying, and for people dealing with a guy who went in categorically hating poetry, that’s a pretty impressive feat. Read More… […]

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