Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Defense of Slam Poetry Part 3 (Final)

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“Most slam poets suck. The only slam poet I like is Wakefield Brewster”

Well to be honest, most poets suck. If genres of art are to be judged by the the average artist of a genre, rather than their luminaries -- then art does not exist. More importantly, poetry does not exist. For the record, Wakefield IS AWESOME! Toronto is upset that you left us for Calgary! Come back!

I digress, here's the reality. Writing is the act of intentional failure. We all write garbage. Going to a poetry reading can be excruciating on the best of days. At least bad slam poets try to be entertaining. I'm not excusing bad slam poets who borrow themes from better poets, use cliche lines, and constantly SHOUT AT THE AUDIENCE IN AN ATTEMPT TO BEAT THEM DOWN WITH THE POWER OF THEIR YELLING!!!! I'm simply saying, for every 10 bad poets of any genre you will find a Lara Bozabalian, a Lishai Peel, a David Delisca, even a person like myself. We are out there. And to blanket a genre with mediocrity so intensely as to refuse the existence of the said genre, is a sad mistake. The future of poetry is young slam poets, who feel that the glass ceiling of the literary community, is too difficult to break, in comparison to a community that allows anyone to get on stage.

I can not emphasize enough, how many hungry poets ask how I got through this very real glass ceiling; how a slam poet could get a book deal; how... If the literary community/industry elites (particularly those with ties to poetry) do not smash the ceiling themselves, they potentially will miss out on a hungry poetry audience, and the future Canadian literary greats – just as the coffeehouse scene sprung the careers of Atwood, and Ondaatje.

This glass ceiling has forced many young writers to enter MFA programs – not to become editors, educators, or publishers but to get their first collection published. This creates a financial wall to becoming a poet. Quite frankly, the good ones are sometimes the ones being weeded out.

“So where are we now? Oh yes race.”

Whether intentional, or coincidental support for this gentleman's argument was filled with subtle racist rhetoric. Canada has a serious problem with understanding race and culture. Neighbourhoods that were created because communities needed to create jobs for one another are now lauded without a full understanding of why the neighbourhoods exist. Canada was once the most xenophobic country in the world, and the relics of this are still in her closet.

I once had the opportunity to chat with an elderly Greek gentleman who, seeing how frustrated I was with things, assured me that it improves. He explained to me how Toronto's Greek town was formed because the Greek community felt the same frustration that I feel. That the only way for Greeks to gain respect was by hard work, and that eventually, if I worked hard I too would be recognized and respected. That conversation was the first time that I learned of the travails of the Toronto Greek community. Similar tales can be told by Polish, Chinese, Jewish and Italians here in Toronto. Sadly, these stories of discrimination and then a level of acceptance are not taught.

What was subtly being suggested? Because slam poetry is a platform that has many black luminaries it cannot be considered as Canadian as other genres of poetry, henceforth it cannot be poetry.

There have been blacks fighting in the military for Canada, or BNA (British North America) as early as The War of 1812.

I have many times heard that the influx of Caribbean immigrants to Canada began with the Jamaican nanny union strike in the late sixties. That is patently false. As early as British Emancipation Canada has had black Jamaican immigrants. The Maroons were slaves who were offered free travel back to Africa for a year of work on Canada's farms. Unfortunately, they were lied to. It was assumed that they would die in Canada's cold Winter. Instead they survived, and created small, but thriving communities in Eastern Canada (part of the reason why the underground railroad led to Eastern Canada).

I have also heard that Canada never had slaves. This again is tied to Canada's lack of respect to history. The citizens of Sierra Leone are direct descendents of Canadian slaves. In fact, when Liberia was founded by the US, they stole the idea from their northern neighbours. The difference? United States has given aid, and support to Liberia. It has taken centuries, but Liberia is on the cusps of becoming a fairly strong nation. Sierra Leone on the other hand, received little to no support. Canada's government fails to help a country populated with the ancestors whose labour helped build this land while surviving torture, rape, and all sorts of unspeakable acts.

All of this to say, as a black immigrant, with Caribbean ties, I am just as Canadian as anyone else. And my culture is just as Canadian as anyone's.

“But you're a permanent resident”

That's my form of political protest.

“You already said that slam poetry was invented by a gentleman from Chicago, how could slam poetry be considered Canadian Literature?”

How can any genre of literature be considered Canadian? What element of Canadian Literature is distinct to Canada? None. People have been writing about returning to nature ever since cities began being formed.

Sound poetry? In particular, groups like the Four Horsemen? Recently, I briefly had the opportunity to talk to Japanese sound poet Adachi Tomomi. He explained to me that sound poetry was introduced to Japan by Russians trying to escape tyranny in the 1920s. Adachi can be found on Youtube performing sound poetry duets. It may come from a different route, but it's the same thing. You know what is uniquely Canadian? Throat singing. You know what would be the most repulsive thing ever? An Anglo-Canadian mimicking a sacred aboriginal art form. Instead, as we try to define the idea of Canadian Literature, or Can-Lit let's look at what Canada espouses to be, rather than what she actually is.

Currently, Canada proclaims to be a multicultural mosaic where everyone is welcomed. A place where multiple schools of thought are borrowed from to make a cohesive nation. Therefore, Can-Lit in modern Canada should not be one genre, or literature form from one culture, but rather an amalgamation of genres of literature that seamlessly meld together. bp Nichol took this idea to its extreme. bp combined visual art, literature, and psychotherapy theory. That's one end of the pole. He's not just combining genres of poetry, he's combining genres of thought! The other end? Probably Canadian slam poets. As stated in an earlier segment, slam poetry is an amalgamation of multiple spoken-word genres. From the ancient to the contemporary. What's more Canadian than that?

Cheers

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dane Swan

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011.

Go to Dane Swan’s Author Page