It’s the point, not the points, that matters, says host Britta B. What she means, she tells the crowd of roughly 100 gathered at the Drake Underground, is while the Toronto Poetry Slam is about scoring spoken-word poets so a winner can be crowned, it’s also about acknowledging how the poems resonate with you.
Snap your fingers, give a hearty “m-hmm” or let out a guttural sound, she encourages the Friday night crowd. Just do so in a way that’s respectful of the poet.
Britta’s advice becomes clear when Liam Galway takes the stage. Earlier in the evening, he was walking around the Queen St. W. space in his shiny, Blue Jays-blue jacket, silently reciting verses from his favourite rap songs to warm up his diction. His jacket now off, he steps to the microphone.
“My counsellor asked me to speak my mind because sometimes you can reveal something to yourself by speaking out loud. But if you have ADHD that can be a bit of a sensitive line,” the 22-year-old begins. “Because if I’m going to be honest, audience, most of the time I don’t even know what’s going on in my head.” Fingers snap.
“Last night I saw a sunset standing on the sidewalk. I can’t remember the song that was playing on my iPod. I wish someone was there with me right now cause, my god. Since I’ve been single I’m so damn lonely my mouth tastes like pennies.” More fingers snap. A couple yoo-hoos rise from the audience.
“That’s why I am here,” says a woman seated near the back as Galway ends his poem.
“There is a buzz in the city for poetry right now,” said David Silverberg, 39, artistic director and founder of Toronto Poetry Project, the collective that produces the Toronto Poetry Slam.
It’s true. Take a look at coffee shop notice boards, peruse Twitter or eventbright, and ask around your local bookstore and you will discover poetry readings taking place regularly in the city. Along with the biweekly poetry slam at the Drake Underground, The Tranzac Club on Brunswick Ave. plays host to Pivot Readings every other Thursday night, while The Art Bar at the Free Times Café on College St. is a poetry-only series held each Tuesday. The League of Canadian Poets regularly lists readings and events taking place in the city on its website.
Silverberg credits Toronto’s interest in poetry to how accessible it has become in recent years. People are rediscovering this age-old form of storytelling thanks to Instagram poetry accounts, YouTube channels dedicated to spoken word performances and articles during the early days of BuzzFeed that went viral.
“It turned people on to poetry that they never really thought of as poetry before,” Silverberg said. “I wouldn’t say Instagram always has the best possible quality of poetry, but if it’s a gateway that opens someone’s mind to coming to a poetry slam, buying a book of poetry or doing a poetry project for their English class, then I am all for it.”
Silverberg sees this effect at the slam he organizes. The majority of performers are between the ages of 18 and 35 and are as diverse as Toronto. Their works deal with everything from racism and mental health, to violence and LGBTQ+ identity.
“I think that we are very lucky to have so many spoken word artists in the city that are able to speak to different identities,” said Britta B, the slam’s host. “It is always the most unassuming kids who show up with the most heartfelt work.”
In August, the spoken word poet worked with youth aged 14 to 24 as part of the iAM Poetry Residency, a four-day writing intensive organized by JAYU, a charity which shares human rights stories through the arts. The trend, she said, is to show students poetry is more than just words on a page.
“Even before the written word we had storytelling,” she said. “Students in classrooms are no longer just reading poetry off the page, but are also being shown videos on YouTube and poets sharing their poetry live, off-book and memorized.”
Kirby (the poet simply goes by his last name) is the owner of knife | fork | book, a Kensington Market store that only sells poetry books. Until this week it’s located in a shared space on the second floor of an Augusta St. building — before it moves to Artscape Youngplace on Shaw St. — and features two wooden book carts and a half-dozen shelves lined with a variety of volumes.
“Poetry was only being treated, let’s say, as a single shelf in a bookstore, with not much attention drawn to it. Not treated as something to be displayed, or fronted, or championed,” Kirby said. “Poetry needed a champion.”
Opened three years ago this October, the store is among the spaces around the city regularly hosting poetry events. As many as 100 people will fill knife | fork | book for one of its weekly readings. With Toronto’s strong interest in and support for poetry, Kirby is moving into the expanded new space.
“Storytelling still rules. It’s become tons more accessible and popular. It’s not just something sitting on the shelf,” Kirby said. “I have often gone back and reread (a book) after I’ve heard an author read because, ‘I thought this was serious.’ Then, I discover there is a whole tongue-in-cheek thing going on and I didn’t hear that in my own encounters with the work.”
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Kirby said it’s an exciting time for poetry in general. In recent years the trend has been less about the form of poems — the number of syllables or lines in a stanza — and more about the content. “Identity poetry has become a big thing right now,” Kirby said. “I love when I am hearing slam poets completely give their all, from their toes to their nose. It is very inspiring.”
It’s something Silverberg also appreciates. He loves how raw and honest a performance can be when it is just the poet alone with a microphone.
“When someone tells their honest life story, whether it was something traumatic or something beautiful, that can be such a visceral punch in the gut and can really affect you for days after,” Silverberg said. “I have thought about poems, much like I have thought about great movies and music, days after I first heard it.”