I found myself thinking about strategy while I was watching the CFSW semifinals. Not to the exclusion of the fantastic poetry going on on the stage, of course, but every so often, as the poets took the stage and the audience made its deafening noise and the score cards went up, I thought about it, in my back row seat where I was sitting so the laptop wouldn’t annoy anyone.
Maybe that was because the scores were so damn close. In the end it came down to one or two points out of a hundred between Capital Slam, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto’s Up From The Roots. Time penalties made a difference: and I wondered if some of the teams were looking at the judges’ scores and trying to work out what this particular set of five people likes. Whether they were deciding to send up a funny piece to follow something heavy, or vice versa. So much can depend on such small things.
But I didn’t have to worry about strategy, so I got to sit with the poetry. I didn’t even have to judge (which is a tough job.) Lucky me!
I felt like I got a feel for the teams’ strengths in Bout One - Vancouver brought strong team pieces and unorthodox subjects, Montreal brought a strong dramatic flair, sometimes doing team pieces that only used one voice (and showed bravery in doing one poem almost entirely in French, considering they couldn’t know whether all the judges would be able to understand.) Capital Slam brought their fire and musicality (the guys on that team all have very flexible and controlled voices) and Up From The Roots brought, in general, an urban grittiness.
A lot can depend on small things: Leviathan stumbled in a poem using a long string of animal metaphors and idioms to talk about respect between men and women, and it did cost points. Time penalties could make a difference. (But when they happened, it was entertaining to hear the whole room yell in unison, “You rat bastard! You’re ruining it for everyone! But it was well worth it!”) But still, it was so damn close.
The team pieces might have been one of the highlights of the evening. They allow for some great staging, and something about having more than one poet up there delivering the work kicks the energy up (although some individuals are all the energy one stage can handle - Open Secret’s one-man conflagration on Joan of Arc was one example.) Moments that stick out for me? The sweet, scary delivery of Sasha Langford’s first poem, from the point of view of a little girl whose words sound innocent and belie a dark reality; Team Vancouver’s evocation of the Depression-era work projects that tried to keep joblessness and economic collapse at bay: “building libraries with the workdays of men who signed their names with X.” Dwayne Morgan’s scary rage at all the different roles black people are forced to play because of white society’s assumptions; Alessandra Naccarato’s heartbreaking story of her father’s, and her, mental illness (emotionally told, but also wonderfully worded),Chris Tse’s poem about the Asian sex trade, which started as a lyrical love story until it became frighteningly clear that the girl the narrator was in love with was being sold to Western sex tourists.
And yes, all the other poems were fantastic too. That’s just a nearly-randomly-sampled list.
In the end, Montreal and Ottawa Capital Slam came out on top, and are heading to the finals tonight (at Dominion Chalmers United Church, and it’s going to be spectacular.) They’re going up against Burlington and Ottawa Urban Legends - yeah, that’s fully half of the final four that are going to be from Ottawa. This is going to be interesting. And jaw-dropping, and mind-blowing, and roof-raising.