Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A non-slam poet goes to the slam

[insert usual stuff about how long it's been since I posted here]

Last fall I competed in the first round of the VERSe Ottawa Women's Slam Qualifiers, one of a set of three qualifying rounds to pick the twelve finalists for the 2013 Women's Slam Finals. Mostly, I competed because I support the idea of having a women's slam in Ottawa, for a lot of reasons, and because it was VERSe Ottawa and I want to support them (having worked for them in their second year), and because the coordinators are friends of mine.

But it was strange, because I had never been in a poetry slam before. Despite attending a lot of them, talking about slam a lot in reviews and on my radio show, and knowing a whole lot of people in the Ottawa slam scene, I had never felt like I needed to actually compete. "My poetry's not 'slam,'" I said, and generally, it isn't. But I had memorized several of my poems, for the three-woman show Chasing Boudicca that I was in a couple of years ago, and as a challenge for a couple of Kymeras shows.  I have a bit more experience with the format now than when I first got into the scene, because I really got into story slam with Once Upon a Slam, and even came in second in the finals last year. But poetry's different somehow from storytelling, and slam in Ottawa is really established and the people who do it are really good. And I know how different my style is from the style of most people who slam.

I reworked a poem to make it 'slammier' that night: I performed a sort of mashup of two poems from the Chasing Boudicca series, knowing that the central poem (the angriest and most personal of the series, therefore the easiest to make into a slam piece) was too short. (A poem that comes in at less than about two minutes leaves the audience feeling cheated, in my experience: you're supposed to really push that three-minute limit. It's why so many slam poets talk so fast: they're cramming the poem into the maximum allowable time.)

So I added bits from another one, and while I thought the tone change in the middle was a little odd, it went over pretty well: not so much the second-round poem, my jokey, steampunky "The Scientifically Minded Young Lady's Letter to Her Suitor; or, A Gentleman's Warning." Note to self: Victorian-esque rhyme schemes don't go over well with a crowd used to hip-hop polysyllabic rhyme.

Anyway, I was surprised at the end of the night to find that I'd come in fifth. Not quite in the final four, who would go on to the finals. But nearly. I did a joking, comic-booky, "Whew!" forehead-wiping gesture. Dodged a bullet.

Except, Rusty (the coordinator) reminded me, someone could always drop out. And then I'd be back in. Depending on rankings.

And guess what.

Last Friday, I got a message from Rusty rather early in the morning, saying someone had had to pull out of the finals the next night, and he knew it was short notice, but would I be willing to slam?

I have a rule about scary things I might not otherwise have done, which I get challenged/asked/nudged to do: I tend to do them.  So I checked to see if I could repeat something I'd done before (knowing that the "Chasing Boudicca" piece had been my strongest last time) and then said yes. I was at work: I would have Saturday morning, and a bit of the afternoon, to memorize my second poem and rehearse them both.

So I did that. I'm glad I'm pretty good at memorizing things: I wasn't entertaining any delusions about winning, which was kind of liberating really. But I didn't want to embarrass myself. I knew the Chasing Boudicca one had gone over well, so I reworked it a little again and rememorized it, and then I picked a lyric, pastoral, quiet, evocative little poem I wrote about being home in New Brunswick for the summer and working in the garden. Rusty said that when I performed it, he thought, "Well, this is interesting... it's not a slam poem. Just don't hate on it, judges!"

I sort of knew that I was, as I often am, being the slightly strange, foot-in-both-worlds poet. In the poetry scene in Ottawa, I'm neither fish for fowl, really. And I knew almost no one in the audience would recognize me, the way they would the rest of the competitors. V? Sure. Dimorphic? Sure. D-Lightfull? yup. Kate Hunt? Who the hell? Where'd she come from? So I figured I might as well go with that, and do something that would be totally different.

In the end, it cost me a couple of points - one judge gave me the lowest individual score of the whole night on it. But then Brad Morden yelled "READ A BOOK!" at him/her, which made me smile. And at the end of the round, I wasn't the lowest score of the night so far.

Then in the second round I got lucky and was drawn late in the round (you want to be later, because no matter what, scores creep upwards throughout the night) and brought out the Boudicca poem, and the judges dug it. It's definitely slammier, whatever that means: something about it being faster and (in this case) angrier and direct and about personal emotions, and ending with a bit of a bang. The judges liked it - all in the 9.something range. Which boosted me a lot, and I wound up coming in eighth overall, out of twelve, when the final scores got tallied up.

Not having had any delusions about winning, I was actually really impressed with that. I don't slam. Everyone else performing were experienced, and had competed at regular slams through the year. I've had a lot of experience at storytelling over the last year or so, but still, I was amazed.

And what it did was to remind me of a couple of things. One: I don't write enough lately. Or, really, at all. And two - maybe I should try this slam thing, just to see if I can do it. Apparently I don't make a half bad showing with a day's notice. . . so maybe I should give it a try?