The Poetry Slam
I don’t have many opportunities to share my story, so I figured, I might as well write it out when I can, so that others don’t try to tell it for me.
Firstly, let me say, that I am not the first in Toronto to host a poetry competition, however, The Roots Lounge is Ontario’s first poetry slam series. When I started the Roots Lounge, I had no idea that there was a slam running in Vancouver, so how did it all begin??
It began with an email. One day, I received an email about a poetry slam happening in Philadelphia, that was supposed to have some of the hottest poets in America. I had no idea what a poetry slam was, or who the hottest poets in America were, but I have always been a curious soul.
I needed to find out, so after convincing my mother that she should lend me her mini van, a group of friends came along for the ride, and we headed to Philadelphia to find out what a poetry slam was. I remember my sister, Tamla Matthews, the Heavy Hitter (Kevin White), and myself making the trek.
The energy in the venue was pretty awesome. There were a couple of no shows, so the Heavy Hitter and I signed up, having no idea what a poetry slam was. Consider it baptism by fire. We shared the stage with Jamaal St. John, Taalam Acey, Tehut-9, Faraji Salim, Tamara Davis, Ainsley Burrows and so many other awesome poets. We didn’t get very far in the competition, but we were stoked to have been there.
I put on my networking hat, collecting contact details. When I returned to Toronto, I let the experience sink in, and within months, both The Roots Lounge and When Brothers Speak were born.
Had I not been willing to drive to Philadelphia, I wonder how that would have affected Toronto’s spoken word scene, given that the Roots Lounge and When Brothers Speak are institutions now. Tomy Bewick, Leviathan, Lishai, and Patrick DeBelen, all called the Roots Lounge home at different points.
It took a while for the poetry slam idea to catch on with the artists on the scene at the time, but it definitely made things more interesting. Once embraced, people began looking for more opportunities, which lead to the creation of the Toronto International Poetry Slam, which has seen poets from as far as the UK come to town to compete. Tuggstar and ShortMAN are a couple of notable British poets to make the trek. American poets, including, but not limited to Queen Sheba, Mahogany Browne, Benjamin Hughes, Ntare Gault, Crystal Leigh Endsley, and Dan Vaughn have graced the stage, with Mike Guinn, Carlos Andres Gomez, and Jamaal St. John winning the competition (6 times for Jamaal). Canadian, RC Weslowski, Shane Koyczan, Barbara Adler, Drek Daa, all participated in the first show, which was won by Toronto’s Travis Blackman. After the first year, the format changed to the current cumulative elimination format. No Canadian had won the title until 2013 when Toronto’s Britta B was victorious, becoming only the 2nd female to win, behind Rochester’s, Erika Haywood-Gault. Since the beginning, I put up $1000 of my own money as a prize. I’ve now given away over $10,000 to my peers.
Soon after the Toronto International Poetry Slam, we started having email conversations between RC in Vancouver, Drek in Winnipeg, Nth Digri, Ritallin, Oni The Haitian Sensation, and a few others about starting a national poetry slam, which became the Spoken Wordlympics (now the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word). A difference of opinion, lead to me not sending an Up From The Roots team to the Wordlympics, but also ushered in the creation of David Silverberg’s Toronto Poetry Slam. The unofficial original Toronto slam team consisted of Spin, Shauna Dixon, Heron Jones, and Travis Blackman. After missing his bus and not making it to Ottawa, the members of the team asked me if i could replace Travis, which i agreed to do, giving up my spot in the individual competition. Since then, I have sent teams to Ottawa, Calgary, Halifax, Toronto, Saskatoon, finishing as the runner up three times, and winning the National title in Saskatoon in 2012. In 2005, I was the festivals Poet of Honour.
As slams were getting increasingly popular, I established relationships with Njozi Poetry in Buffalo, and we soon collaborated to create the Tri-City Slam, with a poet in Cleveland, through which we hosted slams in all three cities, creating more opportunities for poets. The Tri-City slam was the predecessor of the QEW Slam.
Feeling like people were getting too comfortable, I went back to the drawing board and created a new slam, The Last Poet Standing. While at the urinal in the Tranzac Club, I saw a flyer for a local wrestling event. The event looked like it would be hilarious, so i decided to go. I loved the event, and stayed afterwards. I saw them pulling the wrestling ring apart, and I spoke to the guys about an idea, and just like that, that show was born.
The Last Poet Standing takes place inside of a boxing ring, where 16 poets go head to head in an elimination battle for $500, judged by celebrity judges at ringside, who have included Kardinal Offishal, Maestro Fresh Wes, Jully Black, and Olympian Perdita Felicien. In its inaugural year, the competition was won by The P.O.E. (Burlington), followed by V (Ottawa) in its second year. The very first Last Poet Standing had no boxing ring. It was produced at the Bamboo, and was won by Nicole James.
While all of this was happening, I still had other ideas, and wanted to create opportunities for young people. I managed to get a sit down with the Director of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence to discuss my idea to create a poetry slam league within the school board. He loved the idea and we started the wheels in motion. When Dr. Spence had to retire amidst a scandal, I was unable to have my emails or phone calls answered, and was left with a great idea that had suffered an unfortunate death. Not to be deterred, I kept working, and the York Region District School Board showed interest. After a few meetings, the plan was set in motion, and in February 2014, the first competitions were held, featuring 23 elementary and secondary schools, all trying to make it to the finals in April 2014.
There are many poets who have found their voice and a stage through my efforts. I don’t know what the future will hold, but something tells me that I haven’t finished writing this story.