It was months of hard work and hard fought slams before the 2011 Up From The Roots slam team was chosen in a crowded Trane Studio. After a dismal showing in 2010 at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, I was encouraged to be joined on the team by Lishai, Shoolie, and Tomy Bewick. This was the third time that Tomy and I had been on a team together, and I was happy to be reunited with him for this year. Our team alternate was Patrick De Belen.
Making the team was the easy part. Preparation for the 2011 festival was going to be a lot more difficult. Tomy and I had our work cut out for us, as Lishai and Shoolie had never competed at the national level before. From jump, there was great energy between us. Having the festival in Toronto alleviated the need for us to fundraise, so we were able to dedicate more time to writing new material.
As the festival came closer, it appeared as though having the festival in Toronto was also a curse, because we lacked a sense of urgency.
The hardest thing about being on a poetry slam team is trying to coordinate schedules to make writing and practice happen. With Tomy living in Burlington, and me living in Ajax, geography was a major issue. We were able to commit to meeting on Thursdays for the last few weeks leading up to the festival, with random meet ups taking place in parking lots and wherever we could get together.
With When Brothers Speak happening the weekend before the festival, we were able to get some great feedback from Milwaukee’s Dan Vaughn, who is no stranger to slam competitions. The energy of the team was on point, though there was still some apprehension, because we weren’t as ready as we wanted to be. We knew that we had the talent, and we believed in a number of our pieces, but these things usually take a lot more than just talent.
We were all nerves on the first day of the festival. Tomy. Shoolie, and I got together early that afternoon to practice, since there was a chance that we’d be performing on opening night. At 3pm, we were at the Drake hotel for registration and the bout draw for the festival. We were filled with anxiety, as none of us knew where Lishai was, and we needed her to complete our registration. They managed to let us do it without her, so that we could get to the draw. I really wanted to perform on the opening night to shake the nerves, but I was not expecting the draw that we got! On opening night, we were going up against Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Kingston. This was immediately considered the bout of death, and we headed off to discuss our strategy for the night.
On night one, we sent up Lishai to do her piece about her name, Tomy did Mic Fiends, I did my fridge/abuse piece, and we put up our team piece, Karate Kid, with Shoolie and I. Whatever our strategy was, it wasn’t good enough as we finished fourth out of four teams, and spent the night dejected.
The following day, we tried to regroup. We spent the night watching the other slams and scouting out the competition for our Thursday night bouts. We were even more dejected as we watched teams winning slams that we knew we would have won with the material we’d put on the stage the night before.
On Thursday, we were faced with the possibility of not even making it to the semi finals in our own city. Even if we won our slam, we’d still need some key teams to lose in order to even have a chance of making the semis. We were going to be up against Vancouver, Victoria, and Tomy’s home slam from Burlington.
Knowing that we might not make the semis, we needed to use the material that we would have liked to hold on too. It was a hard fought battle. We sent up Lishai to do Stones, Shoolie did Bones with Lishai, Tomy did his piece for his cousin, and Lishai and I did our names poem. When the scores came in, we had the victory. We did what we could, and it was out of our hands. We headed to what would be the determining slam. Based on the calculations that Tomy and I had made, we would be spectators for the rest of the festival if the Toronto Poetry Slam team finished anything higher than fourth place.
My prayers were answered. The Toronto Poetry Slam finished in fourth place, but we still needed to wait on official word. I left for home. By the time I got there, there were messages on my phone and on facebook letting me know that our team had claimed the 8th and final spot in the semi finals with Toronto Poetry Slam being eliminated in the 9th spot.
The following day, the semi finals bout draw was held. We were going to be up against Ottawa’s Capital Slam team, Kingston, who had already beaten us once, and Calgary. Needing to finish in the top 2, there was no way that we could hold back on any of our material.
For the semis, we sent up Shoolie to do his indie, Crosswords. It was really important to me that he got the chance to do a solo piece in the festival. Lishai did her Status poem, and Tomy and I did our Parent Interview as well as our Dummies valedictory speech. We left it all on the stage, and when it was over, Kingston and Up From The Roots were advancing to the finals on Saturday night.
All I wanted was to be on the finals stage on my birthday. Against the odds, we managed to do it after what transpired on the first night of the festival. We spent the day rehearsing, and were as ready as we could be when it was show time.
We sent up Tomy to get things started for us in round one. In round two, Tomy and Lishai did their piece about music. Round 3 saw Lishai and I did our self esteem piece about mirrors. I was very excited to put this piece on the stage. It took hours for us to get the choreography together, but we executed it to the best of our ability. In the final round, Shoolie wanted to do a indie piece, but we stuck to our game plan, and he and Tomy did their skateboarding piece. The judges had their work cut out for them. Edmonton, Ottawa’s Urban Legends, and Kingston all brought their A games to the stage. When the scores were counted, time penalties assessed, and the official announcements made, I was amazed that we still had enough in our tanks to finish as the 2nd best team in the country, behind a stellar team from Edmonton.
I could not be more proud of the character, poise, and determination displayed by the members of my team. Even with our backs against the wall, everyone dug in and kept on fighting til the end. I have many fond memories of my time on this team. Here are a few of my highlights: Shoolie making buttons with pictures of the team; us looking shell shocked and bewildered after the first night; us rallying around and supporting Lishai on Thursday; Tomy’s performance of his poem for his cousin; seeing Lishai have a breakthrough and own the stage on Thursday night; the way we gelled as a unit; Lishai laughing every time she looked at me, as we practiced the mirror poem; the pep talks that I gave to poets from other teams; the love shown to me for being a Poet of Honour, but still slamming to pass knowledge on to another generation; Shoolie crying on finals night before the bouts; my crying as Tomy performed his abuse poem; us hugging, crying, and supporting Tomy as a team after he finished the abuse poem; the joy in the eyes of my teammates when it was announced that we had come in second place.
Every year, I tell myself that it’s the last year that I’m going to slam on a team, but how could I stop after an experience like this? So Saskatoon, get ready, I’ll be seeing you next October!!