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The weakest line

Montreal’s Throw Slam Poetry Collective merges camaraderie and competition

When I heard about the Throw Slam Poetry Collective, a group of poets and spoken word artists in Montreal, I was intrigued. Not knowing very much about poetry slams or spoken word but having some knowledge of poetry myself, I was eager to see what it would be like. After mastering (or perhaps butchering) the poetic art in the seventh grade with a four-line poem on coping with a bad hair day, I progressed to academic essays about poetry for English class, but I never pursued the art itself. My own artistic expression took the form of painting, drawing, and photography. I think poetry’s often confessional nature can make it intimidating for people just starting out, so a supportive environment is always key.

The Throw Collective brings together Montreal poets who are interested in the space between the speaker and the audience in spoken word. The group, which is composed mostly of university students, puts on monthly slams. Although the aim of the collective is to foster a nurturing, supportive environment for Montreal’s spoken word poetry, the gatherings are also about competition. New poets are encouraged to jump right into the slam, and the evening begins with open mic spoken word poetry before the main competition. Poets perform for points, vying to qualify for the four-person team that the Throw Collective hopes to send to Calgary for the Canadian national poetry slam this November.

At a typical Throw slam, poets are given a three-minute time slot. The clock starts as soon as she makes contact with the audience in any way, whether it’s through eye contact, body language, or speech. The audience responds to the poet during the performance, thus becoming a part of it. They snap their fingers when they really dig what the poet is saying, or if they know or can predict the next line, they call it out. The performer’s ability to adjust herself in response to the vibes the audience is giving her is important, and the winning poets are usually the ones who, for whatever reason, most appeal to the audience on a particular night. After their sets, the poets are rated on a ten-point scale by members of the audience that have been randomly selected to be judges. The highest and lowest scores are dropped and the poets with the most points move on to the next round.

Ideally, poetry is judged democratically at the slams; viewers with the scorecards try to represent the audience’s different experiences, tastes, and perspectives. However, as an outsider to the collective, I was put off by the competitive nature of the slam and its scoring. Though some of the poems filled the space with tangible energy, there was something excessively technical about the to-the-decimal-point scoring: I felt it couldn’t account for listeners’ individual responses.

Obviously in order to judge art, we need to be able to appreciate a poet on their own terms, not just by their ability to appeal to our own tastes and interests.

On the other hand, by thinking too much, we risk missing the immediate impact of a poem. There needs to be a balance between the initial affective experience and our ability to evaluate the artwork itself.

Members of the Throw Collective explained that competition is used to create a certain dynamic, rather than to put down certain poets’ work. In other words, a slam is about the competitive energy – not the competition itself. Many of the poets in the collective don’t pay very much attention to scores. However, the idea of scoring points often acts as an incentive to attract new poets and keep them interested in performing on a regular basis. Regardless of points, the audience was supportive of everyone during their performances, and the scoring was generally careful and conscientious.

Although organized mainly by students, the collective is beginning to attract more diverse audiences and performers. There’s a lot of growing talent here, and the collective is encouraging it with an enormous number of workshops ranging from help with writing, and voice and breath techniques, to teaching people how to make chapbooks and record audio. Those interested in developing spoken word skills or performing should not be intimidated to get involved. People interested in listening to an evening of poetry, however, might find the seemingly competitive environment a little strange.

The Throw Slam Poetry Collective meets the third Sunday of every month. Visit their Facebook group for more information.