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Slamming stereotypes

Black Theatre Workshop’s annual Poetry Jam intertwines theatre, poetry, and politics

“Does everyone know what a poetry jam is?” Montreal singer and poet Jonathan Emile prompted the audience at the Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI) theatre this past Sunday evening. “No, it’s not a lyrical confiture,” Emile joked to the fifty or so spectators gathered around small tables, setting the pleasant atmosphere for the Black Theatre Workshop’s 12th annual Poetry Jam.

Emile, the evening’s host, got the ball rolling with a performance of his own work, weaving song with performance poetry, and encouraging the audience to clap along with him as he sang, “All I wanted was a hero, I’m a hero, you’re a hero…” Over the course of the evening, seven spoken word artists stepped onstage to become heroes in their own right as they shared their poetic interpretations of the competition’s theme, “Smashing Stereotypes in the Media.”

The Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), the oldest black theatre company in Canada, is predominantly known for its professional theatre, rather than performance poetry. “[This event is] a nice way to bridge the gap,” explained the company’s artistic director Quincy Armorer. “A lot of times, the different genres of performance are segregated, and a lot of people who are used to going to spoken word events might not go to the theatre events.” It’s not hard to see why audiences might prefer one over the other – theatre and spoken word are hugely different in both their development and performance. Poetry slams have none of the dialogue, scenery, costumes, or choreography of theatre. Spoken word is raw in both presentation and content, and poets have limited time to jam-pack their message into their performance. Theatrical performance may seem drawn-out to spoken word enthusiasts, while spoken word may come across as intense and overly concise to theatre-lovers.

The performances at the slam, however, satisfied theatre and poetry enthusiasts alike. Most readings were in the fast-paced, fervent recitation typical of spoken word, some with fluid rhythm approaching rap, and some so smooth and personable it seemed the poet was speaking to the audience like a close friend. The crowd was responsive, snapping along to Emile’s opening song, nodding in agreement with lines of poetry, and clapping after each piece.

Though this spoken word style was miles away from formal theatre, the content was accessible and relatable for any kind of art enthusiast. Brefny Caribou, an actor, first-time slam poet, and recent graduate of Concordia’s theatre program, interpreted the “Smashing Stereotypes” theme from a personal perspective, incorporating her own past experiences. In an anecdotal piece, Caribou told the story of being questioned about her specific ethnicity while on the job as a store clerk, quoting one customer’s invasive, “What are you?”

“This poem had been in my back pocket for a really long time,” Caribou said. “It was just floating around and I was really into it, but never had a platform for it.” For Caribou, this year’s BTW Poetry Jam was the perfect opportunity to have her poetic voice heard for the first time. “For me, it was just getting the content of what I had written out there into the world somehow.”

Patrick Ohslund, second-place winner of the jam and current McGill graduate student in the Faculty of Education, also used past experience as fuel for his poem. Telling the story of his own sexual assault in high school, Ohslund addressed the horrors of peer pressure and homophobia in the social dynamics between high schoolers. “It was such an emotionally impactful experience in my life,” Ohslund explained to The Daily. “Being able to transform that into something positive can be a source of transformation for myself.”

The jam’s first-prize winner, Svens Telemaque, used the stage as a medium to voice frustrations over racial stereotypes in the media throughout history. When dealing with such socio-political topics, however, sometimes a poem may not feel like enough. “I feel like I got my message across,” Telemaque told The Daily, but went on to reveal that given the complexity of his content, he sometimes has trouble saying everything he wants to. “A speech would do it justice […] if someone were to look into the content of what I was saying, it would be more enriching.”

Telemaque’s statement raises questions with regard to the effectiveness of slam in comparison to other scripted artistic mediums. A lengthy speech provides more factual information, whereas slam poetry will likely provoke emotional responses from the audience. While theatre can more easily straddle these two methods, there is a crucial difference in that the material is often not written by the performers themselves. Caribou, an experienced actress in the Montreal community, finds this to be the biggest change in switching to performing poetry. “As an actor, you get a play […] you are doing a production of something,” Caribou said. “But there is a whole level of vulnerability and intensity that comes along with performing your own words […] this isn’t a character […] it’s just me, it’s my words.”

At the end of the night, three talented poets left the building with cash prizes, while audience members left as newfound poetry fans, or future theatre-goers. Events such as BTW’s Poetry Jam allow personal stories like Caribou’s to reach a wider audience than the spoken word community, demonstrating the importance of using individual experiences to dismantle systemic problems.