Taylor Leedahl started Tonight It’s Poetry, a weekly showcase of local poetic talent, in April 2008. Little did she know that a year later, her locally-grown project would attract national attention.
On June 14, at the last Tonight It’s Poetry of the year, the first Saskatoon slam poetry team was decided. They will be heading to Victoria to compete in the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word from Nov. 10 to 14.
“What I’m really excited about is, when our team goes out there, what they’re going to bring back here,” said Leedahl, team manager. “And, you know, next year, there’s the chance for people to be on the 2010 team.”
Winner Megan Lane and runner-up Charles Hamilton were both surprised with their success at the competition June 14. Hamilton said he was nervous going in and Lane said she didn’t think she would make it to the second round. Jocelyn Doepker came in third, Nicole Almond came in fourth and Stephen Rutherford is the team’s alternate.
In January, Hamilton and Leedahl worked together to start the slam poetry nights, hosted on the last Sunday of the month at Tonight It’s Poetry, with Hamilton as the Saskatoon slam master.
The slam poetry nights differ from a usual reading in that the poets are rated on their performance. Five judges are picked randomly out of the crowd and are given score cards with judging suggestions. The competition of the event adds an element of excitement. When judges give a score too low (or any score that isn’t a nine or higher), the crowd yells, “Higher!” or boos the judge — all in good fun, of course.
The winner and runner up from the slam competitions that took place from January to May were invited to compete June 14 for one of five slots on the Saskatoon poetry slam team. In the first round, everybody competed with poems three minutes and under. The top six scorers made it into the second round and performed a different three-minute piece. The top five became the new team.
The competition was close: Lane and Hamilton had tied scores. Traditionally, a tie score means the winners have to compete in a freestyle battle but Hamilton went over by eight seconds in his second performance, bumping him into second place.
“I shouldn’t have told my story,” lamented Hamilton after the show, referring to an impromptu explanation he added in the middle of the poem. “In the car on the ride here, I timed it and it was exactly three minutes. But I’m all right with it. Actually, I’m not all right with it because I would’ve loved to have a freestyle battle.”
Lane works as a musician. She writes her own lyrics and is already comfortable being in front of crowd and on stage, but although she has been writing spoken word poetry for awhile, she was surprised at her win.
“With lyrics, you’re backed up with music. You have that safety. With poetry, you really have to step it up. It’s the focus; you can’t cover it up with fancy guitar riffs.”
One of the biggest differences for Lane is being rated on the performance. Performing as a musician, people don’t hold up scorecards after each song.
“It’s good to know what people think of your stuff,” she said. “We’re all totally new to this thing. Getting to know what other people think of it really persuades your direction.”
Hamilton said the competition and scores encourage people to write better, but insists it’s more for fun than anything, especially because judging poetry is so subjective. Lane agrees.
“It’s to get people excited,” she said. “Get the audience participation happening so it’s about everyone and not just people reading.”
Hamilton said the Saskatoon team is pretty impressive considering how new it is. Both Lane and Hamilton are enthusiastic about the team that came together.
“I’ve been into slam poetry for years and I’ve seen national teams in Victoria and Vancouver and we’re up there,” said Hamilton. “We’re definitely underdogs but we know what we’re doing. We have a really good team.”
The national competition will work “like a track meet,” Hamilton explained. Everyone will perform individually and their scores will be added up. There may also be a group slam, where the team has to write and perform a piece together.
Until then, Hamilton is heading to the States this fall to attend more spoken word and slam poetry competitions, namely the World Poetry Slam Championships in October at Berkley University. Lane is spending the summer touring for her new album Bow and Drill the Spark.
photo Robby Davis