Earlier this month Marcia and I were pleased to attend the 5th Annual High School Slam Poetry contest known as Victorious Voices. Started by Jeremy Loveday, this fifth year had contestants from more schools than ever before, and this is wonderful news!
Slam poetry was founded by Mark Smith (So What!) in the late 1980s. For those new to slam poetry, the competition rules are fairly simple. Each poet (or team) has three minutes to present their poem. Following that is a short grace period, but going over that time results in a time penalty. All poems must be original and poets can read their work, but props and costumes are not permitted. A few poems this year (or rather parts thereof) were sung, something we’ve not seen before.
Jeremy was the MC for the night, but he soon gave the stage over to Janet Rogers, Victoria’s Poet Laureate. Janet presented a poem originally written by Haudenosaunee poet Pauline Johnson, which she called a love poem to the Grand River.
Following Janet was Morgan Purvis, Victoria’s Youth Poet Laureate. Victoria was the first city in Canada to promote a Youth Poet Laureate, and remains one of the few to do so. Port Moody, BC is the only other of which we’re aware. Morgan’s poem was about melting snowflakes as analogy for teen suicide; each snowflake represented the loss of one more young person.
The opening student poem was presented by two students from Vic High. This was the first Vic High entry into the Victorious Voices competition, and the two students who presented their poem (“Dear Teacher”) spoke of the, um… lack of support they received in their endeavours. In part the poem was about redefining education.We trust that next year they’ll come closer to the finals!
The next poem was presented by a semi-finalist from one Pearson College team and entitled, “I Hate Spring”. Spring in Victoria is generally perceived as a magical time – warm temperatures and an abundance of blossoms, but apparently not everyone sees it that way. The humorous twist at the end came when it was revealed that this poem was written by a snowman, a last act before becoming a puddle.
After that, Jeremy (a noted performance poet himself) took the stage and presented a tribute to the youth poets in the audience and in the larger community who have found their voices. He next highlighted the 2014 Victorious Voices Alumnus of Honour. Amelia Hutchison is working toward her Bachelor of Arts Degree at the Baltimore School for the Arts in Maryland, and in her free time she volunteers to coach spoken word poetry in local prisons. There was a short video featuring Amelia, followed by (much deserved) applause!
The competition was set to begin, and there were five judges for the night: Matthew Chris Davidson, Mayor Dean Fortin, Crystal James, Morgan Purvis and Janet Rogers. Before the competition could begin, however, the judges needed one more thing to whet their scorecards: the Sacrificial Poet. The Sacrificial Poet sets the tone for the evening and becomes the basis upon which all of the following poems are judged. That night Mica – one of the students from Vic High – was selected as the Sacrificial Poet. Her poem was about two kids with ‘mental disorders’ who share themselves and discover who they truly are.
There were four teams in the finals: one team from Glenlyon Norfolk School, one team from Pearson College and two teams from Reynolds Secondary. Each team rotated through four rounds of individual poems followed by a team event. So, what did the students write/ speak about? Friendship beauty love sex separation religion war hope alcohol life death suicide expectation and much more. Yes, one group won, and there were some prizes awarded (including the trophy!), but that’s not what the event is really about.
I had one brief moment of panic at the beginning of the night; one of the judges wasn’t able to make it and Matthew Chris Davidson asked me if I’d step in. Fortunately Crystal James accepted before I had to decide, but I didn’t feel qualified to be a judge of such a talented group of young people. It might be easy to write off their subject matter as so much teenage angst, but it wasn’t until afterward that it occurred to me – Morgan Purvis’ poem about teen suicide, Amelia Hutchison’s work in prisons and the subject matter of many of the students’ poems were about ‘statistics’. Those who had lost their way and had no other way out. And that’s the real meaning behind this work with which Jeremy, the teachers and others are involved. By providing a venue, by providing an opportunity and by providing coaching, it’s much less likely that any of these kids will become a ‘statistic’. They’ve found their voices. They know how to use them. It doesn’t have to be poetry – it could be painting or kayaking or cycling or boxing or chess or… but it’s a way of saying to the world, “This is me. This is who I am.” If I was a judge I’d give you all a 10, just for being here, just for being you.