One of the ‘challenges’ of living in Victoria is that it’s such a culturally rich, diverse place to be that there are times we want to befriend Hermione Grainger. We’re sure she’s a lovely young woman, but our ulterior motive would be to see if we could borrow her Time Turner. We’d even invite her along; she could just slip the chain over all three of our heads… One case in point is that this past week marked the 4th Annual Victorious Voices High School Slam Championships. Mike was able to be there last year, but Marcia wasn’t: an event we wrote about here. Monday night was the Semi-Finals, with eight teams from five schools, plus a ‘wild card’ team made of students from other schools. Monday night was also the monthly Pen in Hand Poetry and Prose Readings at Serious Coffee in Cook St. Village. Tuesday night was the Youth Slam at Solstice Café, but there was also a talk at the Royal BC Museum (with Sierra Club BC) on the ecology and preservation of the Flathead River ecosystem in southeastern BC. However, nothing was going to keep us from attending the Victoria Event Centre on Wednesday night to attend the Victorious Voices Finals.
Four teams were there from four schools: Esquimalt High School, Glen-Lyon Norfolk School, Pearson College and Reynolds Senior Secondary School. Victorious Voices is a spoken word competition, albeit a competition in the original sense – from the Latin competere, meaning ‘to strive together‘. As such there were four rounds, each showcasing one person from each team. This was followed with a team competition where all the poets from each school presented one piece together. Spoken word competitions have rules: among them are that the poet has 3 minutes for each piece, with an additional 10 second grace period. Beyond that, points are deducted for going over time. No music is allowed, and neither are props or costumes. Each poet must perform his/her own original work, and while others’ work may be referenced, stealing of others’ words is generally frowned upon.
We arrived way too early, left for coffee and came back to a packed house (should have known better!) Fortunately we were invited to share a table with speaker/writer/blogger/… Janis Lacouvée. Such a dynamic woman.
Jeremy Loveday opened the night, and while he was careful to thank/ appreciate virtually everyone involved creating/hosting/judging in the competition, he left out the one person most responsible for bringing everyone together that night… himself. Typical of him, but before we go further, let us take a moment to say thanks to you, Jeremy, for all you do for youth and for poetry in this city and beyond. We’re sure there are many who would echo that.
Victoria’s (and Canada’s) first Youth Poet Laureate Aysia Law gave the first presentation. Her poem was about diets and eating disorders, an open and honest reminder of how society’s views on how one ‘should’ look affect us, both inside and out. Aysia was followed by Victoria’s Poet Laureate, Janet Rogers, who began with a drum song about courage in celebration of all those who would be competing and in having the courage to speak their own truth. She followed that with her own composition on inclusion, on being IndigenoUS. Following Janet was Anne from Brentwood College School, one of the teams in the semi-finals on Monday night. Mike recorded her (using a cell phone so the recording isn’t the best); it gives you some idea of the quality of work these young people bring to the stage.
Victoria Slam Master Scott Thompson then took over the microphone as MC for the evening. As he reiterated throughout the evening, “Applaud the poet, not the points!” He outlined the rules of the competition and introduced the celebrity judges, including Janet Rogers, Aysia Law, Alumnus of Honour Keenan Proud, Michelle from Monday magazine (and one other whose name we didn’t catch – please feel free to leave a note in the comments!). At that point the competition began, but in order to avoid ‘score creep’ and set a baseline for those who were to follow, the first person to the microphone was the Sacrificial Poet for the evening – this time it was Keenan, from Team Wild Card. After two rounds of poetry we took a collective breath and a short break, then the second half was opened by Victorious Voices Alumnus of Honour (and current UVic student), Anna-Maria Landis.
After the following two rounds and the team competition we were both enervated and emotionally exhausted. Some of the poems were funny, many painful, and all were poignant. The poets spoke of geeks, of bullying, of anger and violence, of love, sexuality, gender issues, body issues, mental challenges, politics, joy, pain, life, death, war, politics and so much more. It was an unmasked view into their lives, their world as it exists within them and around them, and we felt privileged to be a part of it.
Our thanks again to all of those who took part in organizing, hosting and judging the event, for Big Tiny Smalls for being DJ for the night. Thanks especially to all of the poets who shared themselves through their words. We’re looking forward to next year’s event!
Now, Janet Rogers nailed it when she did an opening song about courage for the poets who performed Wednesday night. Art in any sense is an expression of our inner being, shown to the world, warts and all. Sometimes we receive praise, other times criticism or derision, but underlying all of that is an expression of courage, a silent voice that shouts, “This is who I am”. I’m not a slam poet, have never written slam poetry before, and it’s been a long time since I’ve written any poetry other than Japanese style haiku or gogyohka (insert pointer here to Marcia’s book, above, for definitions!) However, after leaving the Event Centre on Wednesday night I had a thought chase after me that I couldn’t lose, couldn’t shake. It took me over an hour to write it down, and I present it here as a gift for all the students who have the courage to take the stage. It speaks to what (I imagine) it’s like to stand up there and present yourself to the world. Since slam poetry is about spoken word, not writing, if you click on the title you can hear what it might sound like.
We approach the stage, in silence. Face the spotlight glare with an ‘I’m too cool to care’, but it isn’t fooled. The microphone stands and waits, all chrome and grace, knows not our name, will accept no blame… it only relates to patience. Patience. So we back away, close our eyes and dig deep inside for… Truth? Beauty? Pain? There’s so much inside that will no longer hide; it seeks escape, wants to leap from our chest, spread its wings and soar into that forevermore place where it can land in safe… be safe, be now.
So we take Courage in hand, along with her sister, Shame, and step forward. We open our eyes upon darkened skies and the winds we have wound around and around uncertainty unfurl. We stand, one step shy of the cliff, hoping to leap into forgiveness, buffeted by criticisms, unseen, unspoken, known only by our oldest friend: Fear. And his cousin, Loneliness. But we will wait no more, cower no more. We have new friends now. Words are our tools and with them we chip and sculpt, mold a view of ourselves that no one knows, has ever seen, has never been until now. Now.
The first time, not the first time, the first time, every time, and so without thought, without breath we take that step, and jump. Words fall from our mouth and blossom and curl, perform their own sacred dance with Beauty and form patterns of their own we have never seen, have always been, in waiting, in waiting to be uttered. And with their flow the shattered fragments of our Soul realign, re-combine, become a whole we’ve never known, standing there alone, in silence. We fly.
We dip and soar, want to roar, if only Joy had a brush we would paint the world with rainbows. With each release we open to peace, a quiet inside, not the void we tried to hide from a world that didn’t care, didn’t know we were there as we stood within our own shadow. We sing out a torrent of words, form a bright blue world of verbs and vowels – linking chains of thought into drops that ought to sustain us, suspend us… and then we pause.
Not a pause for the clause; the next word runs circles around our tongue but refuses to leap beyond our teeth and be spoken. Clings tight to the thought that birthed it, hollers no, will not go, and we stumble. Our wings fold, Dumbo’s magic feather slips from our fingertips and is whisked away by the sound of the pounding of our heart as it skips a beat, wants to join our brain in retreat and return to that cocoon of anonymity. And all that we hear is the voice that exclaims, despite our best claims that we have no right to Be. Here. Now.
We fall, inward, not outward, dissolving quietly into a puddle of embarrassment that no one knows, no one hears, just a silent hush, a distant rush as we drip into the floor. And then we hear it. Quiet at first, a forest of crickets has burst into the room, but no. Not crickets, but fingers, snapping in the dark, slow the beating of our heart: we are accepted. Accepted, not rejected and the words we have neglected burst forth once more. And suddenly we realize: we have a voice, we have words to shape our feelings, we have a place to stand, united, and because of this We Are. Victorious.
P.S. As mentioned at the top of this post, Victoria is home to an incredibly rich and diverse cultural atmosphere. In addition to the Tongues of Fire spoken word events at the Solstice Café and the monthly Pen in Hand Poetry and Prose readings at Serious Coffee already mentioned, there is Planet Earth Poetry at the Moka House on Hillside Avenue. The Cornerstone Café in Fernwood hosts open mic nights, as do several other venues in town. Start at one and you’ll find people who will happily give you information and directions to the others!