Winter poetry slam brings the heat

Queen’s Poetry Slam showcases some old and new favourites

Jesse Shewfelt performing a singing act at the slam.

My only exposure to slam poetry before Monday night was Jonah Hill screaming “Cynthia” in 22 Jump Street. But there I was, trying to find a chair in a lamp-lit room of The Grad Club to watch my first poetry slam. 

I know that social circles beyond my own exist at Queen’s, but looking around The Grad Club I realized I’d found the community for poetry slam. The poetry slam regulars were mingling, catching up with those they hadn’t seen since the break. They seemed like they were in their element.

Silencing the buzzing, a willowy girl in black jumped on the stage and screamed, “How the fuck are you?!” It was an intense introduction I wasn’t expecting. In fact, part of me was relieved I was tucked in the corner because I didn’t want to be picked on by the emcee.

The girl in black introduced herself as Rachel Manson, an executive for the Queen’s Poetry Slam Club, and went on about how we were all weirdos for being at a poetry slam on a Monday night. Manson asked the room if we’d never been to a poetry slam before and I cautiously put my hand up. There were a couple of other hands stretched out with me.

Manson, ArtSci ’17, thanked us for coming and went on to give us the run down of the rules for a poetry slam — and there were a lot of rules.

If you liked something said in the poem, you snapped your fingers, and you had to scream, “Three, two, one, score!” at the end to signal the judges to hold up their whiteboard score.

There was another rule — if the performer went over three minutes, the audience had to interrupt the performance by screaming, “You rat bastards, you’re ruining it for everyone, but it was well worth it.” We were also instructed to make a hook with our hand, or else be picked on by Manson in the audience. 

To make sure we understood all the rules that came with poetry slam, Manson introduced Bruce Kauffman to read his poem, ‘On the Shore’, as our trial run. Woven into nautical themes, Kaufman spoke of the desperations that come with love. I enjoyed the tired delivery but wished I could see the lyrics or have re-heard it to really understand what he was saying. 

At the end of the reading, we screamed, “Three, two, one, score!”, and Kaufman was awarded with a 9, 9.3, 9.5 and a 10 with a cartoon sheep.

I realized rather quickly that the kindness of the community wouldn’t award anyone who went up on stage and was vulnerable reading their work anything less than a nine.

It was time for the real competition and for the student poets to read. Of the eight poets that read, a couple stood out to me — both in content and delivery.

Jessica Read, ArtSci ’17, delivered a choked and emotional poem about being at war with her body for not being skinny enough. “I felt the most powerful when I wasn’t eating,” was the introductory line of the poem, as she juxtaposed how being strong was rooted in the pursuit of being fragile.

Billie Kearns, a.k.a. Billie the Kid, a regular slammer, delivered the same piece she spoke at last season’s poetry slam called ‘Things My Mother Told Me’. Clearly, it was still as palpable and entertaining at her last performance. What stood out to me about the poem wasn’t just the verses’ ability to describe a nuanced mother-daughter relationship and Indigenous identity, but how she used her hands to tell the story.

From strongly gesturing out the verses, to conveying just a little more expression, Billie’s hands added grace to her storytelling. Her movements gave the delivery a new dimension that made me emotional thinking about my own relationship with my mother.

My two favourite poets placed third and fourth respectively, with the winning poem going to Jesse Shewfelt, ArtSci ’17, who crafted an anti-metaphor by insisting that the idea of weeds in a flower bed wasn’t related to white colonialism. 

The poem was objectively sharp and I thought the idea of an anti-metaphor was brilliant but, for myself, felt lectured. From the recent travelling ban in the United States to campus culture, I already had political fatigue. Maybe I was naïve for thinking that poetry slam would offer that kind of escapism.

In a way, I stepped out of my own comfort zone by seeing how these student poets allow themselves to be vulnerable. For slam poetry, I learned, you don’t have to be the one performing to be a part of the community.


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