by Bill AshwellThink about performance poetry, and your imagination probably trips back to the 1950s and the days of smoke-filled coffee houses, beatniks in black turtleneck sweaters and black berets. You think of bongo drums, improvisational jazz, hip, cool, groovy. That was beat poetry.
That was then.
Performance poetry today in some ways is not much different. Hardcore performers/slammers/jammers will argue that simply reading the poem is just that: a reading. Performance poetry, they will argue, should push the boundaries of what poetry should be. Performance poetry should and often is, to some extent, a theatrical interpretation of that poet’s work, designed to elicit a response, a reaction, from the audience.
My first exposure to performance poetry was an Open Mic night in 1999 at some now long-defunct coffee shop in Elora. The poet-performer, as he read his original poems, bobbed and ducked and weaved around the room like he was in an aerobics class. I suppose this begs the question; does good poetry need a floorshow for validation, or can it (should it) stand on its own merit?
The trick is to not simply recite the piece, mumble a weak “thank you, thank you very much…” in to the mic and shuffle off the stage; BE THE POEM!! Read it with the same (or more) passion that inspired you to write it in the first place! Give it life, and emotion!
Once you’ve mastered the art of performance poetry, take it a step further and compete in a poetry slam. I know, you’re picturing a bunch of writers down on the floor wrestling with paper (and in some cases, probably losing the match). Slam Poetry is nothing like that. Slams are competitions at which poets read or recite original work. Selecxted members of the audience then judge these performances, and in some cases prize money is often awarded to the winning poet.
Performance poetry in the Region of Waterloo has witnessed a surge in popularity in the last decade. While coffee house reading series come and go, Slam Poetry organizations have emerged to take the reins in the realm of Spoken Word events in this area. The KW Poetry Slam is a monthly spoken word competition open to any and all in the Waterloo Region. The group stages monthly slam competitions and competes in slam competitions at the national level. Elsewhere, Guelph Spoken Word began promoting slam competitions a decade ago, but has grown to provide monthly spoken word workshops, in addition to its own slam team.
Consider this an invitation all closet poets, all storytellers, the teachers and the students and anyone who understands the importance of engaging, dynamic, fun art: come to a slam, read at an open mic, check out a poetry slam. Chances are you just might like it.
A Cambridge native, Bill Ashwell has been a CWC member since 1995.
In 2007 Bill was awarded the City of Cambridge’s prestigious Bernice Adams Memorial Award for Communication and Literary Arts. His poetry and prose have been published in several editions of the Writers Undercover Anthologies, The Cambridge Wartime Scrapbook, and most recently, for the Cambridge Libraries’ 2011 Poem-A-Day Contest. In 2001 Bill published Moments of Clarity, a collection of his poetry.
Bill also volunteers for many community Arts organizations, including the Cambridge Arts Festival.