Spoken word in Toronto
Spoken word is booming in Toronto. Practically once a week, you can find a downtown stage full of spoken word poets. It might be a poetry slam in the west end or the back room of Clinton's on an unsuspecting weeknight. Thing is, spoken word won't find you; like anything still comfortable in the underground, you have to find it.
Here's a guide to some of the more noteworthy spoken word shows regularly going down in Toronto. I have to point out my bias: I'm the artistic director of the Toronto Poetry Project, and we produce the Toronto Poetry Slam and BAM! Toronto Youth Slam. Yes, I'll be talking about both. It would be remiss of me to ignore the important shows we've created.
When Sisters Speak/When Brothers Speak
Here's an example of poetry making it big. Both annual events are held at the austere St Lawrence Centre of the Arts, and it's a serious throwdown of skilled poetics. Each poet gets a solid set to showcase their best stuff. Produced by Dwayne Morgan, the godfather of our spoken word scene, the shows feature Canadian and American black poets, the kind of talents who could have easily rocked the Def Poetry Jam stage. Notable features have included Jamaal St John (winner of Morgan's annual poetry slam), Truth Is..., Shauntay Grant, Leviathan and too many more to mention. Sisters features only female poets, and it usually takes place in January. Brothers, only men, hits St. Lawrence in November.
Toronto Poetry Slam
Since 2005, Toronto Poetry Project has been bringing a raucous night of slam poetry to the GTA. At first a roaming-venue series, TPP selected Drake Underground three years ago, securing a coveted Saturday night slot. The slam is a spoken word competition - poets sign up at 730pm, take the stage and perform their poems one by one, and judges from the audience score each poem between 0 and 10, Olympics style. Poets move on through rounds, can win money, make the semifinals, etc. Along with the Drake monthly, TPS also produces some offbeat slams, such as The Story Slam, Nerd Slam, and the recent Haiku HeadToHead Match at Supermarket. Coming up on Feb. 11 is the Love Sex and Heartbreak slam at Tranzac. Most events aren't more than $5.
BAM! Toronto Youth Slam
A couple years ago, Toronto Poetry Project noticed a smattering of teens signing up for the Drake slam. But the signup list became so popular, a draw had to decide who slammed, and some kids ended up not getting pulled. TPP came up with a youth slam just for poets between 12 and 19, taking place on the second Wednesday of the month at The Central. The show is hosted by Yehuda "Pan" Fisher, who used to run the now defunct WordJam poetry show out of Free Times. The show includes a feature so new poets can learn from an elder. There's truly nothing like it in Toronto. Even students from Buffalo are making the trip to check out BAM!.
If the Drake stage can be a bit intimidating, then the monthly $100 Slam stage can be the perfect alternative. The show offers a chill fun vibe in a cozy venue every month (in January, The Annex Live) and it's been giving the entire door money to the winner of this two-round slam. It's usually the advertised $100. An open mic is available if poets don't want to get scored on their words, and they also invite a feature, usually someone out of town. It's a fantastic spot to try out something new on a supportive audience. Watch for the fine banter between hosts/producers Soul and Dane, part of the show's charm.
Roots Lounge Slam
Dwayne Morgan is a busy man. Running a ton of shows in the core, the Ajax poet has also been bringing us his Roots Lounge Slam for years. First it made its mark at Trane Studio, and now it's packing the tight space at the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture on Augusta. The slam list gets packed quick, so don't arrive too late if you want to perform. You'll see a wide array of poetry on that stage, from raps about iPhones to potent verse on foreign aid. Just be warned, it's a Sunday night, so your brain might be tingling well into Monday.
Art Bar Reading Series
Already mentioned in our guide to Toronto reading series, the author-heavy show at Clinton's is peppering their lineup with spoken word quite a bit. On Tuesday nights, you might see two authors and one performance poet. The spoken word element has added an energetic contrast to a room preferring to absorb a poem quietly instead of snapping their fingers at a poignant simile. The stillness works well for rich dense poetry, but humour poetry pops up during Art Bar's themed nights. Their open mic is legendary for giving poets their first pop at reading a piece. Then again, some travelled vets have hit the stage without warning, such as Shane Koyczan.
Burlington Slam Project
Right, not in Toronto technically, but this series deserve a mention. Only a GO bus ride away, this slam hosted by Tomy Bewick has been featuring some top-notch poets such as CR Avery, Ian Keteku and Will Evans. It's been a regular spot to see the rising talents of Kiki, Made Wade, Yogi and Lishai. If you don't know these names, YouTube them. Plus, The Black Bull has half-off bottles of wine on Thursdays, so it's truly win-win.
Flowetic Wednesdays used to be run out of Cervejaria on College, but when that venue went belly up Flowetic took a hiatus. The show always features poets followed by a live reggae band, something you don't see every day. Join their Facebook Page to keep tabs on when it's returning.
Dimentia 666 on Halloween Night was the long-awaited return of Dimentia 5, the brainchild of Electric Jon and this author. Hardly a routine poetry show, Dimentia blends video art, music, comedy, an open mic and kazoos into a strange collage that somehow feels curated. The next show has yet to be scheduled, but rest assured it'll surface somewhere in the east end soon.
We pour out our liquor for...
The Peace Pipe Poetry Series enjoyed its last show in December when host Jill Christmas bid adieu to the series run out of Vapor Central (she moved to B.C.). A poetry slam in a pot café was so novel it was almost shocking to realize you were surrounded by vaporizers. And snapping fingers. The room could be tough at times - stoners might not get subtlety - but poets always felt welcome, and the sign-up list was rarely full. It's uncertain if Peace Pipe will surface elsewhere (in Vansterdam, perhaps?).
Rochdale Rhymes & Readings took place in the Regal Beagle for awhile, before host Mike Lipsius called it quits last year. Open mic friendly and as cozy as it gets (back room, seats around 25), Rochdale gave some young poets their first feature, allowing them to begin a nice gigging groove. It'll be missed.
Writing by David Silverberg. Photo by Roger Cullman.