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Spoken word in Toronto

Posted by Guest Contributor / January 22, 2011

Spoken Word TorontoSpoken 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!.

$100 Slam
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.

Of note:
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.



Sameer Vasta / January 22, 2011 at 09:35 am
I am so sad that Jill Christmas has left us for BC. But I am so excited that the spoken word scene in Toronto has grown so large!

Thanks for writing this up, Dave.
Mike Lipsius / January 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm
Rochdale Rhymes and Readings may make a return in some format in the near future. Stay tuned.
handfed / January 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm
useful guide!
Felicia / April 23, 2011 at 10:48 am
Spoken word is a great opportunity to express yourself and to build confidence. As the author of a bilingual poetry book entitled, TOO HOT FOR THE SHELF, TROP CHAUD POUR L’ÉTAGÈRE, spoken word has helped me transform my ideas into another realm of possibilities.
Poetry HUBS / February 13, 2012 at 10:33 am
Historically Poets have been the voice of culture and carriers of truth, @poetryHUBS www.poetryhubs.com is an online space where poets from all over can share thier spoken word videos and watch spoken word entertainment all ONLINE!!
RollynnStone / March 27, 2012 at 01:25 pm
if your interesting in spoken word! check out a new talent in toronto.

youtube: rollynn stone- a simple observation, emotions, and kids these days (www.youtube.com/user/rolli5
Twitter: rollynn_stone
and facebook page: facebook.com/rollynnstone
Beny Esguerra / August 8, 2012 at 12:03 am
More on spoken word and how it is developing in Toronto. Here we're making bridges across different musical genres using spoken word. Album Launch Aug 30 2012 @ Lula Lounge 1585 Dundas St. West.

Thiana Richards / January 9, 2013 at 02:39 pm
My name is Thiana Richards. I am organizing my very first poetry slam on Wednesday, February 6, 2013 from 7:30-11 pm at "No One Writes To The Colonel" located at 460 College St. I would like to invite you to come out and chill with us and enjoy the show. There is a cost of $10 at the door and all the funds raised goes towards helping set up a charity I am working on starting called "My Birthday Wish". I would love it if you could come and I'm sure you will love the show. After the slam there will be other various performers and the night will be hosted by Greg Frankson. I hope you can make it out. If there is anyone who is interested in competing you can message at mybirthdaywish@live.com as soon as possible. The grand prize is $200. Also if there is anyone who might not be ready to enter a slam but wants to share a piece also message me at the email above. We are stilling looking for performers to perform after the slam.
Thank you for taking the time to read my email. Please feel free to message me at mybirthdaywish@live.com if you have any questions or comments. I hope to see you on Wednesday, February 6, 2013. Have a good evening!

Thiana Richards
colin storrie / March 29, 2013 at 01:10 pm
i'll be in Toronto from 3rd may until 11th may 2013 and would love to attend and maybe participate in any poetry or spoken word events in Ontario during my short stay.
thanks in advance for any guidance you can offer
I've enclosed a few bio notes.

A folk ‘n’ country funky bard (at least I think that’s what they say).
Performance Poet, and multiple Poetry Slams Champion.
Includes Glasgow, Cumnock, and, (twice) StAnza Slam titles among his honours.
Lives and works in Glasgow and would strut his stuff to a picture of an audience.

Previous appearances include Festivals such as Edinburgh, StAnza, Wickerman, Govan International, Eden, Kijiji, and Peace & Jam.
His work is known and enjoyed in parts of India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Canada.
Has been called Glasgow’s Family Guy and has been officially, but quite wrongly, accused of Sacrilegious Profanity.
Sensitive, humorous, sage and provocative, but never deliberately offensive and won’t be censored, so if you’re easily ruffled or affronted you should folk off to the bar during his set!
Shani Holland / April 4, 2013 at 10:13 pm
I am the Director of Events and Marketing for a non-profit organization called Photographers Without Borders (PWB). We help connect photographers to organizations and charities that promote social and environmental justice that need it. We keep the best works in our collection.

I am currently planning our Official Launch Event that will take place on June 14th 2013 at the Daniel Spectrum Arts Centre, Toronto and I am searching for talented artists to showcase. I was wondering if you could please connect me to some artists that you believe would be interested in performing at our event.

Please don't hesitate to contact me for more information.

Check out our website: photographerswithoutborders.ca


Shani Holland
Shani Holland / April 4, 2013 at 10:14 pm
contact info: shani@photographerswithoutborders.org
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