The Breath in Poetry Collective (from left) Bert Richards, Titilope Sonuga, Chris Krueger, Mary Pinkoski and Ahmed Ali.
Ready to battle, Ahmed “Knowmadic” Ali took the stage of the 2011 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word competition in Toronto. His only weapons were the words he hurled through the searing lights into the hot, dark, packed room. Somewhere out there was a clock ticking down his time. He couldn’t see it, but he knew he had three minutes from the time he started speaking.
This is slam poetry, a literary offshoot of hip-hop freestyle battles. The competitive breed of spoken word slams the audience with left-hook lines, and slams the competition with right uppercuts of battle-honed intellect.
It was Ali’s team, spawne
d by Edmonton’s Breath in Poetry Collective, or the BIP, that won the 2011 Canadian championship. He shares the trophy with Mary Pinkowski, Colin Matty, Liam Coady and Chris Krueger, the Edmonton team’s alternate who wasn’t required to read thanks to the strengths of the other four. Alone, Ali won “Line Most Likely to Appear on a T-shirt” for the refrain and title “I am Africa,” and Pinkoski walked away with “Most Valuable Poet.”
It was the second time the BIP sent a team to the nationals, which rotates between cities like the Grey Cup, but this was its first taste of gold. Leaving Toronto, the members knew that they’d now spend the next year battling against each other and others to determine which five will make the 2012 team, selected at this month’s finals hosted by the Edmonton Poetry Festival. “It’s a competition of course,” says Ali, “everyone wants to win.” But, he says, they don’t let that hurt their friendships back at home.
“You have to put everything from last year behind you,” says Titilope “Titi” Sonuga, who created the BIP and competed at the nationals in 2010. (“I’m too sensitive to compete anymore,” she admits.) She says the dynamic is one more of encouragement than competition, though she guesses “that dynamic might change a bit after having to challenge a title.”
Sonuga, a Nigerian-Canadian civil engineer and author, founded the collective in 2009 because she didn’t fit in the local poetry scene, which she thought was too formal – often the events were staged in libraries and cafes instead of open-late venues, with on-script readings instead of passionate, memorized performances. While Sonuga says her material went over well with audiences at these events, she felt she was treated more like a novelty than a legit poet. “It felt almost like I became a piece you’d see in a museum,” she says, “sort of ‘the African girl who does poetry right from her head!’ I was no longer comfortable with that dynamic.”
Sonuga thought emerging poets simply needed an energizing stage on which to lose their performance-virginities. With co-founder Bert Richards (a.k.a. Dirt Gritie of rap group Politic Live) she organized a series at Rouge Lounge, an electric-red downtown bar with mod charm.
Three years later, it still hosts “Rouge Poetry” on Tuesday nights and routinely packs the house. Other organizers, such as Ali, Pinkoski and Krueger, joined the collective to help attract new and renowned artists, but when Sonuga first started, only her sister and brother-in-law sat to hear her. The game changer? Adding slams during the second year.A far wail from dreary, droning English class recitals, the modern slam is more nightclub than book club. “It’s a little bit like open heart surgery,” says Sonuga. “It’s a combination of performance and pure truth. Poets from every walk of life come to the microphone with no censorship.”
“Once you step into the night,” Ali says, “you’ll see it’s not a bar, it’s not a restaurant; it’s a lounge.” With club beats pumping from the sound system, Rouge Poetry attracts people who’ve come “dressed to impress, wearing perfume, cologne, a flower in the hair.” But it also attracts unassuming people, who are attracted to the purity of the art.
For Ali, Edmonton slams changed his artistic DNA. A political science student originally from Toronto, he had a background in stand-up comedy and “absolutely no idea about spoken-word” until the Edmonton Poetry Festival introduced it to him. Looking to experiment with the art, he and his encouraging brother headed to an open-mike event at the Carrot Caf. They stepped in, his brother surveyed the older, predominantly white audience, and told him, “You’re not going to fit in.” So, Ali kept silent.
He looked elsewhere and found Sonuga’s series and an audience that understood his style. And, for two consecutive years, that series and those audience members helped propel the natural talent to the Canadian finals.
The style differences among the national team are clear, says Pinkoski, winner of the 2008 CBC National Poetry Face-Off, who joined the collective in 2011, and uses her veteran connections to book headliners from across Canada. Coady and Matty, for example, both use their acting skills on stage – Coady’s a member of the Citadel’s Young Actors Company while Matty is part of Rapid Fire Theatre.
“I come from a narrative-driven spoken word style, while Colin and Liam’s poetry is influenced by their [theatre] backgrounds,” says Pinkoski. “Chris has a musical and acting background as well, and Ahmed has a diverse background of comedic and acting talents. [It all] contributes to a strong team built on a rich foundation.”
The national competition, which put them against 19 teams, isn’t just tough – it’s tense. By the last night, nerves are as brittle as glass, because by then most teams have exhausted their best poems. According to Ali, it didn’t help that they faced anti-Western Canada biases and received unflattering comments that tarred them as uncultured before they’d even opened their mouths. “It was like they didn’t even think poetry existed in Edmonton.” Not a problem, he says, it pushed his teammates even harder to gain the title and, not to mention, respect. Afterward, even the host expressed his surprise, and admiration, that Edmonton took the prize.
Having competed at nationals herself, Sonuga says the end experience is more like “summer camp,” with competitors achieving camaraderie despite defeat for all but a single team. How that camaraderie will be tested – now and among their circle – could be just as exciting as the poetry slam at the Artery on April 24, where they’ll battle each other to find out who will represent the city once more at the nationals in October.