Nova Scotia

Slam poetry competitors from Halifax to face off in national competition

Andre Fenton and Deirdre Lee are the only slam poets east of Montreal taking part in a national slam poetry competition taking place this week in Vancouver.

Winner in Vancouver will get to represent Canada at World Cup of Slam Poetry in Paris

Both Andre Fenton and Deirdre Lee were on the same squad that went to a national team slam competition in Saskatoon last fall. Now, the two friends will face off as competitors in Vancouver. (Zak Markan/CBC)

Two Halifax poets are set to attend the fifth annual Canadian Individual Poetry Slam (CIPS) in Vancouver. 

Slam poetry is an intense blend of written verse mixed with stage performance — and a stop watch. 

Both Andre Fenton and Deirdre Lee were on the same squad that went to a national team slam competition in Saskatoon last fall. Now, the two friends will face off as competitors in Vancouver. 

"I'm really excited, nervous," says Lee, whose first national slam competition was in the fall.

Check out her performance below. WARNING, this video contains explicit language.

Fenton and Lee are the only two poets east of Montreal who are taking part in this year's CIPS. There are 40 competitors in total. The winner of the slam in Vancouver will get to represent Canada later this year at the World Cup of Slam Poetry in Paris, France.

Lee said many of the friends she made in the fall will be in Vancouver and they'll be bringing some tough competition.

"So that's both frightening and motivational." 

This year's CIPS takes place from April 28 to 31 and is part of the annual Verses Festival of Words. 

No props, no music — just voice

Poets only have three minutes to perform a piece and judges in the audience rate the participants according to numerical score.

"It's just your voice," says Fenton. "And it's cool because people can bring different talents to the stage. I know some people that sing in their poetry, which always goes well." 

"The judges will just rate a poem from one to 10, 10 being the best poem ever heard, one — not very good. But the criteria is mostly just subjective."

Authenticity and Rawness

Deirdre Lee said many of the friends she made in the fall will be in Vancouver and they'll be bringing some tough competition. (Submitted by Andre Fenton)

Slam can be unforgiving but also exhilarating. It grew out of Chicago in the mid-1980s as a way to create a better sense of urgency between poets and their audience. 

"I like to give people who are not familiar with slam who are going to a slam a little spiel, the 'Slam Spiel'," says Lee.

"Because stuff gets real in a way that maybe people aren't familiar with. And there's a level of authenticity and often rawness that can be intense, and that's amazing. But if you're unprepared, it can be a pretty intense experience." 

'Where do I sign up?'

Lee says her stage background has helped prepare her for slam competitions.

"I just thought here's poetry and performance and the opportunity to share my political viewpoint all wrapped up into one package. So I was like, where do I sign up?"

Slam poets typically compose their pieces ahead of time, which includes writing, editing and reciting the pieces again and again. 

Andre Fenton has been performing slam poetry for three years. He says it's exhilarating. (Submitted by Andre Fenton)

"Oh god, I would never [free-style in slam]," says Fenton, laughing.

"It'd just be terrible. I take a bit of time to write my pieces, some longer than others, depending on what I'm writing. I find it takes a lot before you actually get on stage." 

Lee says she prefers to have her piece memorized beforehand, "and just allow myself to be in the space and perform it."

Slam is 'like sticking your head under water'

Fenton has been performing slam poetry for three years. He says it's exhilarating.

"I compare it to sticking your head under water, you just have to learn how to swim," he says. "It's terrifying, but so fulfilling after you do it. That's what I love about it."

One of the things that makes slam special is it is accessible, says Lee. 

"Anybody who has something to say that's going to fill two or three minutes can share that. You don't need equipment, you don't need anything, really, other than your brain and a piece of paper and a pencil," she says.

"But there's something about hearing somebody's story or perspective in their own voice and sometimes, even when it's challenging hearing the anger, the sadness or whatever it is, I don't feel that comes across the same way as any other art form."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zak Markan is a CBC journalist based in Halifax. You can often hear him on Information Morning.

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