Burnsview Secondary’s best slam poets are again off to Hullabaloo to face Metro Vancouver’s top performers.
The school held a competition the evening of Jan. 31 to determine who will make the school’s slam poetry team and go on to compete at Hullabaloo, the annual youth poetry festival and competition taking place in April in Vancouver.
What makes slam poetry — a form of spoken word performance — different from other types of poetry, Burnsview drama and creative writing teacher Leslie Stark explained, is that it’s immediate and the audience needs to respond to it, which can be by hooting or snapping their fingers in agreement with performer’s point. What is normally considered heckling at other kinds of performances is encouraged in slam poetry.
“It’s not something you go and think about for a while, [it’s] something you respond to viscerally and immediately,” she noted. “I think the audience is meant to connect to it right away rather than contemplate it.”
Stark has been teaching slam poetry at the school for seven years. She said spoken word provides youth a voice to speak about issues they would otherwise not necessarily share.
“Anything from mental health issues, to relationships with the parents, to political issues, to very personal things,” Stark said. “It really allows them the chance to express their voice in their own way, and their perspective.”
Grade 11 student Ainslie Glass, one of the team’s returning members, told the Reporter she has learned how memorizing a poem can help her perform with more emotion, making it more poignant and impactful for the audience. Stylistically, she has also learned to better use imagery in her pieces.
“What I saw at the school was a very small amount of what the poetry world is, so getting to Hullabaloo and seeing hundreds of poets from different places and different writing styles, I learned a lot from that, ” the 16-year-old said.
Glass began writing poetry when she was little, but the first time something emotional came out on paper was after experiencing turmoil in her family last year. Since then, she said, she has been learning to channel her pain into her writing.
Glass’ teammate, Grade 12 student Jade Chandra, took the political route with her piece on Canada’s leadership, whose public image to her is deceptive. Her poem dealt with Canada’s history of committing genocide upon Indigenous peoples as the country expanded and the continued struggle to balance reconciliation and economic interests, as well as the internment of people of Japanese descent following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. She also touched on other issues ailing Canada, such as the opioid epidemic, housing crises in its largest cities and veterans suffering from PTSD.
“Just a hopeless cause hiding behind free health care and our prime minister’s shiny, luscious hair,” Chandra read from her politically charged poem. “Frankly, kudos to Trudeau though, the whole world is convinced that this is the home on Native land, the true north strong and free, but I guess that only applies if you’re a rich politician and a white man.”
Chandra said she’s aware that poetry can’t necessarily shift the social consciousness of an entire nation, but it is a cathartic vent for her own frustrations, which include what the government does at home and how it is perceived in the world.
“Every outsider who isn’t Canadian sees Trudeau as a really good, strong leader when he isn’t, and they’re completely neglecting some really important problems in Canada,” Chandra told the Reporter. “That was really just a rant about how I felt and how there’s lots of voices that are going unheard. You’re giving into that blindness by saying that Canada is a perfect country when really it’s not.”
Tawahum Bige, KPU creative writing student and last year’s poet-in-residence at Burnsview, said he’s “low-key jealous” of some of the students and their lyrical abilities. The 25-year-old performer came in as a substitute for Jillian Christmas — this year’s poet-in-residence who’s currently fighting the flu — to guide the rookie performers in their writing and performance, and to judge the competition. Bige, who is from the Lutsel K’e Dene and Plains Cree nations, feels that writing and performing slam poetry has the capacity to heal.
“It gives me an avenue to share my unique life story in a way where I feel seen and heard,” he said. “Some of the things that I have been through in my life don’t come home with me to sleep. Instead, I put them on a stage.”