As a special feature for National Poetry Month, we sat down with some members of the 2015 Toronto Poetry Slam team to find out about how travelling–and travelling as a team–affects the creative process and psyche. The TPS team is determined each year by several months of competitions culminating in two rounds of semifinals and a finals night.
TPS is all about ideas, with one in particular: people sharing poetry for everyone to enjoy. You’ll hear pure honesty poured onto the stage, wrapped in an entertaining performance style you won’t see anywhere else. Best of all, anyone can slam! Just show up to sign up for 7:30pm sharp. Judges from the audience score each poem between 0 and 10, basing their scores on both content n’ performance. 12 poets are in the first round, then it’s whittled down to 6, and the a final 3 poets battle it out in the final round. Winners get $80 and a bye into the semis. Poets can also get points towards making the Toronto Poetry Slam Team.
The 2015 team was made up of Trevor Abes, Justin G, Kay Kassier, and SPIN El Poeta.
Did you know the other TPS team members before you became a team?
SPIN El Poeta: I did not know the other TPS members at all. I was actually initially nervous because many established poets who had qualified for semis passed up on the opportunity to compete in the semis. I decided to compete regardless and I am very grateful for this because I came to know some amazing people in the process. The growth of my teammates throughout the journey was absolutely impressive.
Trevor Abes: I’d met Kay briefly, but otherwise didn’t know any of them except through their poetry. So yeah, the prospect of touring and creating with basically strangers was a little terrifying. Thankfully, though, we all trusted one another and shared some of our personal struggles early on to establish common ground. We were willing to stumble through awkwardness with grace and that went a long way.
Justin G: I’m relatively new to the Toronto spoken word community so no, I didn’t know much about the other members of the team, other than seeing them perform once or twice, and I’m happy it worked out that way. It allowed me to join the team a blank slate. I love the process of getting to know people and how they work so, for me, it did nothing but strengthen the overall dynamic.
What made you want to be on the TPS team?
SPIN: I’ve been slamming since the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word was founded as Spoken Word Lympics in Ottawa. I had taken a hiatus to tend to my health and get my self centred after a cancer diagnosis and it became very difficult for me once I was cleared of the illness to get back in. I had a flood of insecurities, had participated in a team where I feel my talent was completely taken for granted, and this motivated me in a very big way to come back full fold into performing, creating and shining in my own light.
TA: It offered up a lot of experiences I felt would help with my writing. I had stage fright, for one, but we performed so many times in our 10-month tenure that I didn’t really have time to feel it anymore. I’d also never written in a group either and needed to get better at constantly navigating other’s people’s thought processes. The traveling and being exposed to audiences outside of Toronto was also a huge draw.
JG: I come from a competitive background in sports. So it’s almost in my nature to want to excel and win in competition settings. I loved writing and performing before TPS, so the fact that there was a team comprised of the top 5 poets each year, was just an added bonus to me.
How much travelling did you do as a team?
TA: We flew to Saskatoon to compete in the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and to Oakland for the National Poetry Slam. For the rest we road-tripped it around Ontario: we performed in Guelph at the Hillside Festival, in Ottawa for Capital Slam and in Peterborough for Slamtario.
SPIN: Oh man, good times…Peterborough, Hillside Festivall (MUCH MUCH love to that festival, the most organized one I’ve ever been to), Oakland, Saskatoon. The travelling opportunities were huge blessings for me.
Where did most of your creative process happen?
TA: Besides the usual typing away for hours at a desk, definitely at team meetings. We treated them like workshops after business was dealt with. We’d meet at our coach Cathy Petch’s house, plant a mic stand in the middle of the living room, and take notes on each other’s performances.
SPIN: I think for many of us, the team meetings helped a lot but for the most part we were creating on our own. [But] this had a HUGE impact on my creative process because seeing the courage they all took on addressing the most vulnerable of topics inspired me to address mine. This journey, especially Cathy Petch’s coaching had a lifelong impact on me as an author. I now feel that there really are no barriers or limitations.
JG: I’m weird in that I need complete silence in order to get most of my work done. So when the rest of Toronto goes to sleep, I’m up, in my bed, writing a new poem. Being part of a team changed my creative process immensely. I’ve always written by myself; no editors, no other voices. Team-writing, especially for groups picees, is entirely opposite. Every has an idea of what direction to go in or what words to use – which can make for a very stressful process. But in the end, you create something beautiful, which to me is well worth it.
TA: [Being part of a team] made me less judgmental and restrictive about what I think of as good writing. It’s what happens when you see writing moves you may not agree with work in front of an audience over and over again. I find I write more now as well; the pressure of having to knock out poems before a competition made me hyper-aware of how many crappy lines I have to write before getting to one I like.
Tell me about some of the shows you did that stick out to you.
SPIN: The Sheraton Cavalier in Saskatoon was lap of luxury living. I had a blast out there. Total full out vacation. I think our Hillside performance was a good awakening because we were so focused on just “nailing” the poem that we basically had forgotten the actual performance/crowd engagement component, that banter in between poems that is so crucial. We turned it around half way through our set and gave the audience an enjoyable show after all.
At the Harbourfront Centre Word on the Street performance, they gave us this “guerrilla” poetry setting in a somewhat secluded area for just random passersby and just as we were about to start, Mayor John Tory walks into the area on his phone. He was very gracious and even came in and sat to observe our performance.
TA: We played the Hillside Festival in Guelph last year and I left enchanted. The scenery on Guelph Lake Island is all campfire nostalgia and serenity, the people were kind and joyous, I got to see Ikenna Onyegbula and The Weather Station’s respective sets: so much to praise. The gig itself though was valuable (in retrospect) because I had never felt more out of my element. The team had to fill an hour with poetry and I’d never done more than 10 minutes on stage. If that wasn’t daunting enough, it’s my first festival gig, and I get on stage fully mentally unprepared for how the people watching me are encouraged to just get up and leave if they want to. The crowd was kind but reserved, like they were watching someone else’s kids play hockey. I was already performing when I realized the people weren’t necessarily into poetry, just curious about it, so I had to win them over. In sum, an education. We put on a good show and breathed a team-sigh of relief in the end.
I [also] loved our week in Saskatoon. It really chilled me out that there are 300,000 people in the city but it feels like 3000 pretty much all the time. The stark, cold quiet that permeates the city helped me understand why so many great writers come out of there. Competition and all, I still found time to write every day.
What did you take away from touring with the team?
JG: As a poet, I learned that in order to be great, you have to write – all the time. Even when you don’t feel like it. Its the only way to get better. That was (and still is) something I struggle with. Kudos to my coach and my teammates who definitely helped me with developing much better writing habits. As a person, I learned that the path you’re on in life may change drastically over the course of a year. Don’t be scared of it – roll with it.
SPIN: To really be gracious with my teammates, whoever they are. Sometimes the people you think you’ll end up having issues with become your favorite people on the team. I learned that being vulnerable is beautiful as long as you are safe. Especially when people don’t expect that from you.
TA: One: that when I embraced the unsettling experience I felt like I lived fully. Two: that showing your writing in front of groups of strangers is rewarding 100 percent of the time.
What’s next for you?
SPIN: TPS 2016 team alongside a very powerful youth poet named Naima Hassan…. I am also recording Hip Hop music to honour the revolution in Guatemala. My people down there are working endlessly to end the impunity and corruption that has plagued us for decades upon decades. I’m hoping to go perform and celebrate with them in October.
TA: I’m working on a new book of poems and I think I really mean it this time.
JG: Well I’m competing again to be on the 2016 TPS team so I can do this all over again – wish me luck!