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The History of Slam Poetry in Ottawa

To move forward into the future, you must first know your past. (African Proverb)

Slam poetry is a little sub-genre of spoken word poetry, and is characterized by a scored competition between poets. While this is as gimmicky as it sounds, slam does have its appeal. In Ottawa (as elsewhere, I have noticed), slam poetry owes it's popularity to urban spoken word poetry, namely the styles, content, and attitude of artists of African heritage. What follows is a brief history of slam poetry in Ottawa.

Though I had attended slams in Montreal (The YAWP and Vox Pop series) and Toronto (Jill Batson's slam series) in the early 90s, my first time entering a slam was in 1998, at the NuYorican Poets Café in NYC (I tied for first). In 1993, myself and a group of poets from Montreal (the Diasporic African Poets) represented a slam poetry style at the International Dub Poetry Festival in Toronto. And the next year, I was included on a CD compilation, Word Up, which was the first time Canadian spoken word poets were featured alongside bona fide US slam poets, such as Reggie Gaines, Bob Holman, and Tracy Morris.

In 1998, Eddy Davids (the Original One) and myself presented the WordLife CD release in Ottawa, bringing Motion, Dwayne Morgan, and Jemeni from Toronto, as well as The Butta Babees and Kali from Montreal. That show was the seed of the Poetic Soul Spot series at the Mercury Lounge, with Eddy, Tony Baldwin Lewis, and myself bringing slam poetry to Ottawa for the first time (we featured Talaam Acey, Faraji Salim, Flowmentalz, Jamaal St. John, and several other celebrated slam poets from the States).

Pierre Ringwald, who eventually started the Step Up Slam, was one of the people who attended those shows. Pierre actually twice invited me to perform at the school where he taught, eventually holding a poetry night featuring the works of his students. This blossomed into his concept for the Step Up Slam series. The first Ottawa Slam Poetry Team was selected the second year of the slam, in 2001, based on the Step Up Slam play-offs, and included nth digri, Jim Larwill, and Danjahras Dane. Though the Step Up Slam intended to send the team to the National Poetry Slam, the plans fell through. You can find more information on the Step Up Slam archives.

The hype from the Step Up Slam was picked up on by the CBC, and in 2002 they began the CBC Poetry Face-off, a variation on the slam format. Matt Peake and Jim Larwill were winners of the Ottawa CBC Poetry Face-off in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

Where Step Up Slam left off, the Golden Star Lounge picked up. From its start at the Eritrean Community Club on Somerset, back in the Fall of 2002, Moses Abraham and I developed the series into a veritable movement that would, by the Summer of 2003, send the first Ottawa Slam Poetry team to compete in the National Poetry Slam in Chicago (birthplace of Slam). For the first time, Ottawa made its appearance on the international Slam Poetry map, with a slam team that featured the 2003-04 Ottawa Slam Champion, nth digri, and the runners up which included John Akpata, Ingrid Jospeh, Q the Romantic Revolutionary, and Garmamie Sidau.

The Golden Star Lounge remains the first and only Ottawa slam certified with Poetry Slam Incorporated, the international Slam Poetry organization.

In September 2003, I contacted the organizers of the three other slams in Canada at that time: Dwayne Morgan (Roots Lounge, Toronto), Graham Olds (Vancouver Slam), and Darek Dawda (Winnipeg Slam). I proposed holding a Canadian spoken word poetry festival/slam tournament in Ottawa in 2004, and the Canadian Spoken Word Olympics were born. Darek and I gathered funding support, and I created the original Wordolympics website (including the program, rules, tournament structure, and sponsorship package) and invited teams and individual artists. By May 2004, the funding and organization was in place and, with the assistance of a committee of local organizers, the Wordolympics was held 5 months later in early October. This marked the first national slam team competition ever held in Canada, adding another important chapter to the history of spoken word poetry in this city.

Big respect goes out to the Third World Players (original Ottawa griots), Young Poets of the Revolution, Shingi and Eddy (promoting spoken word shows in the Capital in the 90s), Ras Kagiso, Fonkeng, and Captain Sunshine.

And if you don't know, now you know!

- Anthony Bansfield, August 2005

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