My two cents on the National Poetry Slam

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Poetry filled up NAPA last month-end. Fuller than the grandstand for Dimanche Gras. Grandmothers. A tassa section. A screaming posse from Tobago. $200-a-ticket poetry.

grand-slam-2017-first-citizens-national-poetry-slam-finals_58fa62eed3e59_960Now the biggest single event of the national literature calendar, the finale of the annual BocasLitFest is a competition among young “spoken word” poets for prizes and appearance fees (provided by First Citizens Bank) that this year leapt from $36,000 to $88,000, rivalling the festival’s US$16,000 prizemoney for leading Caribbean authors of the best books annually.

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Spoken word’s multiple roots wind through several Black Atlantic vocal traditions, among them 1970s dub poetry, rapso—and of course rap and hip-hop, African-American popular music forms whose decline of musicality and dominance of lyricism, along with a cleverness of rhythmic and lyrical form, signal a breathtaking rise in popular literacy and social expression among youth globally.

Our local movement’s most immediate influences may be the North American “slam” competitions on which Caribbean immigrants like Roger Bonair-Agard and Jamaican Staceyann Chin have left their signature; and its early machinery was a number of open mic frameworks—I’m aware of Gillian Moor’s Songshine, Skeeto Amos’s One Mic, and U.We Speak at the St. Augustine campus’s old undercroft.

Ask: Where calypso gone? And I answer: Here. Lament the barren monotony of the rented, headwrap-clutching calypso, the generational decline in soca lyrics from Maestro to Iwer and JW? I will show you a fascinating landscape of vocal fertility.

17796519_1154849241311420_5223315860352256273_nAnyone can strive to be a spoken word poet, too. School tours, intercol competitions, and support for tertiary campus activities at both UWI and USC, are providing incentive and infrastructure for this corner of imgainative productivity. These are organised, along with the National Poetry Slam, by the seven-year-old 2 Cents Movement, which has risen to an uneasy dominance of the scene, in collaboration with the Bocas festival and various international, corporate and state donors. The achievements of this youth organisation, an employer of eight, are impressive, whether by the yardstick of youth entrepreneurship, or of corporate social responsibility in the creative industries. Sadly, locally, that’s more cause for hate than celebration.

It’s not all sweetness and light, though. There are deep creative ruts in the movement and the national slam that are increasingly being called out. The final judges—every year a majority are expat and foreign writers visiting for Bocas, quite likely to miss key nuances—praised the 13 finalists’ bravery in engaging taboos, and their local inventiveness with form (cadences of speechband and robbertalk pop up delightfully from time to time). But the panel yearned for more complexity and experimentation with language, more discipline and chromatics in delivery (they said less shouting and running overtime), and less self-referential work.

IMG_5428.jpgC-IWMxaVYAARtKn.jpgThe two semifinals of the competition often see the most brilliant work, with many in the final unable to equal work that got them in. This year’s semis, Kyle Hernandez performed a consistently comedic piece, largely for its delightful self-consciousness that it was a customer service experience at a branch of the title sponsor; evoking his diabetic mother’s faith in his winning in the final wasn’t nearly enough. Others’ risk-taking was more complicated. One of the most stunning departures of this year’s competition was Brendon O’Brien’s use of the stage in both semis and finals to allege sexual predation and intimate partner violence by other performers. Another semis hit was last year’s tabanca-paean to newscaster Desha Rambhajan by Seth Sylvester, the eventual winner with another poem that seemed judged more for its autobiography than craft.

Yet truthtelling is a complicated factor in the competition. Nineteen-year-old Alexandra Stewart, second-place winner this year—the first in which women (both teenagers) took both top spots—ought to have placed before now. Her choice of contemplative work cuts against the masculine grain of blunt and witty syncopation in the genre, though some of her pieces have been so similar to seem formulaic. This final she pondered the weight of poetry, that it is not casually commissioned or without consequence. A poet opens more than her mouth. She imagined a girl who wanted a poem on rape, which is like an unfinished simile, and she wondered if the poem should say her or I.

Many of us have noted how sexuality and violence—along with family—have come to overwhelm the poets’ themes in recent years. As the judges applauded, this means men and women are exploring rape, homosexuality, domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, gun violence. On the one hand, evidence of the issues dominating the young participants’ lives presents a difficult responsibility for the 2 Cents managers in responding to jawdropping performances that present trauma as autobiography.

On the other hand, like other particular themes dominant in earlier years—absentee fathers, forceripe schoolgirls—the performers are equally often encoding stereotypes they imagine, rather than offering nuanced representations from their own experiences. Homosexuality is always tortured. Men enact women experiencing men’s violence. The work, often melodramatic and limited in empathy, constricts instead of expanding understanding of the issue.

IMG_6605-e1497736026686This year, Michael Logie opened the competiton sharing the deathwish of a death-row prisoner raped as a boy, who has killed a man over another gratuitous rape attempt. Like defending champion Sylvester’s tale of normalised sexual violence against women, he told an insistent story, with only an occasional illumination of poetry.

But not every story needs to be beautiful, O’Brien urged.

More on the other eight performances & the 2 Cents Movement next week.


In an expressive culture like ours, so firmly rooted in piercing oral irony and spontaneous joking—one that produces incredible, unpolished sensations like Rankin Kia Boss—it’s a shame our stage comedy hasn’t grown away from its old-school West Indian roots in physical comedy, where you can see the punchline coming at you from two miles away. T&T ought to have a booming stand-up comedy market, doing year-round what calypso does during Carnival. While Rachel Price has numerous peers on the street, she has virtually none on the stage.

img_6778-e1497735911414.jpgimg_6883-e1497735823257.jpgLast week I began exploring some of the roles of the First Citizens National Poetry Slam—beyond the stage, money, and 1,100-strong audience it provided this year for young poets. How it is helping build an impressive youth organization. And incidentally identifying, in performers’ misunderstandings or memory of trauma, critical areas for healing and cultural transformation in young people’s lives. A list of this year’s poems’ themes: murder, self-mutilation, rape, sexual predation, absent fathers—taken up by Marcus Millette—losing parents, lifethreatening illness, corruption, dysfunctional schooling—articulated by Emmanuel Villafana—and racism.

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One staple of the Slam is its straight-outta-Morvant MC duo—Vin Williams, halting and deadpan; and effusive, buck-and-gap-toothed Thaddy Boom. Some patrons have grown weary of their repartee, some of it well-worn—like the move where an impish Boom hugs up the married, straight-laced Vin on stage, and teases him about his comfort with his masculinity. Part of a consistent focus on audience feedback and self-evaluation, Slam patrons were asked to weigh in on the duo’s future. But I’m hungry for more spaces for humour like Vin and Boom’s. Even Slam competitors who choose to be playful tend to large, ROTFLOL-type punchlines over subtler wit. I welcome the reliable space the Slam provides the pair.

While dominated by young voices—some of the youngest of which emerged winners this year—the Slam still provides space for older performers. A few years ago Selwyn Wiltshire, around 80, made the semi-finals. Derron Sandy and Idrees Saleem, two veterans on the cusp of their thirties, who each bring with them screaming, female fan followings, were both in this year’s final.

img_6942-e1497735793481.jpgSandy’s semi-final work was a powerfully dark meditation by a “spare-parts” man hawking his products to the maimed citizens of a nation beset by violence—and rape. But neither poet’s final performance—of work that reflected pointedly on poetry and themselves, and self-consciously referenced the enhanced prizemoney—reached the standard of which he is capable. Indeed, Saleem drew a remark from the judges after throwing words at his competitors. Both are among the competitors who best use irony and play—and Saleem is, by most accounts, the most virtuosic performer on the spoken-word scene. But the Slam has, in general, seen little creative use of movement or the stage, with performers largely anchored safely to the mic. Saleem’s winning 2014 performance, in fact, was criticised by the losers for its reliance on choreography and sound.

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So it was refreshing to witness Camryn Bruno’s nod from the Slam judges this year largely celebrated. The 18-year-old Tobagonian highschooler’s winning offering was the one performance that—however simply–was in any way kinetic. Using familiar representations of the robotic motions and diction of a machine, she reflected on the pervasive numbers game that is life in a place with a code of conduct in corruption—from the way the national lotteries hypnotise the poor, to the hopelessly diminishing chances of landing an HDC house.

IMG_6987-e1497735773276.jpgAnother young woman, who most likely was placed at the other end of the rankings, wowed the audience perhaps as much. Despite “bussing” three times, D’Izraiel Billy was determined to get through—and recall every word of—a vocally complicated piece with both quiet puns and the classic alliterations of the genre in tumbling transitions from “Vetsin” to “vexing” to “vex thing.” The kindness of the Slam’s audiences when competitors collapse in this way is as striking as its contrast with the harshness of so much of what is being performed. Billy’s work was itself deeply troubling, and parts of her lyrics—as well her appearance in a red satin dress with chopsticks in her hair—enacted ethnic stereotypes of Chinese, even as it sought to complicate them.

IMG_5793Even when they showed their dexterity with the classic beats of the genre, all five of the women among the 13 finalists performed work that called you to lean in and listen. Deja Lewis and Shineque Saunders wrote work about disability and mental health, Saunders evoking childhood memories of faith practice. It is one of the ways in which faith seems to have found a new place in the Slam which—like a similar phase in calypso recently—once saw several students from IMG_6840-e1497735874247the Adventist University of the Southern Caribbean performing unpoetic tributes to God and faith. A semifinals cameo by last year’s champion Seth Sylvester, though lyrically weak, had a similar texture to Saunders’s.

“Honesty don’t win slams,” Saleem spat back at rival poet Brendon O’Brien, in what seemed on the surface a Sparrow-Melody picong duel, but represented a coded engagement with something far more serious. Idrees was impugning as corrupt the idea of making a powerful story appear truthful to win a competition.

But, in fact, doing that is precisely what making art is.

Next year, if no one asks me to judge, I’m competing.

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