I tried to tally the total amount of shows I've hosted since I began taking the stage in this capacity around 20 years ago, when I first brought Suburban Spoken Word to North York. It has to be in the 200s, garnished by my MC duties at weddings, workshops, tech conference panel discussions at the Future of Media, etc.
Due to my retirement from Toronto Poetry Slam this month, I wanted to take a moment to offer advice to anyone who wants to try this whole hosting thing, or wants to polish their on-stage skills if they're already on the mic (and not just at poetry slams but comedy shows, conferences, benefits, etc.).
Below are some tips I'd recommend following, and if you have any questions about any of the advice below, contact me anytime.
Getting on stage as a performer is one thing; taking the mic as a host is another platform altogether, one that many in the audience take for granted. It might seem simple to host an event, but in reality you need to recognize the many ways you can make a show sparkle with your personality and banter chops.
Listen. I know going into the Continental guns a-blazing I had a very good chance of getting instantly murdered by John Wick. He's barely broken a sweat in the past 200 kills. And yeah, we're the kind of gang that knows what we're up against but, unlike many of my sad-sack mates, I was brimming with confidence when I crept into that basement pool area, scope out, focus on-point, ready to take down this dude who's been easily plowing through us with this gun-ninja shit.
I mean, can he just maim us instead of straight-blasting our brains? I thought he was going to spare Jordan, Kill #89 but badass Baba Yaga wanted a perfect kill count, doesn't he? What a dick.
So here I am with protective vests and one heckuva helmet to shield me from any of his bullets, but of course John Wick throws me into a pool so he can show off another cool slaying. As if shooting my buddies while hanging off a horse careening through NYC wasn't brazen enough!
I'm heading to the pool area when I hear a flurry of shots - of course - and the grunts of my guys going down super quick. Almost too quick. So when I see Wick fighting with Derrick, or was it Teddy, damn, everyone looks the same under that boring body armour. I jump into this weirdo fighting us in a black suit with his tie cinched to his neck like he's about to hit up a book launch on the Upper West Side.
Within a second, Wick shoots me twice in the stomach, but he knows I have that armour on so he throws me in the pool. Alrighty, I got a chance here! Some separation between me and Wick underwater means we're almost on equal footing and so I blast him a couple times but he dodges the bullets blazing super slow in the pool, for some dumb ass reason. Almost...Matrix-like, dare I say.
Thing is, I had a chance here!
But maybe that's what Jordan or Derrick or Teddy thought too.
As he does with every one of us lackeys, Wick grabs me by the neck, pulls up my helmet so he can press his muzzle against the back of my head and KABLAM! just like that I'm John Wick Kill #276 out of 299, just another notch on a belt that this bastard somehow uses to also fuck up trained assassins.
This guy could kill you with a ketchup packet and fingernail clippings.
A plume of blood clouding the pool and I'm just an afterthought. Nine second of airtime. That's all I got.
But at least I was the Pool Kill. The Guy John Wick Killed In Such a Cool Way in the Hotel Pool. Or so I saw on reddit. Not even an IMDB credit though. Man, it's hard out here for a John Wick corpse.
If there's any outdated, overplayed, under-whelming, uber-awkward and unnecessarily aggressive segment in live sports, it's the Kiss Cam. Why it still endures to entertain crowds at NBA, NFL and other games is beyond me. Call me an outsider, but I was never entertained by a shtick urging a couple to kiss on camera.
Frankly, it sucks. And I'm not talking about the sloppy kisses some guys lay on their girlfriends or wives.
The Kiss Cam doesn't do it for me as a respite from the in-game action. I'd rather have T-shirts blasted into my face from a makeshift cannon.
Watching forced kissing is oh so painful to watch at times too, when a couple refuses to kiss for...whatever reason. They don't have to tell us why they don't want to smooch in front of thousands of strangers. Maybe the Raptors game is their couples therapy. Or, dare I say it, the two affectionate people on camera aren't lovers but siblings or good friends and KISSING IS THE LAST THING THEY WANT TO DO.
I know what you're thinking. Killjoy Dave, out to PC-ify another entrenched bastion of fun and playfulness designed to be harmless entertainment.
Sure, it's supposed to be fun to watch but it really isn't, when you compare the Kiss Cam to dancing toddlers, air-guitar-playing seniors, karaoke-loving super-fans. I think the Kiss Cam remains a key cog in the routine of in-game segments because it always has been, much like that halftime show starring a woman who can balance cups and dishes on her head until she resembles the Leaning Tower of Fine China.
But just because something has always been a tradition doesn't mean it should continue without question. The Kiss Cam had its moment in the spotlight, for whatever reason, but it's time for the brains behind sports teams and stadiums to get with the times and stop turning to a bit that has overstayed its welcome.
All arena producers and marketers should come up with original and refreshing interludes that are still enjoyable to watch but don't push people to do something they may not want to do, extending that uncomfortable feeling onto an audience.
Do all fans really get a kick out of seeing consensual boundaries get torn down by a nosy camera and an announcer insistently yelling "Kiss kiss kiss!"? I sure don't, and I doubt I'm alone.
When I was a kid, I had no intention of stepping foot back into the classroom as a teacher, even on an ad hoc basis. But that's exactly what I did in the past 10 years, developing myself both as a poet and an educator by visiting classrooms to teach classes about spoken word poetry.
That's not the only angle in my life jutting out from a path I always thought I'd go down: journalist, event organizer, host, sometimes social media manager. But isn't that the fun thing about life? You juke when you thought you just needed to sprint. You smell something new in the air when you try to develop yourself, whether spiritually, intellectually or artistically.
In the '10s, I wanted to dip my toes into theatre. I had a lot of performing spoken word on stage, but something was missing. That longform style of storytelling spoke to me as a journalist, and its appeal began to shine on me when I thought of how I need to stop writing for a stopwatch (slam poets, where you at?!) and give oxygen to a deeper segment of my life. And that piece of me I rarely showed the world was my relationship to Judaism.
Thankfully, writing and performing my solo show Jewnique was enriching for both me and audiences. I still can't believe I've memorized a 60-minute show. I had a blast bringing this "performance journalism" show to life, so much so I know I'm going to be digging deeper into which other stories I can tell in a solo show.
Another risk I took was trying to write poetry with a flavour somewhat new to my pen, er, Macbook: sci-fi poetry. Or spec poetry, depending which era you were born in. Kelp Queen Press asked for a poetry collection where I could weave in sci-fi, horror and fantastical themes, which was one heckuva challenge. Sure, I love me my Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison and Salman Rushdie-esque magic realism, but to write an entire 30-poem book of that stuff?
Sure. Why the hell not?
For my book, As Close to the Edge Without Going Over, to receive the reception it got, to inspire my friends and family to support my first collection...I was verklempt, as my people say. Overjoyed to the point of welled tears. I don't often feel my work in my hands in print, since my journalism usually lives online instead of in mags and newspapers, and surely this nicely-bound book was a sign of the trust I had in myself. The trust to stretch my imagination. To develop range in a craft I truly never thought would be so entwined in my everyday.
Which brings me to a braid that I will soon be unbraiding, a risk I'm taking since, well, it's so new for me to step down from this lifelong hobby. In 2020, I'm stepping down as artistic director of Toronto Poetry Slam, which I founded 14 years ago. A review of how the past decade has affected would be riddled with holes if I didn't be straight up with how the show I founded has inspired me immensely. From the talent on stage who shared such a big piece of themselves with us every slam at the Drake to the fellow organizers at Toronto Poetry Project making this slam what it is, I am never going to take for granted the role the slam scene has had in opening my eyes to the beauty inside this beautiful community.
Part of the vision of building Toronto Poetry Slam to where it is today included the passing of the guard. You always want to say goodbye to a role like producer and host when you're not sick of the scene, when you're still enjoying your time at the show and with the volunteers and fellow organizers. So I know I'm leaving at the right time, when TPS is still on top in many ways, when the love for our shows at the Drake (and our workshops) is at an impressive high.
Also, I've never known an adult year of my life NOT running poetry shows. Ride-or-die friends will remember my Suburban Spoken Word series in Thornhill where it all began, where I got the bug to curate poetry shows, no matter if 10 or 150 people showed up. So yeah, it'll be a nice departure from a norm I've experienced non-stop for 20 years. Change can be good for the soul.
My last slam as artistic director and member of TPP will be at our Finals on February 22 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and if there's any place that makes me feel at home it's with 600 folks looking forward to hearing poetry on a Saturday night. God, that sounds as cheesy as deep-dish when I write that, but it's true. The lovers of words, the finger-snapping fans of open-heart poetry, these are my people, no matter what my position is in the community.
I've grown so much by taking these risks as an artistic poet and writer and organizer. I've learned about when to submerge myself in a project, and when to say no (like that time I left a podcast project I knew was going to soak up too much of my time). I leaned into trusting my instincts, despite the nagging chirps of disapproval buzzing into my ear. I tried out initiatives I simply wanted to see exist, even if I had no prior training to bring these ideas to life, like my Pitch Like a Pro journalism workshops on how to make it as a freelance writer. I found the courage to look more introspectively into what I want to be as a creative person, even if I thought that answer was always "poetry and creative nonfiction", like a fortune cookie that just spoke the same refrain every meal.
Looking into a new year, a new decade, I feel an energy I haven't felt for awhile. Maybe it's due to the many more outlets at my disposal, like how I've been thinking about a new idea for a solo show, or how this movie script idea has been tugging at my attention more than I thought, and I could see some new platforms attracted me to give them a whirl in the coming year. After all, staying static is boring. It's why it puts us to sleep.
The way sunlight slants into my favourite coffee shop at 9am
That satisfying sound of snow crunching under boots
Savouring that first piece of cheesecake after a two-year hiatus
Writing one of those haikus I know is a banger
Coming across, in a novel or non-fiction essay, le mot juste, that perfect word or phrase, that just pleases a part of me that I didn’t know could be satisfied with such a poignant sentence.
Reveling in a today-I-learned lesson gleaned from a yummy podcast.
Getting a freelance pitch accepted by an editor I’ve never worked with before. (Hello, Popular Mechanics!)
Learning a power chord on guitar.
Finding that sentimental lighter under your couch cushions.
Hearing my niece tell a story despite how rambling and nonsensical it is. I could listen to hear share her favourite ads in the Yellow Pages and I’d be all smiles.
Beholding an Albertan mountain range that propels you into a state of awe you’ve been craving for decades.
Rewatching a Monty Python skit that reminds me of my father.
Being on stage, beholding an audience of 150 there to enjoy a show I helped launch, realizing they wouldn’t be enjoying this art on stage if it weren’t for you and your friends running events for fun, for the love of it all.
No, I've never shot up coke or stolen baskets of food from grocery stores or stage-dove at punk rock shows or even picked up a bass for fun. But I can still relate to Flea's new memoir Acid for the Children chronicling the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist from his childhood home in Australia to his teen life in California to finding a kindred spirit in Anthony Kiedis.
Why? It's not just that I'm a zealous RHCP fan ("Blood Sugar" is the best album and I will fight you on this) but many moments in Flea's coming-of-age story spoke to me, even though I never thought I had much in common with this wildly talented musician and actor....other than our unwavering line for the funkiest of grooves.
In his breezy writing style, Flea writes about being an outsider by way of his introverted behaviour, preferring books over partying. Facing a tumultuous childhood, Flea disappeared into books by authors such as Tolkien and Vonnegut. "While reading, all my confusion and hurt dissolved, and when I reentered reality, I was a little bit better of a person, a little bit more capable of learning from y missteps."
Hells to the yeah! When you're bookcore, that kind of sentiment resonates with you.
While I might not be in touch with heavy drug drug culture that Flea eventually found himself in, I could see myself in how he described friendship, extending upon a belief I've long had about the value of strong social connections: "Friends weren't just friends for me. For kids from stable loving homes, a true friend is a beautiful thing and part of an extended family. But for someone like me - and it's no coincidence that all the kids I became close to also hailed form broken homes - a friend introduced the possibility of true family."
When Flea met Anthony Kiedis, the singer for RHCP, in Fairfax High School, he found a kindred spirit, and the way Flea describes the bond is something out of a dreamy poem: "...when he started writing lyrics over my bass lines his artistry gave me new life. My heart grew a couple of sizes. The color of his words, the sharp sound of the syllables cracking together. Both his lyrics and my bass lines pulsed together, same as the heartbeat of our friendship."
Flea also found salvation in playing and watching basketball, another pastime I turn to more than most. He writes how the flow and rhythm and just even the boxscore of the games gave him comfort and stability during a childhood bristling with an alcoholic father and an indifferent mother. And he worked on his jumpshot relentlessly, instilling discipline in the young musician that would eventually lead to the same kind of craftsmanship he brought to his bass and trumpet lines.
There's lyricism within so many passages of this memoir, too many to cite, and it's refreshing to see Flea's voice come through as he recollects those highs and lows of growing up in L.A. What my main issue with Kiedis's Scar Tissue was how it felt like he wrote with someone else who helped massage the grammar and sentence structure. But in a musician's memoir, I'm not looking for crisp non-fiction; I'm looking for personality to come through the pages, even if the writing is a bit rougher than what I'm used to.
For those who know Flea, he's eons away from the kid he used to be, in part due to healthy clean-eating habits that has him going completely sober and opting for a more spiritual path of yoga and meditation. It's encouraging to see someone so deep in smack and non-stop joint smoking to suddenly pull himself out of that hole to find the light in music and touring and romance.
Acid for the Children is a breezy read, even if you want to linger over some moments that has you reflecting on something similar that mirrors your upbringing. What I should warn RHCP fans, though, is that the book focuses on Flea's childhood and not the formation of RHCP. You'll learn about his formative years playing the bands Anthym and FEAR but don't expect a lot of stories about the early RHCP days (which may come in a teased volume 2, but I wouldn't bet on it. This memoir was delayed by a year due to the band's non-stop touring sched).
Also, you don't even need to be a huge RHCP fan to get into Flea's memoir. His colourful anecdotes and real-talk views on what music meant to him is enough to engage anyone with a passing interest in what turns on certain people into music fans. Because, as many musicians can attest, Flea began as a music aficionado first and a bassist second, much like how I was a longtime reader before I picked up the pen.
He says, “Fair enough.”
I cry, “Those words mean nothing!”
He says, “Fair enough.”
Oprah Winfrey weds
Deepak Chopra, just for laughs
She’s Oprah Choprah
We watch the night sky
Fingers laced, moon a sliver
The slightest of smiles
We meet on Tinder
Date. Selfie on Instagram
Live-tweet our breakup
That dog's sneer directed at tomatoes is something I can relate to, as an eater who has long hated standalone tomatoes by themselves, in salads, on pizza. I remember first telling friends about this hatorade I was sipping and most of my friends couldn't wrap their heads around this dislike of their fave veggie. Especially my Italian friends.
But that's the thing about taste. It's difficult for us to conceive that what we adore and find oh so flavourful could be someone else's mouth-swamp. While I notice this happens a lot with food, this imbalance in taste acceptance also targets music, film, mode of transportation and even place-of-residence preferences.
For example, a colleague once told me he couldn't understand why I live downtown. "The chaos, the smell, all those people!" he opined quite unconvincingly. I told him I thought the same about those who live in the burbs, but the issues I highlighted were boredom, lack of arts venues, cookie-cutter neighbourhoods, a disconnect with your community, auto culture and so on. He scoffed and said he much prefers that to the dirtiness of downtown living.
Someone's been watching too many movies.
Here's the rub: I was doing the same thing I detested other people do. Judging where someone lives is foolish, because they like what they like, you like what you like and it's as simple as that. Some folks feel more comfortable in completely different settings than you do, so why speculate aloud their motivations or criticize them for preferences far from your own?
I think I know why. We like to "other" people, even if they are our friends. Maybe it makes us feel more comfortable in our own routine. My friends who love tomatoes couldn't understand why I hate them, so they wanted to make sure I was "other" to them, someone who chose to leap outside the circle of normal and acceptance.
The next time you hear about a preference or distaste that isn't in line with your own character, don't be so quick to dismiss them and wonder in faux awe how they came to this mind-bending conclusion. You'll be better off recognizing that taste is just one of the many stars in a person's solar system.
I have a confession that very few close friends would dispute: I'm obsessed with all things Raptors. I got it bad. I have a problem. From my Raptors-logo'd coffee table to my Raptors socks to the framed Sports Illustrated mag cover on my living room, Canada's NBA team has delightfully invaded many corners of my life, filling up the gaps in between with basketball ephemera I never thought I'd hoard.
I'll tumble stats into my brain like I'm shotgunning a beer at 19. I'll download podcasts on all things ball as if I were studying for midterms on the free agency class of 2020. And, most recently, I've been devouring highlights of the Raptors' remarkable playoff run and championship.
See, when I want to turn my work-brain off, I often sidle up to sports and let the game's true reality-TV drama compel my eyes to never turn away from the on-court action. What makes this summer different is how I couldn't stop watching the YouTube videos breaking down how the box-and-one stymied Steph Curry in the Finals, the top 10 Kyle Lowry plays of the playoffs, Kawhi's defensive pounding on Giannis versus the Bucks, and so on.
Whenever I got down about a family member being stricken with bad health, or I felt that tinge of blargh after a grey and rainy day, I just queued up any highlights package video featuring my Raps going ham against the Magic or Sixers or Bucks or Warriors. It instantly creases my face into a smile. I might've seen that same video four days ago, but it strangely feels fresh each time, making my pulse race as Lowry gets the steal, lobs to Siakam on the transition and SLAM! and I pump my fists with Mark Devlin's enthusiastic play-calling.
Maybe I'm finding immense joy in these non-stop sports loops thanks to wishing for that championship run since I started watching the squad 20 years ago. Maybe I'm in awe of athletic excellence, and since I know Lowry and company best out of any sports team, I can identify exactly how, say, FVV stepped up his D in the Finals, or how Ibaka loves to use his off arm to clear some space to snag a rebound, reminding me how he once told reporters he didn't understand why rebounders complained about his aggression down low. So yeah, I got a problem.
I say that tongue-in-cheek though because deep in my heartiest of hearts, I know my Raps obsession isn't as much as a problem as it is a pastime to entertain me after a long day of intense work at the ol' journalism factory. My kind of job requires more mental labour than physical labour, so it's relaxing to unwind my often-bustling head with the big plays I remember rooting for live, clapping high-fives to whoever was nearby.
As the season begins tonight with the Raps facing the Pels, I'm reminded of that sports poem I wrote where I complain about watching too much TV blaring Raps or NFL games, wondering where I could've spent those hundreds of hours I devote to being a living room quarterback. But to watch the Raps go from underdog to world champs, well, that run was worth the eyes attached to the screen to find out if my guys would finally ascend to the highest peak in the league. Because who knows when this will happen again. And I'm in the business of seeing things through to the end, and I never wanted to quit on a team I knew would make all Raptors fan so damn happy in the end.
David Mitchell's Slade House!
This 2016 book scared the spit out of me, once the ghost story got going a third of the way in. And let me add, I don't get scared easy by novels, since I'm such a voracious horror fan and have been somewhat desensitized to the usual fright tricks authors throw into their books.
But there was something about how Mithcell described the haunted house at the core of this book, I still think about it today, a year after finishing the book.
This from the guy who wrote Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, two relatively harmless books that weren't tinged with horror at all, but still showed off Mitchell's chops at writing compelling characters and engaging action. When someone asks me a horror novel to recommend to them, I go with Slade House. Stephen King, you had a good run.
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