So I'm writing this from my hotel room at my 13th Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, a national poetry slam tournament celebrating spoken word and poetry competitions with nightly bouts and showcases and daytime performances/workshops. It's often the week I look forward to most on any given year, since it's provided me with such an energizing reunion of the many friends I've made coast to coast.
Rather than rap poetic about what makes CFSW so awesome in general, I wanted to take you all on a trip to the many festivals I've attended, and for each fest/year I'll note what stood out to me most. It might be related to the poetry on the stage or something off-stage, unrelated to the bouts or showcases. For those who haven't been to many CFSWs, this post will also provide some history and context on how spoken word has evolved over the year.
Let's begin where it all began...
CFSW, er, Wordlympics 2004 in Ottawa
Fun fact: CFSW was fist dubbed Wordlympics before those Olympics big-wigs got wind of our tournament and forced us to change the name before the fest headed to Vancouver, in light of the 2010 Olympics coming to B.C.
What is imprinted in my mind is a very special moment of comaraderie in 2004: On a Friday afternoon, poets were invited to do some guerilla poetry in Ottawa and at the Rideau Centre, a mall that wasn't too busy that day. Poets from all over were rocking poems in the mall and we defiinitely stood out from the tired-looking shoppers dragging their Zellers bags (yep, Zellers was around then). When Toronto poet Leviathan stood up on a food court table, things took a turn for the ugly: security guards claimed he was waving around his water bottle in a menacing way, and proceeded to forcibly place him on the ground, handcuffs and all. Police were called. He was charged with causing a disturbance, if memory serves me right. Thing is, he was doing a poem about water! Krikey. And oh yeah, he was the only black poet performing in the food court at the time. To quote David Delisca...suspicious!
What happened next was remarkable: When Leviathan got released from the clutches of those overzealous cops, he came back to the main venue to announce he got a $200 ticket. Immediately, and I mean IMMEDIATELY, our scene stepped up and everyone came up to Levi to give him whatever money we all had, from loonies to $10 bills. Within five minutes, he had the cash for this bogus and racist fine and I saw him get verklempt and start to tear up. And it was then, so early in CFSW's life, that I realized the points are truly not the point...the poets are the point.
CFSW 2005 in Vancouver
There was one performance everyone who went to CFSW '05 will never forget: the late poet Steve Sauve, repping Ottawa, debuted to the national scene his piece "Heart" about his near-death experience and living every day to its fullest. When Steve left us in 2009, it's that poem that I always associate with Steve, and it's that poem that resonates big when I think of those early years of CFSW. Forget the scores he got; we all stood up and applauded the potency of his words, the conviction of his voice. It was just...wow.
CFSW 2006 in Toronto
I have a personal link to tihs festival of course, since this was the first time I and my Toronto Poetry Slam crew organized a national fest. A huge learning curve, sure, but it really was a magical experience. It was also the first time I collaborated with the godfather of spoken word in Toronto, Dwayne Morgan, and I think we did a kickass job in making the fest run so smoothly. What really struck me as holy-spit was seeing our Poets of Honour on the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts stage: Shane Koyczan and Lillian Allen. Yeah, they're kind of a big deal. Both of these gurus have inspired countless poets then and thereafter, and being able to see such powerhouse voices displaying their talents was truly unlike anything I had witnessed live.
CFSW 2007 in Halifax
The Word Iz Bond crew pulled off a slick festival, with some innovative additions to the daytime programming such as a poetry challenge combining spoken word artists, musicians and visual art on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. But what really stuck with me was the afterparty dance funnery. I believe it was the first time we had such a dance-heavy afterparty, and to see Eddy da Original One cuttin it up next to Krystle Mullin next to Tomy Bewick next to Shauntay Grant next to Iz...that's a different side of community that comes out when the lights dim and the bass gets pumpin. The competition is long forgotten. What matters is the sweat of dancing, the high-fives, the hugs, the feeling of "Oh fuck, I don't want this festival to end just yet!"
CFSW Calgary in 2008
Calgary saw a lot of firsts for CFSW: the first time Lanark County competed at the tournament, the first time a Last Chance Team had to be formed. But in my mind, I saw another first, although it was slowly dripping into the fest: strongly-written and performed humour pieces. I'm thinking of Up from the Roots' team piece about two sperm cells battling it out, courtesy Tomy Bewick and Dwayne Morgan. I also remember great pieces from Halifax, TPS, Victoria. And I think some of the most memorable poems to me are ones that expertly blend humour with politics, a rare feat for even the most seasoned poetry teams.
CFSW Victoria in 2009
Another legend of spoken word left this mortal coil a few years ago, and in 2009 I was introduced to him in all his poetic glory: Zaccheus Jackson made the last-chance team with Truth Is, Magpie Ulysses and Made Wade, and it remains to me one of the most fun wild-card teams ever formed at CFSW. They all had such range in their voices and styles, and you can tell they got along so well as friends...the positivity just shone from their presence on and off stage. Zac especially moved me with several of his poems, and I'm honoured to have known him for as long as I did. RIP, buddy.
Also: CFSW '09 will always be the Year of the Recipe. Team pieces always elevated champ teams above others, but there was something special about this team of Ian, Komi, Ikenna, Brandon and Rusty. The team pieces were next-level sharp and on-point, in both the writing and execution. I hosted Finals night so I can say with confidence the energy on stage after their team poems was thunderous. Unreal. And it's been dope to see how each of these artists have progressed since the Recipe was formed in '10.
CFSW Ottawa in 2010
For slam nerds like me, it's been interesting to see cities make runs over a few years, like Vancouver winning 3 in a row to begin the CFSW era of spoken word. In 09 and 10 it was all about Ottawa, with poets like Ian Keteku, Prufrock, Chris Tse and many more turning heads across the country. CFSW '10 gave us one heckuva championship team as Ottawa took home win #2 in as many years: Prufrock, Chris Tse, John Akpata, Ikenna and Brandon Wint. I've seen how those amazing poets, including the big voices coming out of UL, influenced many voices just starting out in the Cap Slam or UL scenes.
CFSW Toronto in 2011
When I was at the U.S. National Poetry Slam in Boston in Aug. '11 my buddy Lishai Peel joined the TPS Team there, and we checked out their Underground Indies competition. Soon after that late-night event, Lishai turned to me and said, "We have to do this in Canada. And I'll run it." And so she did, and Undies was born in at CFSW Toronto, at the back-alley venue Cinecyle. You could tell the poets were jonesing for this type of event: poems performed without scorecards but applause, no mic no sound system, just raw words and $1000 on the line. Respect to Lishai for taking on Undies that year and creating the backbone for an annual tradition unlike anything else at CFSW.
CFSW Saskatoon in 2012
I've spoken a lot about the poets and poetry in the above CFSWs, but rest assured this one will be dedicated to some bricks n' mortar love: first, the hotel chosen by Charles Hamilton and co. was truly standout, thanks to the water-slides (!) in the hotel pool. I think I spent more time on those water slides than I did as a kid hittin up Wild Water Kingdom. Then there was the venue Lydia's, now closed alas, that proved how poetry venues can make or break a tournament. To have two floors of prelims going down at the same time made everything easier for both poets and the audience. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I felt like this CFSW went off without a hitch, with everything running clear and bright, all 10s, no splash.
CFSW Montreal in 2013
This CFSW remains a close one to my heart for one main self-serving reason: it was the first time TPS won CFSW. And a first on other levels: it was the first win for coach Ian Keteku, and the first win for long-time TPS Team member David Delisca. I know how hard all the poets worked, and I was on perma smile all month afterward as the kudos kept coming for the winning poets David, Optimus Rhyme, IF, Kliggy and Philosofly.
CFSW Victoria in 2014
From the amazing poets of honour Moe Clark and Ikenna to the invigorating workshops to U.S. poets like Regie Cabico bringing their good vibes to the fest as performers, CFSW Victoria had it all. What I noticed, though, and which I haven't mentioned previously, is how lovely rehearsal spaces can be in the right city. The TPS Team rehearsed many times around the coastal areas of Victoria, with sparkling water as our backdrop. I encourage all poetry teams to get out of your hotel rooms and practice your pieces outside, weather permitting. A different kind of energy invigorates poets when they are outside, allowing the public to see (and sometimes comment) on the poems that will soon be in front of hundreds of people's eyes. Just watch out for those barking dogs interrupting a key line.
CFSW Saskatoon in 2015
The only CFSW I've missed! So I can't say much about this one but I did appreciate the livestreaming of Finals, something I'd love to see happen at every CFSW. But as a former AD, I know how many balls the organizing committee is juggling and how difficult it might be to get videography from the back-burner to the front-burner.
CFSW Winnipeg in 2016
This festival had many many new voices, especially younger voices, which is something I always dig seeing. But what really stood out to me was the first time our community has ever played some basketball! Thanks to Brad and Holly, we all got together one afternoon at the YMCA and balled hard...so hard, some of us got fouled like we were in an NBA Finals Game 7. Balling together also brought us together as a national scene, something I've seen in the U.S. when they play softball at their annual NPS. Let's hope we can get this to be an annual tradition!
I've shared my memorable moments of CFSWs through the year...what are yours? Comment below or let me know on Twitter via @SilverbergDave
About David's Blog
I write about journalism, freelancing, the arts, Toronto, technology, sports and why egg nog is under-rated.