By Karon Liu
L’EVIATHAN stands on the dimly lit platform staring at the crowd that’s waiting for him to begin.
Everyone is silent, save the occasional cheers from the fans at the back. He lets out a chuckle but then closes his eyes to concentrate on his technique and training since, after all, there is a half-point deduction for going overtime in this competition with a cash prize for the victor.
With one deep breath, he takes a step forward and gets into his rhythm, going faster and louder as his arms flail to the invisible beat, his gold pendant swaying against his navy blue hoodie and his boots shuffling to his rhyming words: “Don’t be stuck on Stupid like you’re stuck on the map,” he raps. “If he calls you a chicken and you respond by clucking, then you might just get a mouthful of the CLAP. You’re gonna get CLAP. You’re gonna get CLAP.”
The audience roars in applause, making the wooden floorboards tremble with a hundred pairs of stomping feet. With a score of 28.7, the local hip-hop artist has the highest score in the first round of the Toronto Poetry Slam.
But this isn’t the poetry that everyone fell asleep to in high school. This is slam poetry, which emerged in the mid ’90s and usually sounds like an a cappella hip-hop song. The Toronto program is the brainchild of David Silverberg, 25, who graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in 2002. Poets perform their pieces and are judged on a scale of one to 10 by five randomly selected members of the audience.
Like the Olympics, the highest and lowest scores are discounted to ensure accuracy. Each poem must be less than three minutes long or points are deducted. Twelve competitors sign up for the first round and the top six move on to the second round. Then it’s down to three in the final round. Held at the Cervejaria bar on College and Ossington on Saturday night, about 80 twenty- and thirty-somethings cram themselves into the back of the small, dark bar with a Mexican village motif.
Before performing, the young poets flip through their notebooks by candlelight like students cramming minutes before an exam. But this isn’t a monotone literary reading at a quiet coffee bar occupied by beret-bearing beatniks. Since props are forbidden, performers are encouraged to incorporate movement, beat-boxing and anything else that enhances their moment in the spotlight. Similarly, audiences laugh, shout and stomp in response — as well as boo the judges if the scores aren’t to their liking.
“You’ve got to be comfortable being rated. But competition is secondary to the free flow. Realize it’s just a game that lasts one night,” says Silverberg, who also acts as the MC for the evening. “Toronto is ready for slam. We have a very good community of poets and writers. Henry Rollins did it with sold out crowds and I don’t see why ordinary people can’t do the same. “There are no celebrities; it’s an even playing field. You can be good one month and bad in another — you’re not judged on reputation.”
Though guest poet Kevin Matthews, 33, comes all the way from Ottawa, participates in slams across the country and has fans praising him throughout the night, he still stresses the significance of poetry slams on a local level. “It gets back to something that’s ancient and hasn’t changed. It’s not enough to get my culture from TV and record stores,” says Matthews. “It’s important to get my culture from the people I’m around everyday and to take shape of your culture.”
His rhythm and rhymes roll off his tongue and into the microphone as he compares sex with the colours of the rainbow in “The Love Song of Roy G Brv.” “Indigo. Oh, in we go. Painfully slow and just, so, indigo,” rhymes Matthews. “Jazz licks drumsticks body be-bop soft-shoe trick. Collarbone solo vibrate lips, kisses riff down epidermis. Thermal hermeneutics, fingering fret-board, up and down neck. Had to take five like Brubeck.”
Lisa Allison, who came with a friend to cheer on L’EVIATHAN, says the concept of slam is different everywhere she goes. “This is the first slam of this kind that I’ve been to. I’ve been to some black slams where they mostly talked about black issues like racism but here they talk about everything from the environment to native issues,” says Allison.
Topics range from racism told from a racist’s point of view, the timeline of a one-night stand from the stages of courtship to regret, and even to the everyday struggles of Aboriginals. After two rounds, the 12 competitors are reduced to the final three. As L’EVIATHAN takes one step back for the final time of the night, he begins “Survival H20 1.0.” “Who so ever controls the water controls the world. That’s why when it comes to our water supply you can wear hydro-clear contact lens and we would still be water-colour blind.”
He builds up speed as the audience clamours at his ode to the world’s water supply. When he ends with the ironic words, “I need a drink,” sounds of palms clapping faster than a hummingbird’s wings fill the room. He receives a 29.7 out of a possible 30 and is awarded the cash prize of $60.
So what exactly will L’EVIATHAN do with his newfound wealth? Purchase some new pens to scribble his thoughts with? Buy notebooks as his friend Lisa suggested? “It’s going towards my phonebill,” he says with a laugh.