By Dylan Freeman-Grist
Twice a month in the basement of the Drake Hotel, participants in the Toronto Poetry Slam gather to duke it out on stage.
A poetry slam is a combative performance that stitches together various poets; all vying to outdo their opponents by presenting the best spoken-word pieces — that is, poetry intended to be heard from a stage as opposed to simply read.
The competition is the most regular adult slam in the downtown core and is hosted by the Toronto Poetry Project, an organization founded in part by Ryerson journalism grad David Silverberg.
Silverberg, who managed a slam in North York before making the move into the downtown area, was inspired by the popularity of the spoken word scene which started in Chicago in the 1980s before going viral. In deciding it was time for a regular slam in Canada’s biggest city, he took his cue from already-bustling scenes in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal.
“I got thinking that a poetry slam would be useful in a city that is so diverse and as culturally expansive as this,” said Silverberg.
Although there are a handful of slams in Toronto, none are as frequent or as packed as the Toronto Poetry Slam which routinely crams the Drake Hotel’s underground lounge on Queen Street West with 80 to 190 people.
At the slam, poets take turns performing their pieces on stage. Each poem is expected to run around three minutes before it is judged by three randomly-selected audience members on a scale of one to 10. In order to win the top prize — $80 and a ticket to the Toronto Poetry Slam finals, where the best of the best duke it out to make the Slam’s team for nationals — poets must survive three rounds.
“It’s honest expression,” said Silverberg. “You don’t have distractions of music or theatrical trappings behind you.”
Silverberg, who has always had a love of creative writing, came to develop his appreciation of poetry due to his time in Ryerson’s journalism program.
“Poetry was the ideal art form for me in journalism school,” said Silverberg “I was just so taxed and fatigued by all the writing I was doing during the day that I didn’t have strength to do full length novels or even short stories when I got home in the evening.”
Currently the artistic director of the Toronto Poetry Project, Silverberg is responsible for planning the direction of the slam, coordinating volunteers, booking professional poets to perform and securing grant funding to keep the non-profit organization in operation.
However, he also finds time to host the slams and perform his own poetry. In early October, he competed in the Toronto Poetry Project’s Haiku Death Match, a spinoff event hosted at Supermarket in Kensington Market, where he made it to the finals.
“I think what I like about performing poetry in addition to writing it is that it’s very honest,” noted Silverberg. “You can connect with people in a way that other art forms might not allow you to.”
The next slam will be hosted on Nov. 22 at the Drake Hotel underground. Tickets are five dollars and are available at the door which opens at 7:30pm.