By: Zachary Mann
I like spoken word poetry. I like the dimly lit atmosphere which reminds me of a smoky New York jazz cafe, I like the off-the-cuff interactions you have with people sitting next to you, I like the single incandescent spot light that shines upon the stage, and I like the wave of snaps the rise up after ever performance. Most importantly, I like being able to connect to the performers on a level unbeknownst to your day-to-day linguistic exchange.
Unfortunately, spoken word performances have not fared well this past year (as with every other communal event). However, this wouldn’t stop me from finding a fix for my love of the art. After a few google searches, I had found myself on colabyeg.ca, which hosts a monthly open mic over Zoom titled WORD*LAB.
Upon joining the Zoom call, I was met by hostess and spoken word poet Dwennimmen (aka Shima Robinson), author of the long-form free verse poetry anthology Horn.
She looked preoccupied with what I assumed to be her search for her inner Zen to begin her introductory speech. It could have been that the chat had caught her eye, which was just beginning to flare up with comments from both the audience and the open mic participants.
Comments at this point mostly consisted of outbursts of joy for another WORD*LAB, this installment’s featured guest, Daniel de Dios, or excited greetings between fellow poets.
“Wahoo’s”, “Hooray’s”, and “I’m so ready’s” filled the chat as the program began. It felt homely, like I was being received by a long-standing group of friends. This was echoed in Dwennimmen’s opening lines: “take pause and remember we live in a natural world,” reminding us to feel a connection both with our environment and the people living in it.
She continued her speech with a brief background of what WORD*LAB is. This monthy event, which began in light of the pandemic to help foster an online community centered around the works of both emerging and seasoned spoken-word artists, is a part of CO*LAB – a grassroots, arts-centered community venue located in Boyle Street Edmonton, Alberta. They offer a variety of rentable spaces including a performance venue, media room, studios, and several other niche facilities.
She introduced the open mic participants – Kali, Tabs, and Steve – and went on to give the first performance of the night, a poem called ‘Instrument.’
A steady stream of words flowed from the tip of her tongue as she relayed the poem; if one were to add a beat in the background it would almost sound like a rap. There were slip ups here and there, phrases bunched up in the mouth, but they hardly had an effect on the overall poem.
In fact, she met them whole heartedly, smiling whenever she found herself in the midst of a linguistic stumble. It made the poem feel endearingly idiosyncratic, like the poem was made to be heard just by us the audience.
Each succeeding performer had their own approach to spoken word poetry. Themes ranged from the trials experienced from growing up with an Indigenous background to the absurdity of modern life. The poets who spoke of confessions gave each word space to let it sink in, while the more energetic poets took to a higher tempo.
Some poets chose to speak directly about their theme, speaking about their daily life as a pernicious blight which slowly rots them away from the inside out or the importance of their cultural and ethnic background as cornerstones of their identity, while others decided on a more creative approach.
One poet that piqued my interest decided to impersonate a dog midway through his set, and as you might expect that portion consisted wholly of various barks. After each set, the crowd (unable to snap their physical fingers) commented an ecstatic *Snap! Snap! Snap!* to voice their praise for the poets.
The final poet of the night was Daniel de Dios, a Filipino-Canadian artist currently residing in Edmonton and this month’s featured performer. He opened with a brief remark on what it has been like for him to write during quarantine, and the difficulties that he has faced in finishing his works during the pandemic, a note which was touched upon many times throughout the evening.
“Do you know the value of oil?” he asks the crowd as he recites his poem ‘Riches of the Earth,’ which questions why we have come to collectively believe that the economy is more important than the health of the world we live on. His speech is articulate, which allows the audience to follow the poem’s story with ease.
Daniel pulls from a variety of topics for his performance, reciting both older poems which have been well practiced and newer poems which have not had as much time put into their reciting.
Much like the poets that came before him, there were minor stumbles in speech throughout his performance, forcing him to repeat phrases over again; but much like the other poets these were of no real concern to either himself or the audience who received Daniel with a flurry of *Snap! Snap! Snap!*’s in the comments.
I’m no spoken word artist – the thought of getting up on stage a reading my own poetry in front of a crowd I’ve never met terrifies me – but after seeing the COL*AB community receive each of the participants with such open arms, I may have found a place where I (or anyone else) would feel comfortable embarking on such a nerve-wracking endeavour.
Every performer, no matter their skill level, was provided with a space in which they could practice their craft without having to worry about minor mishaps affecting how the work was received.
For the latest WORD*LAB schedule, go to their Facebook page.