(This is the travel blog from my North American Poetry Tour (really just the northeast bit). I’m doing features and trying out slams and meeting organisers, finding ideas for Scottish spoken word and for touring. I hope you’ll follow along and share, and ask questions! If you’ve got ideas of things you want me to find out, tell me and I’ll chase it down.)
I took a day off from gigging to meet with organisers and spoken word artists from Toronto, to speak more in depth about the scenes in the city and nearby, and about what’s difficult and what’s brilliant in organising spoken word. I was really lucky to get some time with spoken word impressario and lynchpin of the community Dwayne Morgan, and equally delighted to be given a tour around Toronto’s LGBT+Village and arts scene by Dianne Moore and Philip Cairns, formerly of The Beautiful and the Damned.
The Beautiful and the Damned was to be my last stop on the tour, but sadly the event series folded back in July. It ran for over three years in venues across The Village, Toronto’s LGBT quarter, finishing up at Glad Day Bookshop, a glorious room of teetering piles of queer literature with an event space upstairs. Although it was sad to see the event go, in my experience it’s often just part of the life-cycle of spoken word: volunteer-run events tend to run for about 3-4 years before the groups behind them disperse, giving them time to try out new things — often really amazing things happen afterwards. Philip and Diane, who I spoke to about the queer arts scene in Toronto, agreed: it was going to give everyone energy to do new things.
I also think it’s worth talking about why events series end and why organisers often need to move on. That’s especially true of events for minority communities — ones that are working to create safe and supportive spaces for speaking out — because our organisers tend to be more vulnerable and our spaces more precarious. Even somewhere with as much support for LGBT events as The Village, it can be hard to find event spaces which are supportive, reliable and physically accessible — especially when, as with the Lower East Side in New York, those areas are gentrifying. Even somewhere with a lively arts scene and a close-knit community, events often depend on lynchpin organisers, and without funding it can be really difficult to maintain the energy for more than a few years. I firmly believe that events and venues for minority groups need focussed and prioritised funding from public bodies to help counter these issues. They also need audience support! So go out and support your local night
In Edinburgh, our two queer-focussed events are both occasional rather than monthly: Cachín Cachán Cachunga! and OUT:SPOKEN. I think this might help maintain events and audiences in the long-term, especially when funding’s hard to come by: it avoids draining our organisers, and means each edition is a special event that audiences are keen to go to. What’s happening elsewhere in Scotland? Let me know in the comments.
There’s still loads of stuff happening in The Village. Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir hosts spoken word regularly in its programme; the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre hosts performance; and Diane and Philip also took me round the 519, a brilliant community centre and event space that’s a resource that goes beyond anything similar I’ve seen. Though events come and go, the artistic community still thrives.
Dwayne Morgan is a Canadian poet, producer and spoken word educator with a formidable CV: he’s worked full-time as a poet for 21 years, founding the Toronto International Poetry Slam, When Brothers/Sisters Speak, the largest showcases of poets of colour in north america, and working regularly across Canadian media and broadcasting. I met up with him at Cedarbrae Library in Scarborough, where he’s working for the next few months as writer-in-residence, running workshops and events for local audiences and youth.
I asked him what changes he’d seen in Canada over his career. “Poetry slams have been the force that have changed things the most,” he said. “They’ve brought excitement, brought people, built an entry point for a lot of people into spoken word. There’s a lot of great people involved right now: there’s youth things, there’s culture things, there are niche things happening, there are lots of opportunities that weren’t there when I was starting out.”
We talked also about what some of the challenges facing a big spoken word scene are. Dwayne has worries that the audience might be “slammed out” — with too many slams and not enough variety. One of my favourite metaphors for an arts scene is that of an ecology; you need all sorts of different events to have a healthy scene: slams, open mics, cabarets, showcases. As Dwayne says, “The only way it works is when you have all the different avenues working harmoniously.”
Diversity matters across slam too. Dwayne suggested that slam in Canada isn’t always as a political as in the US, but that the niche events matter. “At some slams you have a lot of important racial politics, stuff about racism and oppression, and at other slams feminist politics are more important — if you go round all the slams, they all have their own communities and cultures. Artists tend to go where they’ll be received the best, but the best artists are the ones who can go to all the slams and still be able to be comfortable and share and perform for all those communities.” I think this is a good way to think about the politics of slam — it’s often criticised for being all one sort of thing or political style, but usually by people who’ve only been to one or two nights. A regular slam is a community with its own interests, and that’s a good thing, but slam as a whole movement is hugely diverse.
Slam as a movement matters, but providing opportunities for poets to live from their work too. Projects like the Cedarbrae Library residency can spread poetry and provide work for poets; Dwayne also works with school boards to speak in schools; and Canada has a growing Youth Slam movement with professional mentors. Apples & Snakes’ Shake the Dust was an amazing project for England, as is the extraordinary Spoken Word Educator MA at Golsmiths; we lack anything like that in Scotland. Bringing in youth is vital to the health of the scene, but it also provides an important avenue of important. That’s even more important in the digital age; Dwayne had previously ben able to make more income from books and CD sales, “But now we have to find ways to replace the income when society has shifted to the digital world.”
Finishing off, I asked what advice Dwayne had for Scotland about what makes a spoken word scene strong. He said, “What makes a scene strong are the people driving it. There isn’t a scene without people with commitment, vision and passion. It’s my belief that there’s space enough for everyone. If you have something you want to do, I’ll support you, and you can support what I’m doing. If everyone is invested in the betterment of this thing we all care about, then it lasts. It’s just that easy.” Amen to that! A rising tide lifts everyone, especially in the arts, and in growing scenes like spoken word.