Day One

Posted: June 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

DAY ONE

On Saturday I featured at the CPC Summer Slam.

It was my favourite feature that I have ever done. Period.

I won’t claim it was my BEST feature. I forgot my poem one line in on the FIRST poem (I got it right back, though). There was also a bit where I realized I had been going faster than planned and stumbled around trying to find an extra poem in my notebook (before realizing I had the wrong notebook to find the poem I was looking for).

But it was still my favourite feature I have ever done.

Let’s back up a bit.

See that picture up there? The picture was made for me by Erin Dingle – super poet and design expert. It is based on a poem that I debuted at the CapSlam Finals… and has come to mean so much more to me that that.

Right after the semi-finals, and long after I had ‘nailed down’ which poems I was doing for finals, I came up with an idea… in a dream… for a new poem. It involved using two microphones and having a conversation (with myself) explaining my stance on speaking up against the problems I see around me. Very quickly I realized that the gimmick got in the way and I just started writing what I wanted to say.

It became ‘Day One’.

The instant I finished it, it felt like I was READING it rather than having written it. It was a message TO ME. This wasn’t just a poem.

It was a statement of intent. It was a philosophy. It was a WAY OF BEING.

Now, I am not trying to claim that I came up with something new, here. I am also not claiming that it is a radical departure from what I had already been doing. It was more like everything coalesced into a tangible, clear idea of a path to… enlightenment?

Overstatement, but the idea is there. This felt like my ‘coming to religion’ moment.

For those who haven’t heard it yet, let me explain ‘Day One’.

‘Day One’ is the idea that every day can be an opportunity to make the world better. Still, though, that doesn’t quite explain it, because of the vastness of the scope involved.

Instead, think of it as the opportunity to make the world better on a MANAGEABLE scale.

I, like many people, have been having a real problem with the ‘state’ of the world. Looking out and seeing the state of things – whether it be wealth-based classism, environmental degradation, rampant misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia… general selfishness… the constant conservative push in Canada (which fits into the last point as well…) War. Poverty. Hatred. Disease. Anti-science. Xenophobia.

EVERY DAY there is more to show us that humanity is trying to prove it is pretty much a horrible thing.

But there are still those who want better. There are still those who want peace. There are still those who want to help the poor, stamp out prejudice, create art or advance knowledge.

But, how? How can you do ANYTHING to change ANYTHING? One person can’t change the world.

I can’t eliminate rape culture. I can’t eliminate racism. I can’t ensure an equal distribution of wealth worldwide.
I can’t do anything.

But, it isn’t true. This is where ‘Day One’ comes in. It reminds me that I am just one person and can’t take the weight of the world on my shoulders. All I can do is all I can do.
So, every day is Day One. Every day I can do ONE THING to make the world better, if even for only one person. I can toss that can into the recycling bin instead of the trash can. I can cross that dark street, to make the woman walking ahead of me feel a little less anxious. I can speak out against the ever-present misogyny, homophobia, racism, transphobia, and whatever all kinds of hatred are being injected into our society by those who are invested in ensuring nothing changes.

And, to still make things clear, this is not always a sweetness and light movement. Sometimes making things better involves tearing things down and yelling at the top of my lungs.

This is who I am and my art is aligning itself.

Why did I enjoy my feature so much? Because I have started working on a ‘show’ that fits this philosophy together in a coherent fashion. On Saturday that just meant stringing four poems together with some connecting banter, but I hope it becomes much more than that. I will keep working on it but I hope that I will soon have a full-length show where I can really share what I mean about ‘Day One’.

By the fall I will have a new book – that is a commitment – complete with the cover designed by Erin Dingle, above.

Because this is Day One, and how did I make the world a better place today?

Could you imagine if everyone asked themselves that?

CPC Features

Posted: June 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

All summer the CPC Summer Slams will feature members of the 2014 CapSlam team.

Tomorrow, June 7th, we kick it off with… me!

Reach if you can! Mercury Lounge. 6:30 doors.

There is also a 3-1-3 slam so sign up and throw down!

So, I didn’t post here after Finals because I wasn’t really happy about it.

I am over it. Mostly.

I posted before finals that I was okay with not winning, and that was true.

What I was thinking about was me not performing as well as I had hoped.

What was more frustrating was that I felt like I killed my pieces and still didn’t do as well as I hoped.

Oh well.

First round I drew first. Bummer. I did a new poem called ‘Heroes’. I nailed it. I got scores. They were low but so were the sac scores so it might not be score creep…

Nope. I got score creeped hard. (As did Sarah…) Oh well. I still had two more poems.

Second round, I drew second. Bummer again. I did Angst. It went very well. I made up ground on nearly everybody. (Though not Gavin, who was in first, because he did just as well.)

Third round, I drew first again. Sigh. Nearly the WORST POSSIBLE draws.

I had good luck on draws all year. I guess this is payback.

I did another new poem, called ‘Day One’.

It went over really big. I nailed it and it seemed to really speak to people.

And then I got really bland scores.

On the night, I was really frustrated. It is worse to feel like you did everything RIGHT and not get the results you think you have earned, then to make mistakes.

I have been told that maybe I didn’t show enough range on the night. Maybe. At least that is a reason I can get behind.

Regardless, I am not unhappy now. I am on a cool seeming team with some talented teammates – most of whom have never had this opportunity before. We are at my favorite part of slamming – working with the team and forging new bonds.

Yay!

And besides, being unhappy that I didn’t get scores really pales in comparison to the insanity that followed this week.

Being reminded about how far we are away from a society that actually values people and doesn’t try to perpetuate imbalances by lashing out against those who are opposed to those imbalances is frustrating.

I’ll admit that watching the absolute meltdown by a misogynist on my Facebook wall was somewhat amusing. At least he can no longer claim to be ‘misundersood’. No chance of that now. You made yourself crystal clear.

Remember this important fact, men… whenever you respond to statements about the problems women face in our society with a statement that ‘not all men’ are like that, you are prioritizing avoiding blame over trying to fix the problem.

There are some things that only men can fix when it comes to the treatment of women. There are other things that men CANNOT fix.

But whichever issue you see, first-things-first, don’t be part of the problem. And when you prioritize avoiding blame you become part of the problem.

Seasonal Ranking Systems

Posted: May 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

I asked for topics dealing with slam that people wanted me to talk about.

Daniel, better known as DMP in some circles, asked about our seasonal ranking method. Daniel hails from Vancouver and it appears he likes the simpler version that they use out there.

Here is a topic that is dear to my heart.

I do want to start with a disclaimer that I am not trying to claim anyone is WRONG for using whatever method they use. I am just going to try to explain why it is that I think the method we use I better.

Let’s start with points-based systems like they use in Vancouver. After each slam, poets are given points based on their finish. The points are scaled so first place gets a lot more points than second etc. You get points added to your total and slam-bam, it’s all done.

Advantage to this system: It is simple. Anybody knows exactly where they are at all times. If you know you had 5 points and you know you gained 3 points, you know you now have 8 points.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

I will admit that this is a HUGE advantage. People who want to track their results have a very easy time. They don’t have to wait until the rankings are updated. (Though, to be fair, it is pretty rare that our rankings aren’t updated within a few hours of the slam ending as far as CapSlam goes. It takes longer fur Urban Legends or OYPS because I have to wait until the official results are sent to me.)

Disadvantages: there are a lot, in my opinion.

First off, what does it measure? Placement only. There is no difference between missing first place by .1 and missing it by 3.1, as long as nobody finished between you. It is also purely a ‘counting’ stat so it only tangentially measures the quality of the result (other than that you ‘count faster’ by doing better).

You have an interesting mix of discouraging people to slam as well. Since the system involves a cap on the number of times you can slam (which you need in any counting system, otherwise it will be quantity you are measuring over quality for the most part), you are discouraged from working on pieces on the stage. The system says you shouldn’t step up unless you are convinced you are going to put on an A-1 effort. That discourages experimentation and invention. It discourages slam.

It also discourages you to slam when you know that there are top poets signed up. Since the system is completely built on placement and not individual performance, a poet is rewarded for slamming on nights when there is less talent on the stage and ‘punished’ when there are better.

(I know that there are plenty of poets who don’t care about things like this, but then the system used probably doesn’t concern them anyway.)

With all of these disadvantages, the one that really stands out for me, is the fact that you only are measured if you score in the top section of poets. (I believe in Van it is Top5, but this goes for any counting system.) The poets who do not finish in the Top5 are not recognized in any way other than a counter tick on the Number of Times Slammed list.

The system we use is called the Bytown Ranking Method, and is used at a number of slams in Ontario (and possibly elsewhere – I have had a number of slams ask me to explain it to them, but I can’t promise they have adopted it).

(Disclaimer: I am one of the creators of this method, so I am obviously biased)

I will start with the disadvantage, even before I explain the system, because it will become apparent.

It is kind of complicated.

It actually ISN’T that hard to do, but it SEEMS complicated and you can’t just look at the rankings and your new result and know immediately what the exact effect will be.

Here goes: after every slam, each poet will have two scores: their final placement and their single best score out of 30.

Each poet will get to use their three best placements and three best scores (from individual nights) in their seasonal rankings. They are added together (so a 1st, 3rd and 7th gives a ranking score of 11). They are then sorted ascending and poets are ranked so that the best season scores gets a rank of 1. The second best gets a 2 etc. We do the same with scores (but descending) and get a separate ranking. The two rankings are added together, ordered and BAM, you are done.

(There are some fiddly bits to ensure people who have slammed less than three times are ranked lower etc.)

So, clear disadvantage, right? Yeah, I get that. I just think the advantages WAY outweigh the complexity.

Advantage: It ENCOURAGES people to slam.

There is no maximum number of slams per poet. They get the score of their three best, so they can’t keep adding on more totals so there is no need for a cap.

Slamming more still HELPS, as you get your three best, so slamming a fourth will not hurt your totals, ever.

We grade both placement and score so there is no reason to try and ‘avoid’ top poets. It may be a little tougher to get the best placement, but a night with lots of great performers will tend to increase the base score, so if you are hurt in one area, you are helped in the other.

It gives an ACCURATE representation of the sometimes slight difference between results. A close second and a distant second are quite different things and are shown that way.

EVERY poet who slams shows up in the rankings. Every poet counts, not just the ones who sit at the top of the mountain.

Now, to me, these advantages outweigh the disadvantage by a lot, but to those who are still concerned about the delay in understanding your results, remember that the delay is only as long as the person who is handling the scores makes it.

I make a point of updating Capital Slam Results on the night of the slam, once I get home. If other people don’t, well, that isn’t the system. (And I am not criticizing those people… not everyone prioritizes things exactly the same way that I do… isn’t it grand?)

I will say that a friend has created a web-based program that would allow all of this pseudo-complicated stuff to turn into basic data entry. He made it so any slam that registered could enter the results and have it automatically recalculate your rankings for you, easy as pie. I just need someone who can design the front end and security and we would have a service available for every slam across the country that wanted to use it….

Any web-savvy folks out there want a project?

Confidence? What’s that?

Posted: May 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

NOTE: I WILL be doing full write-ups on the requested topics as soon as I can get time to sit down and do them justice.

The pending topics are: Season Rankings Systems, Cumulative vs Non-Cumulative Scoring and Using Assigned Judges.

More ideas? Keep them coming!

“““““““““““““““““““

Today, though, I have a different topic… a more personal one.

Tomorrow is the Capital Slam Season Final.

Every year, as we get close to the show, I end up writing a blog post about how stressed I am. I write about how I really, REALLY want to get on the team and how I am afraid that I am going to get passed by.

This year is different. None of those things aren’t true this year, but it just FEELS different.

First off, I have had a very good year slamming this season. Probably my best ever. This year it felt like every time I put my name in, I had a good chance of winning, even when I felt less prepared and was just putting my name down to fill out a show.

This is not cockiness or arrogance. Anyone who knows me is aware that when it comes to my own work, a semi-crippling sense of self-doubt will generally stop me from being anything close to cocky.

Related aside: The last couple of years, Ruthanne has taken the CapSlam Championship belt in to be engraved with the new winner’s name. Before that, I took it in. Whenever I did so, the engraver would smile and say “When am I putting your name on here?” I would always laugh and say “Maybe next year.”

The thing is, I never believed it. Winning the championship was never on my radar. Making the team was always my goal, and that has gone fairly well, but I never even imagined winning the championship.

Until last year.

A couple of things happened last year to change things. First was poem selection.

To get to this you need to understand that I consider myself a ‘slam poet’ rather than a ‘spoken word’ poet or even just a ‘poet’. Why? Because my introduction to writing poetry came through that lens. While I do other things, the poetry I write – the way I THINK when I am writing – matches my intent to step on stage, deliver a poem and get scored.

Having said that, I don’t write for slam.

What I mean by that is that I never sit down and try to figure out what I should write to try and get good scores. Why? Because when I have done it in my earlier years, I came out with garbage. The poems didn’t feel honest or authentic.

So, am I one of those people who throws poems out there and claims to not care about the scores? No… and DEFINITELY not when it comes to finals.

What I do instead is take a collection of poems I have written and (generally) not performed and try to figure out which of them will garner the best results. In other words, the poems are WRITTEN for ‘artistic’ reasons and chosen for ‘competitive’ ones.

Last year I was having trouble choosing so I called on a good friend of mine, and the best slammer in Canadian history, in my opinion, Ikenna Onyegbula AKA OpenSecret. He helped me pick my poems for semis and finals.

Also, I enrolled in a workshop with Ikenna and Brandon Wint. I don’t normally do workshops. (Let’s be honest here… I have been slamming longer than both of them.) And I have to say… did I LEARN much that I didn’t already know? No. But what it DID do is remind me how to look at what I do and how to make decisions around what I am doing. It was VERY valuable.

Semi-finals went very well.

Then my father died.

It felt like everything went grey there for a bit. My reaction was not what I might have expected. Some days it felt like I couldn’t breathe. The maelstrom of emotions combined with a poem I had ALREADY written for my father and Ikenna had convinced me to do for finals changed things. I rewrote the poem a bit and decided that this was how I was going to deal with things. I was going to perform a poem for my dad.

Winning was the last thing on my mind as I prepared for the show. While what I really wanted to get out if it (a tribute / memorial for my dad that helped me deal with my grief in an honest way) was successful – the relative lack of attention I paid to my other two poems became kind of apparent as I rushed through the singing sections of my second poem and drew a complete blank and skipped some lines on my third.

That was the closest I ever felt like I was going to get.

Then this year happened. After the great help he gave me last year, I went to Ikenna again. I told him I wasn’t very confident this year and he practically laughed at me. He reminded me that I had been really tearing it up this year and any lack of confidence is internal and not circumstantial. (Not in those words, but that was what I got out of it.)

Just like last year, he helped me choose my poems. Just like last year, I was not 100% comfortable with the semi-final choices but decided to listen to his advice.

Remember how I said last year went well? This year went better. I ripped up semi-finals. I won the night, despite having some serious competition, and was going on to finals.

So, now what? Well, faith in Ikenna’s advice for one. I took his recommendations, looked at the poems. Questioned them a bit (he suggested four, really, so I had a choice to make). Picked three. Talked about the order. Wavered. Took his advice. Realized he was right. Moved on. Started practicing. Started memorizing.

Then I came to a realization… I might actual be FAVORED to win this year. Not just ‘have a shot’, but be FAVORED. (That level of confidence and I have never worked well together. It was an odd sensation.)

There are other great poets but with the season I have been having and…

I started feeling really good about things. Working my poems. Getting ready.

But then, it came back. The self-doubt. I started questioning my poems. (Noting that due to my required memorization schedule, it was too late to change my picks.) I started wondering if a certain poem was good enough. I started questioning whether a poem would be taken the way I meant it and started tweaking words to ensure when I meant was what was heard. I started questioning whether I was actually favored at all. There are great poets in this event. To assume I was favored is doing them a great disservice rather than just boosting myself.

I starting ripping my brain to pieces. I was sinking myself before I got anywhere near the stage.

I took a deep breath, sat back, and tried to look at every choice I have made in a rational way.

First: my poems

Last year I had similar feelings of doubt. I talked it through with Ikenna. Whenever I did what he suggested, it worked. Whenever I did not do what he suggested (which really came down to the poem order for round 2 and 3), I faltered (pus there were the other things I was dealing with).

This year I did not choose whatever he said blindly. We talked it out, but in the end, I found that I had faith in his opinions. I shouldn’t second-guess that now.

Second: my outlook

I have won a bunch of slams over the years, including… was it four this year at CapSlam, plus another right before the season started at CPC SummerSlam and one at the first New SHIrT Slam? What did all of those wins have in common? I never went to ANY of them (well, except one) with the pure intent of winning. They were not strategically planned out events where I went in with the singular goal of getting my ‘hand raised’. I just went with poems I liked, wanted to share, and did my best.

(There was one… the summer one… where I felt like I kept getting close and decided to do everything I could for that one show. It worked, but not in a way that would work now.)

So, what about the shows where I DID go in with the distinct goal of winning? I was disappointed.

DISAPPOINTED

That is a feeling that is not very positive. It focuses on what you have instead of what you don’t? If I got in my head that I was ‘favored’ and then came second, I would be disappointed… instead of being happy that I would get to work on my SIXTH CapSlam team with yet another new group of people, creating art, forging bonds and having fun.

Besides, in some ways, being disappointed in a result is kind of insulting to those that beat you. Look at last year… pretend I didn’t self-destruct at the end and did all that I had hoped.

I would have finished second at best. Why? Because Bruce Narbaitz rocked the house down. The rest of us didn’t ‘lose’. Bruce won. He deserved it.

So, now what? Well, my poems are ready. I am ready.

I am going to go the Finals and share some poems. In the end, whomever gets their name on the belt will have deserved it, and then (well, here I will hope a little) we will get to work together on a team going back to my home town.

Who will the champion be? Who will be on the team?

We find out tomorrow, and I couldn’t be happier.

Speaking of such things, if there is anything anyone was wondering about slam – about how it works, why it works the way it does, or ideas to make things better, let me know!

This doesn’t have to be about anything contentious… remember I also did a little mathematical study about score-order. I am also a big fan of talking about ranking systems.

Give me an excuse to study something. I live for that stuff… :)

Judging Judges

Posted: May 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

After the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam Finals last night, I was approached by someone who had valid concerns about something that happened during the show.

We talked about the problem. I completely concurred with their take on the situation but also explained to them how we were really unable to do anything about it.

It did make me think that this was something worth discussing. As a Slam Nerd, I am always interested in how to make slam better.

So, here goes…

We have talked about Safe Space a lot and how the ideals we look to achieve are sometimes countered by the different ideals of slam. On a basic level, if we insist that the slam stage is an opportunity to speak, with all that entails, what happens when someone being ‘honest’ (quotes intentional) equates to that person being sexist or racist or homophobic or transphobic or just generally being an awful person?

Well, what we do at CapSlam is to encourage our audience to let the offender know about it. While we encourage a supportive audience, it does not need to be BLINDLY supportive. If someone is sexist, let rip with your best HISS. Don’t applaud just because you are SUPPOSED to. Let them know.

(Please note: I am talking about people being OFFENSIVE, not just because you didn’t think a poem was that good. For the most part, poets don’t step up to a mic and have instant awesomeness. Support growth.)

Other scenes do NOT allow such material. They have Codes of Conduct (or similar) and poets breaking it won’t be allowed to continue to compete on their stage. SpoCan has such a Code. CapSlam does not. (Though that will be a topic of discussion at the CPC AGM this year, I expect.)

Now some of you may have seen me calling a few poets out for this sort of behaviour. This isn’t some policy. This is just me, expressing my own displeasure at seeing our stage and mic used to spread what I consider hate speech. I will keep doing that regardless, because I can.

Having said ALL OF THAT, what I wanted to talk about today is a whole different problem. Judges.

We know what slam is and what it is supposed to represent. Slam tries to be ‘the democratization of art’. The judges are there as representatives of the audience.

There are very specific problems that come out of that. I was a guest speaker at a class on Canadian Feminism at Carleton earlier this year and when we talked about women in slam, I let them in at what I had learned. There is sexism in slam. (Wow, big shock, right?) It isn’t always as simple as men getting better scores or whatever… it is sometimes more insidious. One of the easy examples is to watch what happens when a man makes himself emotionally vulnerable on stage. The audience is moved. He is rewarded. Now watch what happens when a woman does the same thing.

It isn’t that the woman is punished for doing that. It is that she isn’t rewarded for it. It is considered normal behaviour.

When you think about it, this is gender stereotyping against both men AND women, but as usual, we know who comes out better for it.

So? Is there something inherently wrong with slam that allows this?

I think that is looking at the wrong root problem. There is something inherently wrong with SOCIETY.

The people making these judgements are not slam experts or poetry experts. They are a random selection of audience members so why would we assume that they are someone (on average) more enlightened than any selection of people from society? Just because they came to a poetry show? A nice thought and maybe true to a LIMITED extent, but not enough to eliminate biases throughout society.

But this is still not what I want to talk about.

I needed this part of the discussion as a grounding, to ensure people knew where I am coming from.

No, I am not saying what do we do about the fact the judges reflect society and society is far from completely egalitarian. Instead, I need to talk about what we can do when there is a judge that is blatantly biased along such lines. What can we do when a judge decides based on personal politics/beliefs that they are going to punish someone for talking about feminist issues, or gender issues? (Or racial issues or…)

This is a whole other problem.

On the one hand, we do not screen judges based on politics, nor should we. On the other hand, giving the results of the event over to someone who is using to act out misogyny or transphobia? (And exulting in it, and celebrating every time he shot down someone who said things that challenged his view on how the world should work.)

I’m not talking about a low-ball judge. There is nothing wrong with those, as long as they are consistent. I am talking about a judge that gave a 10 to one poet and a 6.5 to another. The gap was not based on merit. (I am not talking about the ranking either. Which poet was better was completely up to the judges. I am not calling down the poets that did well, at all.)

I want this conversation to be about more than one incident, because it deserves to be.

The question is, how do you choose judges? Let’s dispense with the idea that these judges are random. We always SAY there are random judges but they aren’t. Why? Someone chooses them. Anything that is chosen like that is not random, even if the selection process is not conscious.

Often judges are chosen with an attempt at ‘fairness’. Don’t choose five men. Don’t choose five women. Don’t choose five people all around the same age or with the same racial background etc.

Barring an actual random method (which I dream about… yes, I dream about organizing slams… I am THAT much of a slam nerd…), it will always be thus.

So, who DON’T you pick? There is no automatic answer to this (other than people with known ties to poets in the competition). This is especially problematic in an event with a relatively small crowd. Sometimes there aren’t a lot of choices to be made.

Do you have an official ‘no’ list? People you won’t allow to be judges? I certainly have such a list when I am picking judges (since, as I said, it is not random and I am making decisions as I choose), but this is not an official list that is given to other people when THEY are making the selections.

What do you do? Is there anything you can do DURING a show when a judge has taken it upon themself to become the show?

Soliciting ideas…