My CapSlam Semi-Finals

Posted: April 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

Saturday was the first Capital Slam Semi-Finals. You can read the official recap here.

This will be the Rusty-centric version.

Let’s go back a ways… all the way to fall, 2011. That was the last time I was on the Capital Slam team and, let’s be honest, I didn’t ‘deserve’ the spot. I finished 7th at the CapSlam Finals. PrufRock was the real team alternate but we had previously agreed that we wouldn’t bind a poet that was the team alt but would like to go and try to get on the Urban Legends team. Pruf decided to do that (and became their champion). 6th place was Cannon 2x. He decided to go for U.L. as well (and made the team). Then it was me.

We had fun on that team. The other four were Sense-Say, Loh El, Bruce Narbaitz and Sean O’Gorman. Good friends. Good poetry. Still, I could see the patterns.

In 2007, with no pre-conceptions, I finished fourth and joined my first team (along with Free Will, Nathanael Larochette, Mehdi Hamdad and Danielle Gregoire), going to Halifax.

In 2008, I made the team as alt, finishing 5th only because another poet stepped on a finals stage landmine. That team (Suhaib Agial, Nathanael Larochette, Poetic Speed and OpenSecret), went to Calgary (and finished 3rd!).

In 2009, I just got onto the team as alt again – this team due to having a nearly perfect night. That team (Ian Keteku, OpenSecret, Brandon Wint, Poetic Speed) went to Victoria and won the championship.

After skipping 2010 to be slam master at the festival, 2011, I finished 7th, as said above.

I’ll talk about 2012 in a moment.

At the festival in 2011 I told the team that I thought I was done. I figured that was my last team. I wasn’t going to quit slamming because I enjoyed it too much and that was the way I created my art… but I wasn’t going to be on another team. I had realized that the audiences weren’t… appreciating my work the way they used to. They were still appreciating it, but not the same way. I figured I had two choices, either change my style of poetry to try and match what the crowds were looking for or stop caring and just perform for me, and if the scores didn’t come, they didn’t come.

I chose the latter.

That season, I tried to get into that mind-set, but it was tough. On top of that, my poetry wasn’t really flowing the way it had in the past. I went to the 2012 semi-finals and told myself just to have fun. I had a poem that I really liked and another one that had a message I really wanted to share and that should be enough, right?
I did the fun poem and it bombed. My delivery was poor and people didn’t ‘get’ it. They heard the words and just thought it was a gag.
I did the serious poem and got a great response from the people who understood. Not enough people did.
I finished 11th and was not advancing to the finals for the first time.
To be blunt, that sucked. It was one thing to SAY you don’t care about the scores… but I really, really didn’t like not making the finals.
This season, I lived by my words. I did the poems I wanted to do when I wanted to do them. Sometimes I got lower scores than I thought I deserved. Other times I got scores higher than I expected. It didn’t both me either way.
During the season, I went on a writing rampage. Things were flowing. Were they all gems? No, but there was some wonderful truth and some pieces that I was proud to have written.
We started getting closer to the end of the season and I said to myself, “You know what? I stand by the decision I made, but I’ll be damned if I am going to just sit back and let what happened last year happen again.” I didn’t like the way I felt… because I didn’t feel proud of my work I didn’t feel proud of my performances. I figure I would rather lose after giving it my all, than walk away disappointed.
I gathered my unperformed poems and starting going over them, trying to find some good choices to make. While I refuse to ‘write for the score’, I can at least choose from my work the pieces that are most likely to do best in that context.

I was trying to whittle it down, but I was stumped. I decided to call on an expert.

Ikenna Onyegbula and I have been friends for a while now. Certainly since that 2008 season… and for my money, he is the best there is at what we do. With all due respect to the many other talented slammers whose path I have crossed, Ikenna really understands what it is, what you have to do, and what it takes.

Now, I knew that Ikenna was coaching at least one other poet. I didn’t want to step on any toes, but I asked him if he would mind looking over my poems and helping me decide which pieces would be best for the slam. He told me that he was happy to do so.
His input was invaluable. He really got to the core of each piece… not necessarily as a ‘poem’ (though he gave me some nice insights there, too), but as a slam piece. When to do what. How to do what. How to put my best foot forward.
Some of the responses matched what I was already thinking. Some were radically different.
I made my choices and moved forward.

Now, for those of you who do slam, you need to know that this was a big deal. I need time to work. When I made those choices, I was kind of stuck with them, because I can only really work on a couple of poems at a time. I don’t have the mental poetry database that lets me change things on the fly.

I memorized two poems, ‘Angry’ and ‘Speed Dial’.
I was down with ‘Speed Dial’. I really liked the piece and thought it had the right mix (for me) of honesty, emotion, message, wit and structure.
I was less sure about ‘Angry’. I thought it was funny, but I wasn’t sure other people would. I remember thinking I thought my friend Danielle would hate it.  She was right about ‘Darwin’s Theory of Revolution’. She could be (theoretically) right again.
I never read the poems to Ruthanne. Normally I do, but she was working on her own art (she went to Banff this year), and since I wasn’t really looking for feedback once I had committed (because I had no chance to change my decision), so we left it so she could hear it with everyone else. I told her a bit of the gag for ‘Angry’ though and she thought people would find it funny.

The close we got, the more unsure I felt. I picked one of my previous poems to hold in reserve. I would do ‘Speed Dial’ first and if I was concerned or on the bubble I would go the safe route and not do ‘Angry’.

I hate this strategy by the way.

A week before the show, Urban Legends was scheduled. I thought that maybe I would go and drop the poems there. It would take away some of the ‘newness’ as I would lose the debut edge for the semis, but it would give me a dry run. I asked Ruthanne, Ikenna and Greg (Frankson), what they thought.
All three said the same thing: don’t do it.
You see, I have never actually slammed at Urban Legends. I have slammed at other shows there, but not U.L. I featured there and it was the single worst feature I have ever had.
Do I have something against U.L.? Absolutely not. My problem is the gladiator circle.
Those of you who haven’t been there, U.L. has a different set-up. Rather than a standard, stage-style room, the chairs are put in a circle, ringed with lights, and the poets perform in the middle.
It is pretty cool for the audience. For me, as a poet, however… it was hell. I got in that circle to do my feature and felt an intense feeling of claustrophobia. He left like an inquisition where I was penned in. A lot of my poetry is really personal and that feeling of… not being safe, overwhelmed me.
This is not the normal reaction for most poets, so if you are thinking of going and doing U.L., do it! This was all just me.
So, if I went an did a try-out at U.L. and froze again, what would that do? Probably destroy my confidence and give people a poor first impression of my new poems.

So, no. (U.L. was cancelled due to freezing rain, anyway…)

One week later… the night before the Capital Slam Semi-Finals, the Lanark County LiPS Slam was happening in Perth. I decided to go to that.
I have always had a wonderful relationship with the LiPS crew. I was their first feature. I was a guest judge at their first finals. I have hosted every one of their finals since (including this year). I am comfortable there. Combine that with the fact that the audience cross-over is minimal and it was the perfect place to get a little ‘show-eve’ practice.

I started with ‘Speed Dial’, as I planned for the semis. I messed it up. Not really badly, but a bit. I didn’t mind that because I recovered pretty well (which is good practice) and hopefully it will get the glitch out of my system. I scored well… though the numbers were really not the point that night. The point was getting comfortable doing the poem in front of people.
Second round I did ‘Angry’, still not sure if I should include it in my semis-repertoire or not.
It went over BIG. BIG. The Perth crowd loved it. Lots of laughter. The poem I thought was ‘funny to me’ but other people might not get it, brought the house down. I got a couple of TENs from the judges.
I was feeling a lot better about the poem.
On the drive back to Ottawa, Ruthanne encouraged me to switch the order. She figured ‘Angry’ was the ‘bigger’ piece. I also realized that I didn’t get all I could out of it, due to the order.
You see, ‘Speed Dial’ is a serious poem that uses humour along the way to get where I want to go. People will laugh here and there until they start to hear me… in pain, really.
‘Angry’ is the opposite. It is a funny poem that starts be pretending to be serious. By doing ‘Speed Dial’ first, it is possible to not get total buy-in for ‘Angry’ because people are waiting to see if I turn it back around to being serious.
By the time Saturday rolled around, I knew what I was doing and I knew the order and there was going to be no ‘last minute switch’.

There was an amazing open mic, but of course, I was hardly listening. V was also hanging around at the back and was also keeping score. It is nice to have someone to hang with who really GETS what you are doing and what you are thinking. I often hang with Brad at the back when we are both slamming, but he was still out of town (and is in the other semi-final).
I went up third in the first round, after Mia Morgan and Vince Kang. Not the ideal spot, but it also wasn’t the bullet.
I did ‘Angry’. I did the preamble, which people seemed to like, but nothing ‘extra’. I got to the part about being angry and some people started to laugh, though much like in Perth, they weren’t quite sure. Then I started listing what made me angry and the laughter started to build. I hit the ‘conservatives’ line and the place went nuts. I got to the end when I get ‘angry’ again and by the time I hit the final line… let’s just say it went very well.
People were hooting and hollering as I walked to the back. The scores were strong… the best of the night so far by a decent margin. But certainly not unbeatable. Score creep and awesome poets could still do me in.
By the time the first round was over, I was tied in second. I was thrilled.
Speaking of score creep…
I always tell people that score creep doesn’t work the way they might think it does. Scores don’t rise steadily throughout the night. Instead they stay steady until someone raises the bar. Then the scores don’t drop all the way back to where they were. It is a series of plateaus. I would say where you want to go is AFTER that poet who rips the roof and sets the bar.
Ikenna would then always say, no, you want to BE the artist who sets the bar.
Easy for someone like Ikenna to say, right?
In that first round, I was the one who set the bar. D-Lightfull was able to match it and V was able to beat it, near the end of the round… but it was still a really good feeling.

Then came the break. I knew the scores and I knew who could knock me out of the finals. I wasn’t worried about V or D-Lightfull or Kim – not because they aren’t awesome, but because the top 4 move on, so my concern would have been if one MORE person passed me. That person was most likely to be Shaun Sullivan. He is a great poet and was sitting in 5th.

Side note: slam creates some crazy situations.
I ran into Shaun on the break. I told him the scores and what he needed to do to get into the finals. I wished him well and ABSOLUTELY MEANT IT. Then I went upstairs and started working out what I needed to happen. It would be better for me if Shaun drew really early, to hurt his chances of getting that BIG score to jump ahead.
I was not lying when I wished him luck. I was also not lying when I realized what would be better for me. That is slam. We are a family… and competitors.
In the second round I was ready to do ‘Speed Dial’. I drew later this time. Fifth, I think. All I remember is that Shaun DID draw early. It didn’t eliminate him as he needed to pass Kim, but it did make it unlikely he could pass my score, AS LONG AS I PERFORMED CLEAN. Then Kim kicked some major ass. The D-Lightfull stumbled a bit… but she recovered nicely.
Then I did ‘Speed Dial’. This is a very different poem with a very different reaction. It was still powerful but by the end, people saw a little more of me. (In fact, ‘Angry’ is a very personal poem for me, but that isn’t really clear when you hear it.) I did well. The crowd appreciated it. The judges appreciated it. It did not do as well as ‘Angry’ (though it scored a little higher… score creep does exist), but it was very solid.
V kicked some ass to finish off the night and I was still tied in second, though with Kim now, as she and D-Lightfull switched places.

So now what? My goal was to make finals and I have done that, but for the first time since 2007, I didn’t just sneak in. I am in with three other poets who I KNOW I can hang with. I know, because I just DID it. We have four more finalists to be determined on May 4th, and there are some SERIOUS poets in there. Whoever the list of eight will be, it will be a tough show.
So, now I start memorizing and learning my finals poems. One of them, I am really happy with right now. The other one, I am less sure of… but I have renewed faith. I wasn’t sure about ‘Angry’ and it proved to be a killer piece. Time to see if Ikenna was right about this one, too.

My new goal: to take the statement I shared with my 2011 team and tear it up.

I am MAKING this team.

  1. Sara says:

    Definitely well deserved, Rusty. Your pieces at semis were really strong. “Angry” was the bigger piece in terms of audience reaction, but I really felt “speed dial.” It stuck in my brain; maybe it was the combination of vulnerability and painful truth, or the fact that I never would have guessed you felt that way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s