Two years ago Savannah-Rain McDermott stood terrified behind the mike reading what she calls a terrible, horrible poem. Her hands trembled all the way through third block at Reynolds secondary school after she finished her debut performance and exited the stage.
The fear has since subsided for the Grade 11 student, now one fifth of the school’s performance poetry team – reigning champs of poetry slam and mentors to emerging student poets across Greater Victoria.
“Once you’re up there for a while and you’ve been doing it for years, you don’t really get scared anymore, or at least it’s not as obvious,” says McDermott during a lunch hour spent with slam team members.
Since 2006, Reynolds has been hosting lunch hour open mikes for students keen to learn the genre, often referred to as slam. However, that term more accurately describes a competition between poets.
Poems are crafted and memorized, intended to be performed – alone or in a group – and often complemented by movement or song, so long as the added elements are produced live by a performer. Slams are judged by randomly selected audience members, adding another layer of participation to the events.
The group of Grade 11 and 12 students at Reynolds, led by English teacher Brad Cunningham, meets regularly to workshop poems, develop group pieces and plan for competitions such as Hullabaloo – B.C.’s slam championship where the Saanich teens have claimed top spot the last two years standing.
During the 2011 Hullabaloo in Vancouver last April, Kanika Jackson contributed to the win when she performed a religious lesbian sex poem. Jackson chose the subject because, “Cunningham always says to punch them in the nose.”
“I prefer ‘challenge,’” Cunningham pipes in from behind the young poets gathered in his classroom.
From suicide and abortion to marital abuse and mother nature’s relationship with humanity, each member of the team brings an equally diverse range of topics to the floor.
“A lot of intention is lost without body language or tone,” Jackson says. “When someone else is reading my poem on a piece of paper, I have no idea what their interpretation of it is. There’s still interpretation when it’s spoken, but you can put so much more of yourself in it.”
“It’s just pure honesty,” adds teammate Jennifer Bellas. “People can just say what they want to and it’s respected, not judged. … It was a relief, almost, to see that it was happening.”
Jeremy Loveday, a youth outreach co-ordinator, was introduced to the genre while a student at Esquimalt High.
Now the co-artistic director for Victoria Poetry Project – which organizes the spoken word series Tongues of Fire, Vic Slam and the Victoria Secondary School Slam Championships – Loveday has devoted countless volunteer hours to welcoming more young people around the region into slam.
“It’s amazing. We’ve filled a theatre full of high school kids two years in a row, just to listen to poetry,” Loveday says of the Victoria Secondary school slam championships, which the Reynolds team has also won for the last two years.
This year’s Greater Victoria regionals will move out of the theatre at Reynolds and into the Victoria Event Centre, April 2 and 4, in an effort to reach more of the public.
“We’ve had a complete (turnaround) in audience because poetry is becoming cool, which I didn’t think anyone would have expected,” Loveday says.
“It’s been really amazing to watch the scene build in Victoria and to be involved in it has been a real honour.”
Back inside Cunningham’s classroom, the teacher writes alongside the students and contributes to the growth at the ground level.
“The girls make fun of me because everything I write is education focused. They challenge me to write new things and to stay empathetic,” Cunningham says.
“In the crunch, they’re real professionals.”
Meet the team
Check out the Reynolds slam team as they perform before the Victoria premier of Louder than a Bomb, a documentary on youth performance poetry, at the Camosun College Lansdowne Campus. The event is set for 7 p.m. on Feb. 15 in room 216 of the Young building. Admission is by donation.