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By: Yara Farran
I’m currently sitting in a near-empty classroom. Some students are participating in an impromptu calculus study session. I can hear the anxiety in their voices as they discuss inverse functions. But I can tell that they’re curious, too — maybe even a little excited.
Calculus is a world of its own. Learning about functions and derivatives unlocks some of life’s mysteries. Calculus is a special language, and these students are speaking their truths through numbers and algebraic formulas. But, this is not a piece about calculus. Not really, anyway.
This is a piece about poetry. Slam poetry, more specifically. And in this moment — me in this near-empty classroom with a group of first-year students fumbling their way through unfamiliar math — I am reminded of the sheer strength and beauty of slam.
I now want to write a poem about my broken ties with calculus, and tell an audience just how good it feels to be understood amongst the clutter of numbers, letters and decimals. Slam is a language too.
If you have yet to be introduced to slam poetry, let me be the first to introduce you. I used to be in your position, but then I was warmly welcomed by Hamilton Youth Poets (HYP). HYP is a community-focused organization that supports emerging young writers, poets and emcees by providing them with leadership opportunities to develop their literary and public speaking skills.
Like calculus, slam poetry makes magic from moments; it’s a delicate balance between literary and performance art. Slam is rhythmic, having an intimate relationship with hip-hop and rap. It’s narrative-based, using the art of storytelling to intervene in the world. Most importantly, it gives a voice to its speaker and creates a space in which the poet and their audience can contribute to critical conversations that lead to tangible change in their communities. In short, slam poetry is a tool — it’s a methodology.
There’s also a competitive undertone to slam poetry. A poetry slam gathers performers under one roof where they present their best pieces of work during multiple rounds. Judges will typically give each performance a score from one to ten, and the audience will make it known whether or not they agree with the scores dished out. They’ll protest to give the poet the love they deserve with extra snaps, claps or comments. Slams are fully immersive and communal experiences. Everyone gets a say.
Ultimately, though, the competition is a means and not an end. We applaud the poet, not the points. We use this forum to celebrate and debate one another, in a respectful and safe environment.
Anyone and everyone can slam. Poetry is a universal language through which people can speak about their unique experiences and contexts. There’s no right way to write, and every poet has their own performance style. Find your voice. Hell, develop your voice and then own your voice. It’s okay if you don’t know where to start. There’s a community of people excited to support you in HYP. If you’re not from Hamilton or the surrounding area, be sure to research local groups dedicated to the literary and performance arts. Slam culture is thriving, so there’s likely a group near you. If not, who’s to say you can’t be the person to start one?
Now, as I finish writing this, the calculus study session is wrapping up. While scribbling on the chalk board, the instructor looks at his students and makes an unexpected comment: “Always allow for serendipity in your life.”
I heard about HYP for the first time during a chance encounter. Four years later I took the plunge and got involved. But, this is not a piece about serendipity. Not really anyway.
HYP is active all-year round. Every third week of the month, we host a poetry slam at the Spice Factory — and the energy is contagious. Around 100 people attend with a mix of familiar and fresh faces. During the upcoming slam, on March 20, HYP will be featuring Winona Linn, a tour-de-force of a spoken word artist that you don’t want to miss. Alongside the competition, there’s also an open mic providing slam-goers with another avenue for poetic expression.
As the spring roars to a start, HYP will host the largest youth poetry festival in Canada, the annual Louder Than A Bomb Canada Poetry Festival (LTABC) from May 5-14. During the 10-day festival, LTABC offers different workshops and competitive events with the goal of fostering creativity and community, by bringing young people together across racial and socio-economic lines. The festival promises to be a massive occasion for all parties involved.
Two special events that take place during LTABC are the University Slam, which is specifically geared towards engaging post-secondary-aged artists, and the Emcee Olympics, where 16 rappers battle in four rounds of competition.
With both events, there are great prizes to be won (like money and an opportunity to record on HYP’s mixtape) and great friends to be made.
Cover Photo Credit: Yara Farran