I tend to not like performing at poetry readings. I realize this is kind of a problem for someone who writes poetry and does readings on occasion. There are a few reasons for this: I don’t write very quickly so it takes a long time to have anything new to read to people (to — I am sure — the annoyance of my publisher); I never feel like a reading has gone particularly well, no matter how many times someone tries to convince me otherwise; and I always vomit before going on stage, which is unpleasant.
It is worth asking why I would keep doing this to myself if I seem to hate it so much. I usually end up asking myself immediately before and immediately after being on stage. The best answer I have been able to come up with over the years is that reading something you have written out loud to a bunch of people you don’t know is just about the best way of knowing if what you’ve written is any good or not. You’ll know pretty quickly if it’s not working, either because the room is completely silent or you can hear people talking (or you can see them on their phones, which I have totally done at a reading myself so I’m not any better). So with all of that in mind, I have started to go back to poetry events, both as a reader and as an audience member. This is what led me to check out the St. Catharines Poetry Slam, which is held on the first Friday of each month at Mahtay Café.
Poetry slams, for those who have not been, are a bit different than a regular reading as these are competitions and there is a winner at the end of the night. After a short open mic to get people ready, and after judges are selected from the audience, the rules and format are explained (there are quite a few rules, and some slams take them more seriously than others; as you can imagine St. Catharines is a little more relaxed about this stuff than somewhere like Toronto). Somewhat poorly remembered, here’s how this works: Each poet performs for three minutes, and if they go over they lose points for each extra ten seconds they take. Their time begins as soon as they start talking or if they gesture to the audience in any way (Kathleen, who runs the slam, mentioned to me that a poet from out of town once wanted points deducted from someone for pointing to someone’s shirt in the audience because they considered that a prop, which seems wonderfully pedantic). There are at least two rounds, and if enough poets signed up there are eliminations between rounds. The winner gets to do an encore.
Honestly, I think you can ignore all of that if you’re in the audience; you should only care about the rules if you’re trying to win. One phrase you will hear repeated throughout the evening is “applaud the poet, not the points” and that is exactly right, especially with how many first time performers there were. So if you want to hear some local poetry or if you’re thinking of getting some feedback on your own work, you should go check it out. And if the thought of getting on stage leaves you feeling sick, you can take some solace in the fact you’re not the only one. If you’re like me, just remember gum.
The St Catharines Poetry Slam takes place on the first Friday of every month at Mahtay Café. Check the café’s schedule or visit the St Catharines Poetry Slam Facebook page for details.