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Strength in diversity: Ottawa’s first-ever women’s poetry slam a rousing success

By Apartment613 on February 1, 2012

Review by Averie MacDonald. Pictures by Joel Eastwood.

To call it “girl power” wouldn’t really do it justice.

But there was definitely something powerful hanging in the atmosphere last Saturday night at Ottawa’s first Women’s Slam Championship.

To be sure, it was a night about women. The line-up featured a handpicked selection of Ottawa’s finest female poets. The poetry was full of empowering messages passed from sister to sister. Even the music fit the theme — DJ Prufrock spun an all-girl soundtrack featuring legends like Lauryn Hill.

But the slam went beyond a campy, Spice Girl-esque notion of female solidarity.

It was more about the poetic community women have helped shape here in Ottawa: a vibrant and diverse scene that puts our city on the map in Canadian spoken word.

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The theatre at Arts Court was packed as the slam began. Eager audience members spilled onto the front of the stage and squished into the staircase (a big “no-no”, we would soon find out).

Apparently, Ottawa had been waiting for a women’s slam.

“When we announced it was going to happen, there was this sort of instant reaction of ‘it’s about time’,” Kate Hunt said in an interview after the show. Hunt works for VERSeFest, the Ottawa poetry festival that staged the women’s slam as a fundraiser with help from Capital Slam Slam Master Rusty Priske.

Soon, host Ruthanne Edward took to the stage to kick things off.

After a strong showing by sacrificial poet Mia Morgan, the name of the first competitor was randomly drawn from a hat. But it seemed more like fate that Sepideh was called up.

“God is a man, but mother nature is a woman,” the young poet proclaimed, launching the slam with a powerful piece comparing the destruction of the environment to the abuse women often face in our society.

“No one ever wants to go first,” Sepideh said in an interview after the show, “but I think for a women’s slam it was a fun way to open.”

But just as the crowd began to feed off Sepideh’s momentum, there came an annoying interruption. In an awkward moment, Edward broke the news that the show had been oversold.

The brave young souls occupying the floor and staircase would have to find a seat (there were none empty) or leave the theatre.

Luckily, the poets came to their rescue. The performers sprang to their feet, vacating the front row they were occupying and heading backstage.

After much seat shuffling and some gentle herding by Edward and the VERSeFest volunteers, the show was back in action.

Each poet was different. They were white, black, and brown, gay, straight, and gender fluid, tall and short, young and old. Veterans of the Ottawa poetry scene, like Capital Slam co-founder Elissa Molino, appeared alongside newer talent, like 14-year-old spitfire Scotch.

After all 12 poets had performed once, a theme emerged: there’s strength in diversity.

Though the word has become somewhat cliché in the female context, the only appropriate way to describe the second half of the show is “fierce.”

Jenna Tenn-Yuk laid it all on the line with a fiery performance about being caught between two identities that many see as irreconcilable — gay and Christian. Her intense honesty was followed up by a hilarious but equally moving piece from Festrell, about the difficulty of navigating what “female” is.

Some women roared. Others, like the impossibly smooth Elle P, made us lean in closer, straining to pick up her subtle, rhythmic rhymes.

When it came time for Rage’s second performance, she struggled to remember her poem about the discrimination she’s faced in her own Ottawa neighborhood in post-9/11 North America. She painted such a heartbreaking picture, and I choked up as she finished and apologized for “messing up” her poem.

For those who’d never seen her before, perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the young but mighty Scotch. At no more than 14 years old, Scotch blew the audience away with her wisdom.

Anyone who’d been paying attention to the scores (assigned by randomly-selected audience judges) knew that this slam would be a nail-biter. Every poem scored between 26 and 29.

Finally, Edward announced the inevitable.

“I want to announce the fourth place winner, but I can’t,” she grinned.

The event ended up not with four ranked winners, but two sets of ties for the first and second-highest scores. Sepideh and D’ Lightfull were in first, with Festrell and Elle P as close seconds.

“I think it’s fantastic … that really all we have are first and second ‘co-winners’,” Kate Hunt said after the show.

She sees big things ahead for female poets — and not just in Ottawa.

“I’d love it if we had a sitting women’s champion,” she said, her eyes alight with excitement, “I wouldn’t mind seeing other cities start it up and maybe we could get a women’s nationals happening!”

Whatever it was in the air Saturday night, here’s hoping it sweeps across the nation, soon.