Something in the Ottawater: Rusty breaks down the city’s Slam scene

Rusty Priske (blog/Twitter) is the Slam Master at Capital Slam and has represented Ottawa on the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word a record four times. He is an unabashed Slam proselytizer.

Rusty Priske

The slam scene in Ottawa is my home, just as much as any place with four walls and a roof could be.

It has helped define my life over the past five plus years and I can hardly remember what my life was like without it. Of course, that just may be due to my failing memory. I am getting old, you know.

My faulty memory aside, I am one of the oldest slammers on the scene and I believe I have been involved in slam longer than most in our local community. (Though we have some vets making a comeback appearance this January!)

So what makes the Ottawa slam community so special to me?

Let’s go back to the beginning… to my introduction to the world of slam. My wife, Ruthanne Edward, and her friend (local blogger and columnist) Nadine Thornhill had decided to go to something called Capital Slam back in January of 2006. I had never heard of slam and wasn’t really interested in poetry, but I agreed to come along. It was held in a bar on Bank St. called the Gap of Dunloe. By today’s standards, it is hard to imagine a Capital Slam in a place like that. The lay-out was not good for a show and the bar was still open for ‘non-show’ business, so the poets were sometimes competing with the bar patrons for ‘ear-space.’

That show was not only the first for all of us, it was the first performance of Nathanael Larochette, who went on to be the Director of the Capital Poetry Collective – the organization that produces Capital Slam. It was the first performance of Mosha Folger, who became a well-known face on the scene. That night happened to be hosted by John Akpata, the first ever Capital Slam Champion and the long-standing host of Monday Night Scribes on CHUO. The scorekeeper was Steve Sauve, who was often considered the heart of the scene, and our greatest loss.

By the end of the show, I had an idea for a poem I wanted to write.

A few months later Greg ‘Ritallin’ Frankson announced that he was stepping down as Collective Director and that Elissa Molino and Danielle Gregoire were taking over. They produced a volunteer sign-up list and before I knew it, I was the Collective Treasurer.

The sense of belonging happened immediately. I found myself surrounded by people who LOVED this art form that was sinking its tentacles into my brain and heart. I got to know people like Danielle and Nathanael. I got to know people like Steve and Festrell. I got to know people like Kevin Matthews and Jessica Ruano.

Well-known Ottawa spoken word poet John Akpata (Photo credit: Pesbo, via Flickr)

But that was the slam scene in 2006. Support was passionate but the scene was still fairly small. Capital Slam moved from bar to bar, trying to find its feet. It wasn’t until the 2007 finals that we booked the Mercury Lounge, at the suggestion of Andrew Brittain, our CD producer from Mudshark Audio. We had no idea that we had found another integral piece that would help define Capital Slam over the next years.

The next piece came in the form of a single poet that somehow heralded the start of a movement. In the summer of 2007 Ruthanne and I were at a Dusty Owl show (one of the long-standing poetry readings around the city), and a name was called up for the open mic that we were not familiar with. Poetic Speed. We went and spoke to him as soon as we could and let him know that his incredible style of delivery and his powerful words would do very well at Capital Slam. That fall, first he came and slammed. Then OpenSecret came and slammed. Then Ibn Najeeb (then known as Marcus Jameel).

Ottawa spoken word poet Ian Keteku (Photo credit: Pesbo, via Flickr)

The floodgates were opened. People in Ottawa learned that slam was HOT and that you were guaranteed and awesome show when you came down. The artistic visions shown on stage inspired poet after poet to share their words and thoughts until we had gone from struggling to keep the show going and filling the stage to have sold out shows and a fight to get on the sign-up list in time.

For those years, Capital Slam was the only game in town but in 2009 Ibn Najeeb and Ian Keteku (by then they had both been Capital Slam Champions) formed Urban Legends at Carleton University. A slam with a very different feeling than CapSlam, though with many of the same poets, it only added to the growing excitement in the city. Throughout there have been other shows, like the Oneness Poetry Showcase (organized by CapSlam Champion Free Will) and the Bill Brown 1-2-3 Slam (organized by Capital Slam founder Greg ‘Ritallin’ Frankson), that came and went but not without leaving their own impressions on the slam scene. Former Capital Poetry Collective Director Danielle Gregoire also founded the Lanark County Slam (now known as LiPS), which sent the first rural team to the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.

Then, of course, there is Voices of Venus. Organized by Festrell and Amazon Syren, VoV created a place for women to share their poetry of all styles. When they came along, the Ottawa scene had become very male and VoV helped recreate the culture where everyone could feel comfortable sharing their art. While it is not a slam, the change in culture has certainly been felt on the slam scene as now nearly half of the poets that take the slam stages in Ottawa are female.

Adeena Karasick at last year's Voices of Venus (Photo credit: Pesbo, via Flickr)

The term ‘Ottawater’ was coined (to the best of my knowledge) by a Toronto poet named L.E.V.I.A.T.H.A.N. He was featuring at Capital Slam sometime after the 2008 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (held in Calgary that year), and he talked about how the Capital Slam team had caught many of the seasoned vets off guard. The team of Marcus Jameel, Poetic Speed, Nathanael Larochette and OpenSecret (I was team alternate) made a big splash, grabbing a third place nationally. He said that there must be something in the ‘Ottawater’ to make so many amazing poets.

If so, it has been working overtime as 2009 saw the CapSlam team (Ian Keteku, Poetic Speed, OpenSecret, Brandon Wint and myself as alternate) winning the National Slam Championship… only the third team ever to do so as Vancouver and Halifax had dominated the previous years.

Being with that team in Victoria and watching them perform to the best of their ability and win the championship remains one of the best moments of my life. The evening had started out very emotional for me already as Greg Frankson had done a tribute for Steve Sauve, who had died earlier that year. Then my team kept me an emotional wreck in an evening that ended with us holding the trophy high. (Ultimately it led to the formation of The Recipe, which is now the top spoken word group in the country.)

In 2010, the festival moved to Ottawa. That year, not only did the Capital Slam team (Chris Tse, OpenSecret, PrufRock, John Akpata and Brandon Wint) repeat as champs, but second place went to the brand new Urban Legends team! (Ibn Najeeb, Synonymous, Hyfidelik, Hodan Ibrahim and D-Lightful)

There was definitely something in the Ottawater.

And it didn’t end there! In 2011 the close bonds in the Ottawa slam community were never more apparent as when the Capital Slam team included Sean O’Gorman, who had taken over running Urban Legends along with Hyfidelik and Sarah Musa, and the Urban Legends team included Brad Morden, who had taken over as Capital Poetry Collective Director after Nathanael Larochette stepped down.

At the festival (held in Toronto this year), the Urban Legends team performed on the finals stage and ‘changed the game’ with a highly choreographed production of a Just Jamaal poem.

Ottawa's Youth Slam Team (Photo credit: Arrdeejayy, via Flickr)

But also at the festival, we got to see how deep those Ottawater streams run! A year before, at the festival in Ottawa, a poet from Toronto named Yahuda Fisher, announced his intention to add a youth slam component to CFSW. Greg Frankson and Danielle Gregoire had recently founded the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam and they sent  team made up of Switch, CauseMo, Scotch, Biting Midge and Blue (stage names are very popular in the Ottawa slam scene…). These young poets tore up the stage, doing a series of team pieces with a level of sophistication and complexity that rivalled anything on the main finals stage.

So where does that leave us?

The scene is always evolving. Capital Slam moved to two shows a month a few years ago and Urban Legends followed suit this year, so it is possible to go and see some amazing slam poetry every single week in Ottawa. Ruthanne Edward, long a fixture as doorperson at CapSlam shows, has been running Once Upon A Slam, a STORY slam, once a month for over a year. The slam and spoken word communities were an integral part of the first VERSeFest – Ottawa’s poetry festival – earlier this year. VERSeFest is now sponsoring the very first Ottawa Women’s Slam Championships, to be held in January, 2012. (Which will include some of the biggest names from Ottawa’s slam history). The next VERSeFest (Feb.29th-March 4th, 2012) will feature top spoken word names like Ursula Rucker, C.R. Avery. ‘Mighty’ Mike McGee, Shauntay Grant and more.

The Ottawa Slam scene is an amazing, vibrant community to both share and partake in one of the most beautiful and exciting forms of art possible. With the random nature of the judging, coming to a slam makes you PART of the show and, just maybe, you will find what you need there and step onto the stage. Many find that, once they do, their lives are never the same.

It is a community in every sense of the word, but I have another word for it. I call it ‘home.’

If you weren’t intrigued before, I’m sure you are now … Thanks for the amazing description of the Slam scene, Rusty!