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culture

Poetry That Speaks Truth to Power

This National Poetry Month, Toronto poet laureate George Elliott Clarke thinks you should check out some spoken word.

Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Toronto poet laureate George Elliott Clarke will make you believe in spoken word poetry. To celebrate National Poetry Month, he suggests attending one of the city’s live poetry events for a transfiguring experience. Does a King of the Dot battle rap event count? Clarke doesn’t rule it out—he might even be at the next showdown.

Spoken word poetry, which traces its roots back to ’60s free speech movements and Jamaican dub music, has been largely dismissed by print poetry and academic circles. But it keeps gaining momentum—in part, Clarke says, because of the rise of hip hop. Spoken word encourages marginalized and disaffected youth to harness words and describe the realities of their lives. He describes it as “the snowboarding of the inner city where youth show off their skills.”

Literary magazines and journals, Clarke explains, tend to promote what he calls “a tradition of difficulty,” preferring poems that are intellectually structured and challenging and rich with cultural references. Although he agrees that it can be rewarding to unpack these print-based works of poetry, he argues that they can further marginalize the already marginalized voices of performance-based work. “Poetry for everyday people isn’t embraced by the princes and princesses of Canadian poetry.”

Clarke is friendly, engaging, and prolific—but when he throws that kind of shade on institutionalized poetry and establishment culture, you remember that he’s pretty badass. Since 1979, he’s been awarded numerous prizes for both his poetry and his commitment to exploring and redefining black Nova Scotian culture. The City of Toronto recognized him in 2009 for “his local and national leadership role in creating an understanding and awareness of African and black culture and excellence in his contribution to redefining culture.” He’s continued his work promoting marginalized voices as Toronto’s poet laureate, a role he took on in 2012.

He finds distinct relationships between class, race, and spoken word poetry. “Spoken word is seen as barbarism in our elite society as opposed to the calm reflection of a studious poet,” he says. If the audience members feel elite, overly aware of themselves as part of a hierarchy, they won’t hear the truth the poet is expressing on stage. “Spoken word is spellbinding,” Clark explains, “and it asks the audience to suspend their disbelief.”

Here are just a few of the events being held around town during National Poetry Month:

Toronto Poetry Slam FINALS! Featuring Joshua Bennett: April 19, 8 p.m., The Royal Cinema (608 College Street), $15 advance/$20 door

Roots Lounge Open Mic and Poetry Slam: April 20, 8 p.m., Harlem Restaurant (67 Richmond Street East), $5

Outrageous: April 29, 9 p.m., The Central (603 Markham Street), FREE

Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night) XVII: April 29, 7 p.m., Beit Zatoun (612 Markham Street), PWYC

And even if you can’t make it out to one of the many poetry events being held this month, you can pick up one of these works recommended by George Elliott Clarke:

Under My Skin by Orville Lloyd Douglas.
Clarke: “I can’t sugarcoat it. Your eyes are going to burn, your brain is going to burn. You can’t sleep after reading Orville Lloyd Douglas.”

What Does a House Want?
by Gary Geddes
Clarke: “These desperately accessible poems should be widely read. It’s strong political poetry that works because it’s so plain.”

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