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Calgary’s hidden spoken word community

By Miranda Krogstad, November 6 2014 —

People usually don’t get excited about spoken word poetry. The topic conjures images of darkly-clad artists with cigarettes and berets snapping to pretentious poetry.

But spoken word has evolved into a modern scene that looks a little less like a funeral and a little more . . . well, fun.

Just like any other live show on a Friday night, spoken word events feature some incredibly talented performers.

The easiest way to describe spoken word is if rap and free verse poetry got together and had a pretty baby. While the performances and lyrics are similar to a rap show, it doesn’t have tight restrictions in rhyme, metre and tempo. This gives the poet more freedom with their performance and word choice.

With a mix of sounds, styles and personalities, spoken word is all about bringing the audience along with you in a casual but polished-sounding piece.

While spoken word has become popular world-wide, it hasn’t gained the same sort of attention in Calgary. Miles Patterson, co-host of Calgary’s monthly spoken word event Expressions, says this is due to the underground nature of the art form.

“Music has been happening here for a while now, but spoken word is just new,” Patterson says.

Spoken word poetry events started in the 1960s, leaving it a few centuries behind art forms like music and dance.

Inonge Chimwaso, co-host Expressions, says good spoken word is about pushing yourself creatively and developing your poetry in a way that creates an emotional experience between the presenter and the audience.

The intimate nature of spoken word has helped it gain popularity online. Poems like Suli Breaks’ “Why I Hate School But Love Education,” have gained millions of views on YouTube.  Jefferson Bethke gained an incredible 28-million views for his poem “Why I Love Jesus But Hate Religion,” and Prince Ea’s poem “Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?” has attracted eight-million views in less than a month.

Beyond Facebook invites and phone calls, there isn’t a lot of advertising for spoken word events in Calgary. Many shows rely on the people returning monthly and bringing their friends along.

Although the local spoken word community isn’t as developed as it is in other cities, interest is steadily growing thanks to dedicated audiences  and aspiring poets eager to hone their skills.

As local events gain popularity, open-mic slots are filling so quickly that performers have to arrive over an hour early to secure a spot to perform. Expressions was forced to eliminate the musical portion of their event to accommodate growing crowds.

There are two must-see events in the city: Expressions at Cafe Koi and the Ink Spot Slam at Wine-Ohs.  Both kick off with an open mic, but that’s pretty well where the similarities end.

Ink Spot Slam is a slam — competitive spoken word — where Expressions ends each evening with a featured poet.

“Expressions was created so that those who were interested in slamming would have a place to share their pieces for the first time before they went on stage to compete with them,” Chimwaso says.

Patterson says that Expressions is more focused on learning as opposed to competing.

“We don’t have the competitive edge here,” he says. “We’re a space where people can come and grow, and become better poets. The slam has that too, but it’s just more restricting in that it has the time limit.”

Beyond open mics, there are a number of events where you can perform and listen to great poetry.  Whether you want a one-off night or a steady event to go back to again and again, there’s a wide variety of events to suit whatever style of spoken word you’re interested in.

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Open Mics & Slams

What it is: Non-competitive open mic featuring headliners for spoken word and music (amateurs welcome)
Place: Cafe Koi
Frequency: Monthly
Day of the Week: 2nd Monday
(3rd Monday in case of holidays)
Time: Open mic 8:00 p.m.
Headliners 9:00 p.m.

Ink Spot Slam:
What it is: Open mic and competitive spoken word (Slam)
Place: Wine-Ohs
Frequency: Monthly
Day of the Week: Last Monday
Time: Open mic – 8:00 p.m.
Slam follows open mic

Story Slam:
Place: Rose and Crown
What it is: Competitive story-based spoken word (Slam)
Location: Rose & Crown
Frequency: Every 3 months
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Next Event: Thursday, Nov. 13

Self Spoken:
What it is: Cash prize spoken word, a capella competition and open mic
Location: Rio Bar and Grill
Frequency: Seasonal
Day of the Week: Varies

Woolf’s Voices
What it is: Art, music and words honouring the feminine (male performers welcome)
Place: Shelf Life Books (special events may vary)
Frequency: Seasonal
Next Event: Nov. 12
Time: 7:30 p.m.

Artistic Expressions
What it is: A showcase of female empowered spoken word, music and comedy
Place: TYN Lounge
(The Yellow Nectarine)
Frequency: Seasonal
Day of the Week: Varies
Time: 7:00 p.m.

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