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Spatula. Lucid, plum. Jeopardize, jazz and divulge. Could you make a poem out of these words? In five minutes? If so, you're a good contender for Poet Jam, a lively poetry group that two McGill undergraduates created last September.
The university needed a group like this, said co-founder Heidi Rosbe, a computer science and math student. "The [Montreal] poetry scene is not geared towards amateurs and younger people." Poet Jam tries to fill that niche and has attracted a wide cross-section of students in the process (members major in everything from English to physics to management).
Most students know of Poet Jam through its bi-monthly poetry slam. Slam, a form of competitive performance poetry that encourages its audience to cheer and heckle, has been shaking preconceptions of poetry in other parts of the continent since its 1987 beginnings in Chicago. Competitors must create a poem no longer than three minutes, performed solo with no musical accompaniment, and pass through several rounds. Each round, slammers get eliminated by the audience until a victor emerges. In the past decade the boisterous and interactive phenomenon has generated other epicentres in Vancouver, San Francisco and New York. But not Montreal.
Poet Jam member and slam coordinator Kara Melmed wants to change this. Montreal needs a slam scene to make poetry accessible to a wider public, she said. "Yelling at the poet, whether egging them on or disagreeing with something they said, brings out so much more [of the poem]," explained Melmed, smiling. "It's silly. Poetry is silly."
But are students interested in poetry? The last slam, held in January at a spacious St. Denis loft, attracted 130 onlookers, mostly from McGill. For Melmed, this is proof that poetry connects with her peers. "Students are seekers of knowledge," she said, and poetry is a roadway that gets them there.
Fred Vatcha, a new Poet Jam member and organizer of the now-defunct Wednesday's Child open-mic poetry event, isn't so sure. "It's so hard to get people to go to a show," he said, "because they don't know what they're going to get. They feel like they can't relate." He worries that most people equate poetry with the musty Victorian verse teachers forced them to recite in high school, and a cursory survey of students lunching in the Shatner building confirms this fear. Most felt no need, no time or no desire to read poetry.
Sitting with the Poet Jam group at their Tuesday night meeting, it is clear that the reports of poetry's death are highly exaggerated. The members engage with the art. They play with words, juggle rhythm, and experiment with images. The general feeling is convivial, even familial. People straggle in and out throughout the evening. One woman knits a yellow bracelet while she listens. Five newcomers sit around, though one would be hard-pressed to identify them. They blend into the slightly anarchic meeting that rolls erratically from writing exercises to announcements to poetry readings. Members listen attentively to each poem, occasionally nodding or snapping their fingers at a particularly clever line in a beatnik show of approval, and when the poem ends the dissection begins. Listeners list strengths and weaknesses and suggest improvements. The criticism is incisive but respectful.
Newcomer Craig Stein was impressed by the set-up and by the commentary he received. "It's great to have a forum like this to get direct, honest feedback," he said.
The forum came about almost by accident. After bemoaning the lack of campus poetry groups over breakfast last fall, co-founders and best friends Heidi Rosbe and Alelia Parenteau decided to form their own. Not really sure how to go about it, they booked a room, put up some posters and told everyone they knew. Twenty-five curious people showed up to the first meeting. The mailing list soon stretched to 80 names and the bi-weekly meeting continues to attract 20 to 25 participants.
The group is now trying to reach beyond McGill's gates. Next year, Rosbe imagines weekly meetings alternating between Concordia and McGill. She also wants to encourage as much community participation as possible.
Parenteau, who graduated in December with a BA in literature and environmental studies, is a little reluctant to see the group expand. "Part of me wishes it would stay this small; part of me wishes it would grow really big," she said, proud that the other members feel driven to make Poet Jam larger. "People are so excited, that it's going to keep going [next year]. That's one of the real measures of success to me."
The next slam will be held March 27 at 10 Ontario Street W., apt. 808, at 8:30 pm. Poet Jam meets every second Tuesday from 7-9 pm in Rm. B20 of the Arts Building. For more information, email contact firstname.lastname@example.org