Capital Slam Celebrates Its 5th Anniversary
Interview by Ren Tomovcik

On October 17th, beloved Ottawa poetry series Capital Slam will celebrate its birthday in style with the 5th Anniversary event at Mercury Lounge. For half a decade, the slam has showcased local and visiting poets – from the first-time performer to the seasoned veteran – sharing a love for spoken word in a welcoming and friendly environment.  Now taking place twice a month, Capital Slam is more popular than ever, and still growing as it begins its sixth year.

Photo by Ruthanne Edward

Co-founder Greg ‘Ritallin’ Frankson and Slam Master Rusty Priske chat with Ottawafocus about the love of poetry, the history of the event, and five years of slammin’ in the capital.

What first inspired you to start up Capital Slam five years ago?
Greg: When Capital Slam started, there wasn’t a series in town that focused primarily on slam. With the demise of Step Up Slam a couple of years earlier, Ottawa wasn't in a position to help local poets improve in poetry slam on a broad level. The Canadian Spoken Wordlympics in fall 2004 meant a new era in Canadian spoken word, one in which a national event would be bringing poets together for slam. Elissa Molino and I founded Capital Slam to ensure we'd be ready for future festivals, and to add another dimension to the Ottawa arts scene at that point in time.

How has Capital Slam evolved, grown and changed since its inception in 2004? Greg: The series is now the second-longest-running poetry slam series in the country, and attendance has been so good over the past two years that the show is now taking place twice a month. There’s a whole different generation of poets, as well as a new and still growing audience. We’ve changed venues a few times and have now found a permanent home at Mercury Lounge.
  Did the creation of Capital Slam bring a new community together?
Greg: From the very beginning, we drew a crowd of poets who were mostly new to poetry slam in Ottawa, and we've been fortunate to have new blood come to the stage year after year. In that way, we have a few people who've been around the Capital Slam scene for five years, while there are some who just slammed for the first time last month. The beauty of our scene is that people go out of their way to make everyone – audience and poets, new participants and veterans – feel comfortable and welcome at our shows.

Photo by Ruthanne Edward

How does Capital Slam invite and entice new artists to take part?  Rusty: Some poets discover Capital Slam just from coming to the shows and becoming hooked on the excitement of spoken word – they just find that they want to create some art of their own. That’s how I got involved back in 2006. In fact, I would say that is the way most new poets get involved, but not all of them come in directly through Capital Slam. Some get their start at other series in town like the Bill Brown 1-2-3 Slam or the Dusty Owl Reading Series. We also get new poets out of schools, after they hear the Capital Poetry Collective director, Nathanael Larochette, perform for them as part of his day job.

Who are some of the better known performers who got their start at the Slam? Where are they now? Greg: Free Will, who was the 2007 Ottawa Slam Champion, has gone on to be a member of the music/poetry ensemble the Young Griot Collective, and has recorded poetry overseas with artists in Niger. DJ Morales, past two-time member of the Ottawa Slam Team, left Ottawa after the 2006 season for New York City, where she completed her post-secondary studies and has had a good deal of success in the youth slam scene in the United States.

Poetic Speed and Open Secret, both members of the past two Ottawa Slam Teams, are now widely acknowledged as part of the upper echelon of poetry slammers in Canada at the present moment – one of the reasons Ottawa is seen as a team to beat at this year's Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. There have been other great slam poets on the Capital Slam stage from the local community who have had tremendous artistic success, but all of those artists were slamming before our show got started.

Where does the money from the door go? Rusty: On the night of the show, after a small cut for the venue, we pay a fee for the feature performer, as well as a token appreciation to the winner of the night. We have always wanted to ensure that the show is about the poetry and not the prizes.

The bulk of the money taken in is kept by the Collective for two purposes: sending a team to the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and putting out a live CD. Sending a team to the festival entails plane tickets and accommodation, and depending on where the festival is held each year (this year it is in Victoria, B.C.), that can be a hefty price tag.

How do you choose the poets who compete in the festival? Rusty: Throughout the season, poets accumulate scores at individual slams. Those scores are turned into scores for the whole season, which runs from September to April. The top 12 poets from the year are invited to take part in the Capital Slam Semi-finals the first Saturday in May. The top 8 poets from that night continue on to the Capital Slam Finals on the first Saturday in June. Finally, the top 5 poets from the two shows combined make up the Ottawa team for the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.


What special events are taking place to celebrate the 5th Anniversary of the Slam? Rusty: We will be celebrating the history of Capital Slam during a special show. It will of course be a slam, because that is what we do, but rather than the usual open sign-up sheet, the participants have been invited to take part. We have chosen poets from throughout the history of Capital Slam. The focus will really be on that celebration rather than the competition. Confirmed participants include John Akpata, Kevin Matthews, Festrell, Free Will, Nathanael Larochette, Rusty Priske, Danielle K.L. Gregoire, Poetic Speed, Open Secret, Ian Keteku, Brandon Wint, with Greg 'Ritallin' Frankson acting as host and DJ Bryan Parnell bringing the ambiance.

Tell us about the CD that will be available for $15 on the night. Rusty: The Anniversary show will also be the official launch of our new CD, 'Live at Capital Slam 2009.’ Every year, the Semi-finals and Finals are recorded by Mudshark Audio. They clean it up and master it and help us produce an amazing CD that spotlights the top poets each season.

This year the CD is special in that we have added a previously unreleased recording from the 2005 Capital Slam Semi-finals featuring the debut performance of 'Heart' by Steve Sauvé. Steve passed on earlier this year and it was an emotional blow to the community, as Steve was a very important person to us. He was a great friend and a great poet. It is an honour to be able to share the poem that Steve was so remembered for, assuring that his legacy will continue.

Do you think that appreciation for live poetry/spoken word has increased over the last few years? What part has Capital Slam played in getting more attention for spoken word in the city? Greg: Spoken word has assumed a higher profile position within the broader Ottawa arts community in the past five years. There are numerous series that showcase slam poetry and spoken word in both official languages, on both sides of the river, that were created to cater to the widening audience for the art form. Capital Slam has been central in that evolution, because if we didn't have a regularly running slam series that gave a space to developing spoken word artists to hone their craft, it's difficult to see how we would have cultivated such a large number of very talented performance poets in a relatively short period of time.

Come and Celebrate!

Mercury Lounge in the Byward Market,  October 17th 2009
Doors open at 6:30 and the cover is $7.

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