In the realm of slam poetry, few have as long a resumé as Randy Jacobs, a.k.a. RC Weslowski. As a member of the Vancouver Poetry Slam community since its early days in the late ’90s, Weslowski has not only been integral to the longevity of Canada’s oldest poetry slam community, but he has also won over communities across the nation. Representing Vancouver seven times at national competitions, he has even taken his individual brand of playful, surreal performance poetry to international stages. Outside of performing, Weslowski is proactive in promoting spoken word both locally and nationally in various roles that include directing the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, founding the Vancouver Poetry House, and mentoring at the Ignite Youth-Driven Arts Festival in Vancouver. Add a few publishing credits and a Fringe show or two (including one in Winnipeg in 2011) to his name, and few can compare to the breadth of influence he has had on Canadian spoken word. None would be better to explore the competitions, the communities and their interactions with the literary world.
Steve Locke: In slam poetry, there is a common accessibility to language that is far from exclusive. Is it the immediacy of the performance that fosters such clarity in the message?
RC Weslowski: I think that yes, the immediacy of the performance plays a role. Poets have three minutes or less to connect with the audience, and unlike reading a poem where you can sit with it and come back to it, during a poetry slam, you only have the time you are performing to have an impact. That is changing a bit I think with the advent of YouTube and so many poems being online.
SL: How does slam function as a performance art form by and for
RCW: Quite literally, anyone can participate in a slam. There are no qualifications needed to get up on stage. No schooling and no pedigree are required to perform. You just need the courage to be seen and heard speaking your truth.
SL: There are issues and voices present in slam that aren’t often represented in mainstream artistic venues. Who does the slam represent, and where are their voices heard? How does slam make it cool to talk about topics such as trauma, politics and social justice?
RCW: Each slam is different and often reflects the needs of each community. A lot of slams are populated by minorities and people from marginalized backgrounds, and people who don’t surf the mainstream. Allowing those people to speak their truths validates their experiences, which might be why subjects such as rape or incest or identity pieces are often performed.
SL: How is it that a closeted page poet suddenly finds the chutzpah to perform on stage — in a competition, no less? And how does slam, in all its attitude and relevance, exist outside of competitions?
RCW: I can’t really answer why anyone would get the courage to get up on stage. Some people do it just to say they’ve done it. Some people are looking to connect and make new friends. Since poetry slams are competitions I don’t think it does exist outside of competition.
SL: Alongside their adult counterparts, there are functioning youth slams that often find their homes in high schools alongside theatre programs and team sports. These slams, which can take place at regional and national levels, inspire much of the same enthusiasm as varsity championship games. As an artistic expression and an alternative to sports, what does slam offer especially to developing youth, in urban centres and elsewhere?
RCW: It validates their experience, I think. People listen to what you have to say and they acknowledge your need to say it. I think poetry slams can offer a safe place for the high school outsider to fit in. Their weirdness and uniqueness is celebrated, rather than them being ostracized for it.
SL: The words “slam” and “poetry” are connected, but the genre draws from many sources, including hiphop and stand-up comedy. The pieces themselves can also take on different forms such as monologues, rants, lyrics, etc. Yours may be described as an unusual, absurdist style, which differs drastically from most other slam poets. Where do you draw your inspiration from, and what is your process of crafting your writing into a performance piece?
RCW: I get my inspiration from life. I look and listen for all sorts of things to potentially inspire a poem. I also feel that life is absurd in and of itself, and I try to reflect that. I love word play and puns, and so often, mishearing someone speak prompts the writing of a poem. I often start by writing by hand with a specific type of pen, and then when I get to edit and rewrite, I will use a computer. I will then say the poem aloud and that often is a means of changing it to fit how it sounds.
SL: If poetry exists to pull at heart-strings with provocative language, voice and images, and if the slam can be considered a game, then how does a poet play it? Does “playing the game” ever take away from the art?
RCW: I don’t really know. I suppose there is an art to “playing the game.” This would involve having a feel for how the night is flowing and what the crowd is enjoying and seeing how you can compliment that with your own work.