Poetry isn’t just for English classrooms anymore. Actually, it’s been out of the classroom and into Montreal’s indie venues with regularly appearing groups like The Throw Poetry Collective (Divan Orange), Slamontréal (O Patro Vys), and Madpoetix (Wiggle Room). One of the leading poets in the pack is Rabbit Richards, a Montreal-based poet who is heading to the annual Verses festival in Vancouver with the intent to take home the individual slam poetry prize, the first time the top prize in this event will be won by a woman. Rabbit currently has a campaign on Indiegogo to raise the needed funds to head across the country. I wanted to take some time to find out who this spoken word artist is.
In slam poetry competition, the poets are awarded points. The person with the most points wins. “You’ll hear people say the points don’t matter — and of course they do; you’re fighting for points. You’re grading art, and each person’s contribution is going in a different direction,” Rabbit says. “What makes it effective, is how the poet provides or pulls from the audience.”
Because there are so many different forms, Rabbit hesitates to define what makes for good slam poetry. “It depends on the intent of the poet. Lots of poets are interested in language or come form a literary background. There are poets who interested in social justice. Their goals are different. One might want to make you laugh at language, which is different result from poetry that should make you angry at expressed racism. Because of that, there’s a big spread.”
She notes that “connection with the audience” is key.
The art form of slam poetry has been extremely popular. “It’s one area of performance poetry that’s getting a lot more play lately,” she explains. “Maybe because it’s attractive to turn poetry into a sport, which is a terrible idea but also wonderful. It brings poetry to an accessible place, for people who think poetry is dry, musty, not interesting at all.”
Rabbit got into slam poetry after moving from New York to Montreal. “I am terribly shy so I wanted to move somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. It would force me to open up a bit,” she says. The move definitely helped her to open up and talk to people, and a series of “weird coincidences” brought her to performance poetry about three years ago. “I met a guy who worked in a coffee shop who also did art. He was setting up a show for an artist who cancelled. He said ‘I’ve got these dates. You should perform.’ I did them.” A year later, she did a one-person show. “I had a modest success and it was a lot of fun,” she says.
Like many poets and writers, Rabbit has been writing her whole life. In her case, performance was part of the art form from an early age. “If I think back to me as a 14-15 year old writing, I was always writing for performance, probably,” she says. “I was not thinking about how it read, but saying it. Weirdly, I used to give speeches to myself. I was interested in how it sounded and the impact it had. I was always writing in that direction.”
Still, she notes that “Writing for performance is a different thing. Pieces that I’ve written that are not suitable for stage, I use in a written thing or I publish them. Languages for written and spoken word are so different. It’s more subtle in English. If you speak as you write when you write as properly as you can… that’s not how people talk. In a performance piece, you want to talk the way people talk. You end up with more unfinished sentences, breaks in the middle, and cutting from one idea to another. Slam poetry is part of a greater arc of spoken word. It’s comedy too. There’s a big spread of what it can include, from storytellers and griots to poets and comedians. It’s a panoply.”
A great place to catch this variety of spoken word performers is at the Verses festival, one of two yearly spoken word festivals run by Spoken Word Canada (CFW). Verses is the annual spring festival and it includes page-based poetry, oral storytelling, singer-songwriters, and of course slam poetry. The Canadian Individual Slam Championships (CIPS) under the auspices of SpoCan (governing body of Slam Poetry in Canada) chooses the nation’s best individual slam poet. There is also a youth competition called Hullaballoo, and plenty of workshops. Montreal has sent delegates to the Verses festival for the last three or four years.
While slam poetry tends to attract men, Rabbit won a major competition in 2015, the Underground Independent Competition of Slam Poetry. “It was the first time a woman won the top prize,” Rabbit says. She explains that the reason why men tend to dominate has to do with the perception of stage craft. “A lot of times, volume carries the impression of emotion instead of genuine emotion. It’s a man-dominated art, but that’s changing. The Underground Independent Competition last year was weirdly and unusually female dominated. There were two female hosts for event. And when it came down to the end of the event, the competitors were women. It’s exciting to see the field change and how it changes the art form. If you’re a brand new poet, you’re seeing different representations for the field.”
Rabbit is genuinely interested in words, in sharing her art, and in educating others. While at Verses, she’ll be helping with the youth competition and assisting in some workshops. She’s already organized a few workshops in Montreal with more to come on topics that range from how writers can tell stories, to the impact of race and gender politics on the work done on stage, and of course fighting the blank page.
“You can’t be a word nerd and not into poetry,” she says.
While we’d all like to see Rabbit perform in Vancouver, let’s at least get her there. The Indiegogo campaign can be found HERE. It ends April 30. For $5, you can get Rabbit Richard’s 2014 Chapbook, $10 gets you a pack of stickers, $20 gets you a handwritten poem, and the rewards continue all the way up to a private workshop online or in person. You can also catch Rabbit Richards at the Throw Poetry Collective events and performing with the Kalumnity Collective who can be found putting on a show every Tuesday night at Petit Campus (57 Prince Arthur E).