There’s a set of stairs at 667 Yonge Street. They’re magical stairs. Go up these stairs, and you enter a different world. I’m not just talking about the world of cannabis culture—yes, this world is interesting, to say the least—but on this specific evening, if you entered Vapor Lounge after 8:00 p.m., you entered the world of poetry. And the world of poetry is more intoxicating than any drug.
I settled into an empty folding chair at the back of the crowded room; the chair sighed, “welcome back.” No, I’ve never sat in this chair before. In fact, this is my first time in this place. But the stage, the lights, the microphone, the crowd—the world of poetic theatre—is more home to me than my own bed. This is the place I come to read the pulse of my people.
Now, I’m sure you have your stereotypes about poetry readings. I’m sure you expect nothing but whiney girls or artsy “fags” reading their emo diary entries, and a sad, sad, sallow girl perched in the corner, wearing black clothing and a beret. If you attend a reading, you may find them there—the hipsters, the emos—whatever you want to call them. But you also might find some of the most amazing people Toronto has to offer. You might find the philosopher kings.
Poetry readings are conversations. They’re free and open discourses about all that stuff you have going on in the back of your mind. They’re the places where people open up their jackets, show their scars, and we applaud by snapping, our fingers clapping “me too”.
We talk about war. About death. About racism, sexism, capitalism, and all the other “isms” that otherwise go undiscussed because these subjects are too taboo or too “boo-hoo” to discuss in public.
I suppose at this point I should provide more details for you to picture this scene: after all, setting is key to story telling, and I’m telling you a story. Don’t get upset, but it’s a love story. It’s my love story. Now, you may not be in the mood for a love story—after all, they’re cliche—but bear with me, because this may be a love story you haven’t yet heard. This may be a love story that could change the world.
So here are the details an effective journalist must provide to have you envision her story: Vapor Lounge, Young Street. Low lighting. Mostly dudes. A stage at the front of the room, a bar at the back. Water costs a dollar. One bathroom. People in the audience scuffling around between sets. On stage, the curator of the evening introduces the next performer, who will be reading his most recent and polished piece of poetry.
A better journalist would know the curator’s name, but I didn’t take her name because I didn’t need it. Later, she’d perform her work, orating her story. Her story is more important to me than her name. I could tell you about the color of her skin, or the way she looked, or her involvement with this poetry organization, but all the details are periphery; what matters is the message.
The punch line is this—poetry is freedom. Now, I’m doing this all wrong, because I’ve given you the punch line before building up my story. A better journalist would’ve done it differently, with more respect for plot and narrative structure. But I’m not a conventional journalist, and this isn’t a conventional story.
Irving Layton once wrote “whatever else poetry is freedom” in a poem by that title. I’ve read this poem a thousand times, but tonight, I lived it. Poetry readings are the only existing form of free and democratic social conversation. What’s that? You thought you lived in a free and democratic society? Well you don’t. And these poets aren’t afraid to call that bluff.
These poets are asking us to look around and see the injustice in our society and to actively do something about it. When you call an entire social system out on its bluff, you’d better be able to provide evidence for your claim. These poets don’t have numbers or statistics; they don’t have charts or diagrams mapping the affects of a diseased society. They have only their story, which they offer as evidence that our world isn’t perfect. I listened to their stories, which collectively tell the same story: our world needs to change.
Poets are philosophers. In order to write effective poetry, you’ve got to chew enough on the raw bone of life; you’ve got to observe the details of experience. If poets were in charge, we’d all be less medicated, less isolated, and more actively involved in shaping a better future.
We’re unhappy. Were unhappy most of the time, but we’re not that unhappy so we don’t say anything or do anything about it because in Canada we have little to complain about in comparison to the rest of the world. So we sit down, we shut up, and we swallow unhappiness because it’s better than starving in Africa or living in war-torn homes in the Middle East.
We have the capacity for speech, but rather than speaking, we blame our ails on the government, saying they’re ineffective or corrupt, because it’s easier than taking responsibility. If our governments are indecisive, it’s because we’re indecisive, and we must necessarily start to understand this relationship if the world is going to change.
At this point in history, the Canadian and American governments aren’t governing effectively because they’re not listening to their people. But this isn’t the full story: conversation works two ways, and peple aren’t speaking.
Not only have we stopped speaking out, we’ve stopped speaking to one another. When was the last time you had a conversation with the person next to you on the bus? The irony of the present is that we live in an age where social conversation is so accessible, so readily available given the innovation of new media (the internet, T.V., Twitter, cell phones,Facebook, wordpress, etc.) yet, despite all the interfaces of digital communication, we’re saying nothing.
You can read the newspaper or watch CBC, but if you really want to know our social story, ask the poets. The poets of urban cities are speaking. These people have something valuable to say, and they’ve even taken the initiative of rendering it creatively for you to hear. Hell, in some cases, they’ve even made it rhyme. Is anyone listening?
So, I said this was a love story, and here it is: I love poetry. I love the people bold enough to write it, I love the people brave enough to speak it, and I love the people willing to hear it.
Layton was right: poetry is freedom.
Thank you to all those who read at the Vapor Lounge poetry slam this evening.