Mental Health / Poetry / Poetry Slam

Therapy Through Lyrical Art

(originally published in the St.Catharines Standard)

KT Job isn’t lying on a couch with her feet up and a well-paid therapist a few feet away.  She isn’t alone in her bedroom with a pen in one hand and a well-worn secret diary in the other.  Instead, the 27-year-old who describes herself as “gender questioning” is standing in front of a microphone in a dimly-lit cafe where 50 people are staring at her intently.

“I experience gender like a moth flitting between two lamp posts labelled male and female. I can never land on either except for painfully,” she says with an authoritative and crisp delivery people might notice if the subject matter weren’t so jarring. So unexpectedly honest and raw.  “I’m lost in the GLBTQ alphabet soup. Awash in a sea of androgyny. I’m stuck with womanly parts, a man’s heart and no desire to transition,” she says. “On a scale of rainbow to fifty shades of grey, I fall somewhere in the dangerously ultra-violet range.”  In her three-minute poem, the St. Catharines woman goes on to talk openly about being a victim of hate crimes, domestic abuse and her struggles with loneliness and depression.

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Unlike in so many other situations Job comes across, this audience doesn’t judge.  They clap, snap their fingers in a collective show of support, and cheer at the end.  For Job, slam poetry, as these monthly gatherings are known, is free therapy.  “The three minutes I’m on stage are pretty much the only time where I’m completely, 100% honest and true to who I am,” she says after the two-hour show is wrapped up. “For me, it’s a chance to be my real self. I’m not having to put on a certain side of myself that’s acceptable in a certain context.”

Job, who also uses her biology degree to talk about environmental issues, freely admits she’s a recovering drug addict who is “well-acquainted with the mental health system in Niagara.”  But she says life is better now than it was before she found slam poetry a few years ago.  “It has made a big change in my life,” she says. “It has allowed me to be a lot more okay with certain parts of my life that I never used to admit to anyone.”

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Job and Jaimie Godard are the co-organizers, of sorts, of the St. Catharines slam poetry team. But they shy away from the spotlight and say it’s a more of a collective. They credit Thomas Hoad & Jason Collins with getting the St. Catharines scene started and say that when decisions on when, how and where shows are run need to be made, all are decided as a larger group.

The two, along with Ken Brennan, of Port Colborne, and Niagara Falls’ Robin McCuaig (who performs as Blue Jay) make up the four-person 2014 competitive team, which is headed to the slam poetry national championships next weekend in Victoria, B.C.

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Like a competitive sports team, the four earned their spots by scoring the most points in the 2013/14 St. Catharines season. Events are held the first Friday of every month at Mahtay Cafe on St. Paul St. and poets are given base points for taking part and then more based on how much the crowd likes their work. Scores are given by five random audience members.

The popularity of slam poetry locally continues to increase, to the point where poets sometimes have to arrive early to get their names on the list to perform and the cafe is usually standing room only.  “We tend to pack the house and we always have new poets coming,” says Godard, who came to slam poetry from music and said it’s a much different vibe.  “As a musician, it’s hard to find a crowd that will actually listen to what you’re doing. At a poetry slam, that’s what they’re there to do. It’s interactive and you never know what you’re going to get.”

On this night, among the list of poets are a disabled young woman who reads out her poems using a voice box, a former rapper, a 19-year-old Brock University student and a slam poetry veteran who requests the cameras and recording devices in the room be turned off so that she can remain anonymous.

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Dennis Scherle, the 19-year-old student from Welland, found slam poetry last year after being introduced to it by a philosophy teacher.  “It’s like a release of so much passion and saying what you have to say,” he says. “The audience listens so well and respects the information no matter what you say.”

Like many in the slam scene, Scherle looks up to Canadian Shane Koyczan as the Michael Jordan of spoken word poetry and credits him with helping to grow the community. Koyczan spoke at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics and his poems have millions of views online.  “He’s just someone everyone respects and he’s a lot of people’s gateway poetry,” he says.

Scherle uses a hip-hop style to deliver a poem about his love for a girl.  “She is the chemical in my brain that creates happiness. Like an adrenaline rush that consumes my heart and curves my lips into a goofy smile,” he says during his performance.

Others on stage go darker. Some talk about suicide, rape, domestic violence.  It’s clear, Job isn’t the only one for whom these performances are therapeutic.  “For some people, it’s the only chance they ever get to speak out about a certain part of their life,” she says. “The judging is almost incidental at a certain point. We’re clearly here for more than that.  “When you go up on stage and say these things and then someone comes up to you after and says ‘hey I’ve had that experience too,’ you realize you’re not alone.”
@DanDakinMedia (twitter)


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