One dollar and eighty cents doesn't buy much these days. But for Emily Campbell, aka spoken-word performer Magpie Ulysses, the tiny amount bought her a coffee, a cigarette, and a one-way ticket to Poetryville.
Two years ago, Campbell was living in Strathcona when she walked over to Union Food Market in search of a cup of joe and someone to sell her a cancer stick. She found herself in conversation with Sean McGarragle, who runs the West Coast Poetry Festival. “I had just started writing again,” recounts the 25-year-old, who wrote verse as a Lethbridge teenager. Interviewed at an East Side coffee shop, she continues: “And he said, 'You should come to a slam.' I was unfamiliar with the whole concept, and I was scared of getting into it because I was focused on going to school. But he kept calling, and so I did it and I did terribly.”
Several poetry slams later, the much-improved Campbell is taking the funny, observational work of her physically expressive alter ego Magpie Ulysses to the sport's National Slam competition for the second year in a row, this time in Austin, Texas, from next Wednesday to Saturday (August 9 to 12). But before she and the rest of the Vancouver Poetry Slam team””Patrick Swan, RC Weslowski, Nora Smithhisler””venture to the American Southwest, they'll be raising money for the trip in the Salmon Slam. The third annual competition pits the locals against crews from Seattle, Eugene, and Bellingham on Monday (July 31). (It's Part 2 of the contest, whose first installation happened in Seattle on July 25.) It will be held at Café Deux Soleils, the city's centre (along with Café Montmartre) for word spitters and performance poets (every other Monday).
“It's a warm-up kind of thing for the nationals, and to give people here an idea of what happens at a big slam,” Campbell explains. “People ask what's it like to go to the nationals, and I say it's like poetry camp””all the fundraiser stuff is like, 'Send your poet to camp.' You get to hang out for a week with 300 other poets.”
Campbell feels the scene here is undervalued, especially considering the consistently packed houses for local slams and the respect Vancouver teams have earned. But she thinks the low profile is changing as performer poets and past team reps like Shane Koyczan and Barbara Adler become better known through appearances at events like the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. And the Café Deux Soleils events consistently draw more than 100 people.
She's also excited about a new breed of poet catching the performance bug. Besides practising poetry and working three days a week at Insite, the Downtown Eastside injection site, Campbell presents workshops to high-school students as part of a group called Wordplay, and she's been seeing the results of her efforts at slams.
“Now there are so many young people coming out to the slams, and they're amazing””the older school is going. 'Wait a second, we have new reasons to get out there.' It's really strong writing, and really relevant too. Younger people tend to write more about current subjects, and with all the pop-culture references, it's really strong and does really well.” In the nick of time, too, Campbell says. “When I came into the slam a year and a half ago, people were starting to talk: 'We need new blood; we need new people.' I think it was growing a bit stale just as I was coming into it. And I was like, 'Don't let it die on me!'?” It turns out she didn't have to worry, after all.