I recently got to interview spoken word artist RC Weslowski. He is a 2017 VPL Book Camp Keynote Speaker and winner of the 2016 Sheri D Wilson Golden Beret Award and the 2012 Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Champion. In addition, he is a two time World Cup of Poetry Slam Finalist (2007 and 2013) and a seven time member of the Vancouver Poetry Slam. RC has led spoken word and performance workshops at festivals across North America and for the Banff Centre’s Spoken Word Program. He is the co-founder and co-director of Hullabaloo: the BC Youth Spoken Word Festival and is also the co-creator of Surrealist Audio Collage Podcast “Oh No Not Another Podcast.” If you live in the Vancouver area, you may have seen him at the Monday Poetry Slam at Cafe Deux Soleil on Commercial Drive or performing at art galleries and libraries with Pandora’s Collective.
I started by asking him, “What is slam poetry in your view?”
His reply surprised me. “Well, here’s the thing I like to tell people – there’s no such thing as slam poetry. There are poetry slams where people perform poetry and the emphasis is on performance. There’s no backup music or props, just poetry.” He also reassured me that while helpful, it’s not essential to have everything memorized to perform at a poetry slam.
I asked what skill sets are helpful in this art form and he mentioned that his background in clowning helps him be one with the audience, since clowning is an art form that acknowledges the audience as present in the room with the performer, as opposed to the fourth wall in theatre where actors in a play traditionally behave as though the audience is nonexistent. RC is one of the hosts of Wax Poetic on Co-op Radio, in addition to having trained and working in commercial radio, so I was also curious about the influence of his radio work on his performance poetry. Again he mentioned being present in the moment. Training in enunciation comes in handy too. “In performance poetry, as in radio and clowning, there is no fourth wall. The audience is part of the performance,” he explained. “You play to them in an interactive way, whether it’s gestures or body language or energy. You read the room because the audience is a character with you.”
“How is a poetry slam similar and different to page poetry, stage acting and improv?” I asked.
RC suggested that, “Performance poetry is similar to page poetry in that they’re both poetry. It’s similar to stage acting in that you rehearse and different from stage acting because there’s no fourth wall. Performance poetry demands that you be who you are. It’s incredibly similar to clowning in that it’s about the relationship with the audience and it’s similar to improv in that you read the room and go with the flow.”
“How do you train for a poetry slam?” I inquired.
“A short answer is to allow time for audience reaction. For example, if you’re given a three minutes spot, plan 2 1/2 minutes of material and allow time for the audience to respond. On occasion, a performer may want to speak intentionally quickly for dramatic effect, but for the most part for myself I go for an evenly paced set and build in time for the audience reaction,” he explained.
“Are there lifestyle and performance habits that help overall with becoming a confident slam poet?” I wondered.
His reply was enlightening. “There is no deadline on when you can start being yourself. Performance poetry involves a willingness to be seen as you are, whether you’re sick or excited or however you’re feeling. It requires being honest with yourself and your audience about how you’re really doing. It’s about taking off all the masks and being honest. I got into clowning and performing in late 1994 when I was 30, overcoming forced introversion that resulted from trauma and taking back my life, my words and the right to speak.”
“How can poets of all ages and walks of life get involved in slam poetry?” I asked.
RC answered, “Take off all your masks and trust yourself. Pay attention to how you feel. Active listening to the body is the gateway to all. Master two or three new things at a time. Be yourself. There are some great workshops that can help. Lisa Vaughn has a three day clowning workshop or an eight week once a week one.”
“What are some of your favourite poetry slam events in BC?”
“UBC Slam Poetry has an event every second Wednesday and there’s a poetry slam every Monday at Cafe Deux Soleil on Commercial Drive.”
RC Weslowski will be providing an introductory workshop in performance poetry for Fed members on April 6th, from 10 AM to noon at the BC Alliance for Arts and Culture. Beginners welcome. Please email Cynthia Sharp, the Greater Vancouver Regional Rep, at email@example.com to reserve a spot. Spots are limited, so reserve as soon as you can. It’s $25 for 2 hours of instruction in a small group of 15 people.
In RC’s words, this is the workshop description, a shortened version of the course he taught in Banff:
Silly Performance and Writing Workshop
In this workshop we will invite the worlds of play, exploration and collaboration into our lives through games and writing exercises.
The goal is to create a frame of mind where we are willing to break free of our preconceived notions of ourselves and be willing to be seen as silly in front of others. This is an opportunity to take off our masks in front of others and be accepted for who we are.
We will attempt to create an alter ego of ourselves that is able to express our silly and nonsensical side while playing with the knowledge that this alter ego is rooted in our “real self.”
By embracing the silly side of ourselves we are able to introduce a lightness into heavier subject matter and approach it with a kindness and empathy that can sometimes be difficult to come by when we usually talk with ourselves.
The group will be working both individually and with partners throughout.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your $25 spot.