Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side… but it was weeeeeeeell worth it!


For those who care, I’m featuring in yet another Storytelling at Caplansky’s this Sunday. Come on by if you’d like to hear some amusing stories with delicious smoked meat. Hosted by either Michael or Marilla Wex. Huzzah.

Nobody’s asking me, of course, but in case you wanted to know, I’ve been taking something of a break – let’s call it a “sabbatical” – from the Toronto poetry scene for the past five weeks or so. I’ve been devoting my time to looking for a new day job, debating whether I want to do another Fringe show next year (more on that in a future entry) and writing more reviews and stuff for Digital Journal. (Oh, and playing way too much online Risk. Addictive stuff.) Journalism seems to be the only thing I’m capable of doing halfway right these days, so I invite you to check out my more recent stuff on the Digital Journal site. Here’s the link. Clicky clicky. Don’t worry, it won’t bite.

Just to clarify, it’s mainly the Toronto community that I’m avoiding right now. If a series outside of the city is still interested in giving me a gig at some point (say, Guelph, Lanark County, Ottawa, Winnipeg…), I graciously accept. But I’m just not feeling the love in T.O. right now.

I started performing spoken word regularly in about 2000 or 2001 – several years before slam became, more or less, the only game in town – and yet, despite the friends I’ve made along the way and the small successes I’ve had, I’ve always felt like an outsider to the community. Look: I get it, people. I’m not a poet. My material isn’t poetry. It’s prose, imbued with elements of storytelling and comedy, but lacking in metaphor, concrete sensory images and emotional ear candy. My writing isn’t subtle enough, or finely crafted enough, for the “literary” scene, and it’s not hip enough for the slam scene. There seems to be no real place for anything ranking between those extremes.

So why have I continued doing this? Because I’ve enjoyed it so much. And because people have been generous enough to feature me in their shows so many times, despite the fact that I don’t really fit in. And I’ve been happy to support the community in return, even while occasionally being very critical of it, by attending readings, shows and festivals. But now, because of unrelated reasons, I’m not so sure I enjoy it anymore.

At any rate, I’ve come to feel that being part of the slam community – and maybe the poetry community as a whole – is a lot like being part of the Mafia.

Seriously. Being a member of the slam community feels like being a peripheral character in Goodfellas or On the Waterfront, in the sense that you never know when somebody you’ve mistaken for a friend will suddenly turn on you, on a whim, just because you said something stupid. To survive, you’ve got to stand in line with the rest, stick to your deaf-and-dumb act and hope you don’t fall outside of the established code.

There are people in the slam community who claim to be working hard to make slam a “safe” space for everyone – free from fears of violence, harassment and intimidation. And I understand and sympathize with the positive intentions behind this. It makes perfect sense. Everybody wants to be safe, right? Nobody wants to feel threatened in any way while out sharing your passion for an art form.

But there’s a side effect of this well-meaning activism that bothers me: it’s the witch-hunt mentality that comes out of it. Sometimes it feels almost McCarthyist. It’s as if people are actively looking for an excuse to call you out on something, either out of a misguided sense of good citizenship or just to get brownie points from the cool kids. Remember The Crucible? “I saw Goody Proctor mock the Trigger Warning!” “I heard Goody Putnam make a joke I didn’t like!” “I saw Goody Nurse do something that wasn’t a shining beacon of positivity!” Bring out the stake and matches.

And the irony of this whole thing is that now, I don’t feel safe or comfortable among the slam community anymore. Or at least not welcome. Because of this witch-hunt mentality I’m seeing, which sometimes comes out in subtle ways and sometimes is blatantly obvious, I have to be so careful of everything I say and do that it’s not worth the bother. Why does everything have to be so black and white, anyway? Sometimes I wonder if the real bullies are the ones with the noblest intentions.

And now it’s gone too far. Now, thanks to a couple of idiotic misunderstandings, I am told that I’m not a “safe” person to be around, that others feel physically uncomfortable in my presence. And why? Primarily because I included a certain offensive line while I covered somebody else’s poem.

And sure, there’s always been the option to accept my apologies and just let it go. Instead, it’s seen as more constructive to turn the whole mess into a lame real-life version of Mamet’s Oleanna.

I’m not saying we should all go around deliberately offending each other. That just makes you a jerk. Nor am I denying that people have the right to be offended or upset by racy content in someone’s poem, particularly if they have undergone terrible past experiences that make their emotional reactions involuntary. But isn’t there a certain point where you have to shrug and say, “Hey man, it’s art”? Art isn’t meant to be taken literally. Art is about self-expression, about revealing your own twisted view of the world, not about tiptoeing quietly around an audience’s comfort zones. And yes, sometimes art (especially humour) is going to shock and offend if it’s honest. I’m confused when somebody who listens to Eminem or watches Family Guy can turn around and scold a writer over a disturbing line in a poem. Why do Messrs. Mathers and MacFarlane get away with making terrible jokes about violence against women? Why are the rules different for them? Because they’re famous?

I’m no stranger to the usual humourless, knee-jerk, PC overreactions. I’ve laughed them off. There are worse things than getting self-righteous morality lectures from nineteen-year-old college students about how they think “Sally Dumps Jimmy” or “A Love Letter” is misogynistic, or how I supposedly wrote Grouch on a Couch for no other reason than an immature need to shock people with naughty language. Usually, I assumed that they needed to grow the hell up. Now, I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore. I don’t write or perform spoken word to make people feel “unsafe”. I think the situation is utterly absurd, but I’m not trying to make any trouble. Maybe I’ve been wrong all along, and the true moral point of view is this: if art and wit make one person feel “unsafe”, we should ban them. Let’s just end all art and wit. Let would-be artists devote their lives to nothing but Hallmark-card poems and photos of kittens with misspelled captions. What a fine and safe world that will be.

So that’s why I’m not going to poetry events in Toronto these days. I’ve removed myself from most of the Facebook communities – I don’t even want to know when the events are. And I doubt it’s making any difference. I mean, it’s not as if crowds of people are banging down my door and begging me to come out and read “How to Write Like a Lawyer” on an open mic.

But I am doing a spoken-word set in January at an improv show, if that counts for anything. At least the improv kids don’t feel “unsafe” around me. They get it: we all say stupid and offensive things once in a while. That doesn’t mean we’re all Mel Gibson.