QUEER Decoding Encoded Slam and Spoken Slam

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If there’s one thing I love more than poetry, it’s the tough definitions of what the heteronormative, neurotypical, and capable world defines as “love.” So when I heard about it UBC Arts and Culture and UBC Slam Poetry, QUEER Coded: Slam + Spoken Word, which was hosted at Anthropology Museum cozy Haida home, I knew I had to attend.

Not many people know where the Haida House is because it is tucked away far behind the museum, although its traditional Haida-Gwaii architecture makes it easy to find once you know where to look. I followed the breadcrumb-shaped candles that lit the path between the museum and the venue, already feeling like I was teleported to some sort of wonderland. And I hadn’t even heard the poets yet!

Once inside the Haida house, I met host Anjalica Solomon, whose incredibly warm smile is probably one of the many reasons the event was sold out. They informed me that they were hoping to have an open mic at the end of the night after the four artists featured, which was even more exciting news.

In the heat of the place, with string lights hanging on the wall as a backdrop for the poets on stage, it was easy to forget about the rainy weather outside. All that mattered was the hubbub of the human hum and the poetry I could almost hear swimming through everyone’s mind.

Solomon started the night by welcoming us with dim lights and an original musical composition about queerness and their self-discovery. But just before calling in the first performer, they called us in for a heartfelt cry of “when I say sexy, you say queer” that set the tone for the evening.

Chantel / Shane, the first performer, took to the stage with their guitar and a curious little device called a “loop pedal”. Having co-wrote a play with Solomon that was recently performed at the Nanaimo Fringe, they were all confident when they took on the host stage. As the self-proclaimed “mushroom mover,” they told us how they link their exploration of queerness to the science of mushrooms. Fascinating stuff for poetry, really.

They delivered four poems performed to background music that made you feel like you’re walking past the beach in summer, just relaxing. Their fast-paced slam delivery – a meditation on misidentification and identity – was contrasted by the beach music, and soon after, everyone slowly began to tap. And snap, because it’s a slam, of course.

The second poet was perhaps the one I identified with the most because she reminded me so much of myself: a dark-haired woman of color living in a culture dominated by whiteness. Namitha Rathinappillai vocalized in her slam the shock of her queer identity with her brown color, all with a nostalgic tinge of Mumbai mangoes (my favorite poem of the night). She is the former director of the Urban Legends Poetry Collective in Ottawa and I feel extremely lucky to see her on campus that evening.

Dene poet and Plains Cree Tawahum Bige was the third headliner for the event. Commenting on everything from the Trans-Canada pipeline to the neocolonial power systems that oppress Indigenous peoples, Bige’s mighty hip-hop-inspired slam was everything one could hope to see at an event like this. Bige’s arrest a few years ago for their fieldwork against the pipeline was certainly a powerful context in which to situate their poetry. Like they said about their poetry, “it’s weird, you’re gonna like it”, and I totally agree.

Dae Shields, aka ebonEmpress, and their poem partner JD pulled out a piano and drums to close the evening. Shield’s voice sounded like vanilla against the sweet notes of the piano as she recited wonderful verses about black identity and her place in white society. Her last poem, which was perhaps my favorite piece of her, was about being “immersed in the white,” which was a powerful note to leave us. As she told us later, her collective AfroVanCollect aims to raise awareness of the experience of the African diaspora and its impact on cultures around the world. In love with both the piano and the Afrobeats, I loved her set.

After the open mike that closed things for the night, I left the Haida house feeling more energized and empowered. The poetry of the night crept into my mind on the way back to the candlelight, and it was definitely an evening to remember.


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