Women’s slam poetry competition opens doors to marginalized voices

Rhube Knox is one of the organizers of the women's slam competition.

By Maggie Parkhill

Poetry is, and never has been, just for teen diaries. To some local and marginalized voices, it can be a much-needed outlet for the expression of voices often silenced in other media.

Local poets Rhube Knox and King Kimbit (who only goes by her poetry name) know all about the need to express themselves. Knox doesn’t identify with any gender and Kimbit is a woman of colour. To further their own poetry ambitions and those of others they organized a women’s slam poetry competition on Tuesday, Nov. 21.

The idea for the event was sparked at a meeting of the Urban Legends Poetry Collective. The organization wanted women to organize a women’s slam and Knox and Kimbit took on the idea.

“Even though (most slam) competitors seem to be … equal, when I look at who wins, it’s often men,” says Knox. “I think it’s a sign that women’s narratives are often devalued, which is why I think a women’s-only slam — or a non-men slam, because it is inclusive to trans people and femmes — is super important. It’s often those kinds of narratives that people roll their eyes at, and that people don’t want to give big scores to.”

Knox has seen both sides of the gender imbalance.

“I know that, as somebody who has lived as a man and lived as a woman, my opinions, my insights were always more respected when I was a man.”

King Kimbit is working on a recording of her spoken word material.

Knox was, for a long time, a secret poet, writing in notebooks and stashing them away.

“I’ve written poetry my whole life — never necessarily wanted to admit to it,” she says, laughing.

When her roommate started inviting her to poetry slams, Knox didn’t think it would be her cup of tea.

“I was like, ‘poetry is stupid,’” she recalls. “But we got close, so I decided to go to one.”

It was a VERSeFest invitational. And after listening to the performers, Knox quickly changed her mind.

“There were a few poems that gave me chills — my whole body felt it,” says the 24 year-old. “And I was like, OK, this isn’t as stupid as I thought it was.”

Knox attended some writing circles and eventually started competing in Urban Legends slams, a gladiator-style spoken word competition. She started off writing mostly about love (“which doesn’t score well, but it feels good!”) before moving on to more challenging themes such as trauma, gender and sexual identity.

“It’s hard, it’s really hard, to actually get past those roadblocks and actually write,” Knox says. “But once you do, it’s the best. Every time I read a poem in that vein, someone will come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Thank you so much for sharing that. I thought that I was the only one.’ And that makes poetry worth it.”

Knox says the poetry community in Ottawa is growing because it is welcoming.

“Anybody new who has come in… very quickly feels supported in developing their art and getting up on that stage,” she says. “It feels like they have allies and friends in there. People want to bring people and be a part of that.”

Kimbit agrees.

“Urban Legends is kind of like my home,” she says.

Kimbit has won a Grand Slam with the collective, competed nationally on its team, and acted as Team Captain in 2012. She says Urban Legends is a great jumping off point.

“Slam is a medium for people to come up,” says Kimbit, noting that Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Ottawa’s English language poet laureate, has also won a Grand Slam and competed with the Urban Legends team.

After her win and the national competition, Kimbit said she decided to start her own project. She’s putting the final touches on her first spoken word album, Life Lessons Poetically.

“It’s a good way to make connections,” she says of the slam community. “Once your name is out there, you can do whatever you want — if you’re good at it.”

Deepening those community connections is the collective’s writing program for younger poets, Youth Speak. Kimbit and Knox are both facilitators.

“We just cater it to whoever is there,” Kimbit says. “We don’t want to force it on them. They can just come by.”

Urban Legends also runs a program for young  people called Youth Speak out of the North Gloucester and Main library branches, free of charge on Monday nights from 5 to 8 p.m.

For Knox, participating in Youth Speak is just as beneficial for her as it is for the youth she works with.

“The thing I love about working with youth is that they’re going to be better than me,” Knox says. “The more humanity moves on, the better we get. And you see it in just a few years — somebody maybe a decade younger than me is so far ahead of where I was then.”

The facilitators provide an extra set of eyes for young writers, and can help connect them with other resources.

“Recently I had a young poet who was writing from the perspective of a woman,” Knox says. “We were able to have a really productive conversation, and I read him some poetry of my own that I think really opened his eyes to a woman’s experiences in the world. And as a 14-year-old kid, you don’t really get that.”

The Women’s Slam takes place Tuesday night (Nov. 21) at Live! on Elgin, at 220 Elgin St. Competitors can sign up at the door at 5:30, and the show begins at 5:45 and goes until 8 p.m. Scores earned at the competition will go towards a women’s finals to be held at a later date. The winner of that round will be sent by Urban Legends to compete at the international women’s slam in Texas in the spring.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Carleton University journalism program and Centretown News.

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