Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

POETRY AT THE OLYMPICS: PODIUM OR TEDIUM?

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The inclusion of spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan’s “We Are More” in the opening ceremony for the Vancouver Olympics has created a lively controversy. Those who don’t generally turn out for poetry readings love it; It is, as many have commented, a slightly more literary version of the famed Molson “I am A Canadian” commercial/rant. We can probably agree on one thing here: controversy is never bad for an art as underappreciated as poetry.
In his 90-second paean to what he considers the greatest aspects of Canada, the hefty, neckbearded slam artist gets very sincere on us, selling Canada as a place that works, where hope is kept alive (perhaps he didn't visit East Vancouver on the way to the Olympics?).
The comments on Youtube about his piece are overwhelmingly positive, while others think the Slam Emperor is a bit under-dressed. Paul Vermeersch, who will be my successor as the WIR here on OpenBookToronto, observed on his Facebook status line: “It has been brought to my attention that "Slam Poetry" was somehow incorporated into the Olympic pageant last night. For me this feels a lot like finding out that a cousin I don't like, but who has the same last name as me, was caught masturbating in the grocery store.” Perhaps Shane's inaugural address will open the door to a nasty public fight between the slammers and the pagers?
Of course, those who like their poetry thoughtful and printed on paper would perhaps check the “agree with Paul” box and argue that Shane’s words are sentimental, one-sided, and short on complexity. It’s true that his lines sound more like a political speech's than a poem's, lacking the intensity and surprise of real poetry.
It's always hard writing "official" verses -- as many poet laureates have discovered, the overwhelming pressure to be positive and laudatory can kill the poetry, leaching out its natural tendency to irony and subversion. Is there real poetry to be found anywhere at the Olympics?
Well, you could follow the postings of Priscila Uppal, York U. professor and poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now Fund (CAN Fund) during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics (February 12-28, 2010). She’s writing poems about the athletes, the Games, and winter sport: “Basically, my job as poet-in-residence is to engage poetically with winter sports, the Games, Canadian athletes, the fans, and with the stories that will inevitably capture the nation’s imagination. I have loved sports and the arts my entire life, and have been working actively over the last several years to create opportunities for more dialogue and interaction between the two worlds,” she writes in
Poet’s Corner, Literary Review of Canada.
Here’s an excerpt of her work from “Ode to Sliding Sports”:
because grips are tentative
because the subtle shift of a shoulder can change solar systems
because life is slippery, enjoy when wet
because lie can be verb, noun, adjective, adverb, and preposition…

There’s certainly more playfulness and care for expression there than in Shane’s ode to a nation-not-easily-described-in-1.5-minutes. Or is there? What do you think?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page