I'm often asked why I write. Those asking the question usually do so in the same way they might ask someone who pulled an all-nighter at a house party why they're still drinking.
It's not all the time that I can answer with a concrete metaphor. Speaking of concrete, they've got a friend of mine down on some right now. "They" being mall security. At Rideau Mall specifically, in downtown Ottawa. Four or five police are here, too.
They seemed to come out of nowhere, which is a bit unsettling. (I've seen The Matrix.) People are shouting. Some hippie with a hand drum is being picked up by two guards and carried up the escalator like a bag of laundry.
I'm trying to get badge numbers, and as a burly cop grabs me and gives me the bum's rush out of the mall, I reflect on how familiar this all feels. Almost comfortable, like a ratty sweater. But there's one problem: this isn't a protest. It's a poetry reading. No one's been able to tell me what law has been broken, and I don't think the cops even know themselves. It's one of those real secret laws, not in any book. Thou shalt have no other gods before the mall. ***
Back in Toronto a week later, I'm still trying to figure out what could have flipped the angry switch. Maybe someone tried speaking in iambic pentameter, which is widely known to enrage security guards. "It's archaic!" they shout before tackling the offender. But that's unlikely: the guerrilla poetry reading, which involved impromptu spoken word at various tourist traps, was part of the inaugural Spoken Word Olympics, a festival that attracted some of the most cutting-edge performance poetry talent in the country - and me - to Ottawa for a four-day poetry slam.
"What's a poetry slam?" you might ask. Of course, you might also just ask "What's poetry?" I'll answer the latter before an English professor gets a chance.
Poetry, despite what others may tell you, is not writing, any more than eating is a sandwich. Poetry is a basic metaphysical building block, a vital energy that flows through the universe - akin to electromagnetic fields or milkshakes. Without it, Lao-tzu would have had no subject for the Tao-te Ching, and KRS-One would be P-Diddy.
Poetry can be found in birds' nests and the sweet spot on a baseball bat. It's the raw material from which many things are made, including dreams, orgasms and writing.
The tone and quality of any given slam depends on the hosts, the participants and the audience (especially the audience - a slam is a wrecking ball to the fourth wall). At the annual Wordlympics, spectators were treated to a rare hybrid of hiphop, Hamlet and hockey.
There wasn't much high-sticking at the slam - props aren't allowed- but the crowd reacted just as wildly when someone snuck the poetry puck into the metaphorical net. Between the cheap drinks and the gossamer webbing of hyper-real consciousness that trailed behind poets' words to settle on the surprisingly comfortable lounge at the National Archives, audiences were worked up into the kind of ritualistic fervour you usually only see in National Geographic films. If you weren't up on your feet half the time, you weren't paying attention.
For the poets who turned the Archives into summer camp, the slam wasn't just entertainment. We were also studying. Not like in stuffy school, but as we do in bed, studying poetry like the skin of a lover. Adoring the way someone's body of work moved across the room like a ripple.
By the second night, I saw metaphor coursing through everything like lifeblood.
On Sparks Street, the unnervingly picturesque pedestrian mall south of Parliament, they were building something. Something big. They were using a dinosaur of a winch machine, and it seemed a perfect metaphor for what we were in town to do. It felt like we were engineers, comparing notes on aerodynamic words.
We were word collectors and word traders, word warriors and word healers. Each day, I learned how the vibrations of the human voice can so easily access all we keep hidden, like a skeleton key for all the locks that society requires us to put on the school lockers of our spirit.
Now idle chat just isn't the same. "Damn you," I'm likely to shout, "speak to me in metaphor!" Maybe that's what civilization's overzealous deputies instinctively sense: poetry isn't linear. It takes your mind on routes that can't be contained by shopping malls' shunts. It's advertising's dark reflection: it doesn't take self-loathing and plop it down on the counter to buy some lipstick.
Everyone has a sixth sense: their sense of metaphor, their ability to see parts of everything in everything else. Widespread use of that sense could be dangerous to a social order in which the people trying to get you to vote for them and the people trying to get you to work for them are becoming indistinguishable. Maybe that's why, as it turns out, CSIS called up one of the organizers before the festival. Were they worried by poetry?
The detained poet was released with a trespassing ticket and returned in time for dinner and a standing ovation at the lounge, where a whirlwind of hands into pockets paid his ticket in 60 seconds flat.
A day later, at the end of an effusive closing ceremony, poet and organizer Ritallin reflected on that sense of togetherness. "This turned from a festival into a community," he said, holding back tears. His sentiment received the last of the week's many standing ovations.
Now you know why I write. It's your turn to tell me why you don't.