It has been stereotyped as an activity exclusive to the coffeehouse — spoken word poetry: an excuse for sandal wearing hippies to congregate and snap their fingers. But to Dwayne Morgan, and scores of other people around the globe, itâ€™s a high energy, action-packed adventure into the hearts and minds of anyone willing to take the stage. Welcome to the slam.
Format: What are the origins of slam poetry and how did it become popular?
Dwayne Morgan: First of all, I don’t believe that there is anything called slam poetry. As poets, we write poems. A slam is an event. Slams started at the Green Mill in Chicago in 1986 as a way to get the audience involved in the show, and not make poetry events boring. The concept took off and now exists around the world. The slam is so popular, because people like the excitement of competition, and the poets give better performances when they know that they’re being judged. This type of energy is gaining in popularity, but in Canada things don’t catch on until they’re starting to go downhill south of the border.
Format: What is the difference between a poetry reading and a poetry slam?
Dwayne Morgan: A poetry reading usually has a poet on stage who is reading their material from a book where a poetry slam is an event where the poets are judged by members of the audience. This is a friendly competition, where the poet with the highest score ends up being the winner for the night. Up From The Roots hosts and produced the Toronto International Poetry Slam every year, which gives away $1000 US in cash.
Format: Which do you feel is more powerful, the written or the spoken word?
Dwayne Morgan: I think that the spoken word is more powerful, because you have a direct connection to the artist, and they can feel your passion, however, your work has to be able to stand up on the page as well.
Format: How did you first become involved in slam poetry?
Dwayne Morgan: I used to go and check out some of the shows that were being put on by an artist named Black Katt. At that point, I didn’t know that I could write. When someone heard one of the poems that I had written, they encouraged me to pursue it. This was back in 1993, and it’s all that I’ve done since.
Format: What is your creative process like when writing a poem? How do you go about writing a poem thatâ€™s specifically for performance?
Dwayne Morgan: I don’t write every day, or set aside time to write. I write when the idea comes to me. When the ideas come, they’re usually pretty vivid, so it’s just a matter of finding the right words to bring it to life. I don’t always know in advance if the poem is going to be something for the stage, but once I start writing, I can usually tell pretty early what’s going to happen with it. I never sit and say that I’m going to write something for the stage. I just try to tell a story that people can read or listen to.
â€œWhen someone picks up one of my books, they can read things over and over and let it sink in. When they pop in one of my albums, they get to hear me live with the band, and that’s a totally different experience,â€
Format: Youâ€™ve released several books and CDs. Can you talk about the different experiences someone might have when reading one of your poems, when hearing it, and when seeing it live?
Dwayne Morgan: I like the fact that people can experience my work in different ways. When someone picks up one of my books, they can read things over and over and let it sink in. When they pop in one of my albums, they get to hear me live with the band, and that’s a totally different experience, because you get background singing and amazing music accompanying the poetry. Finally, when people come out and see me live, they get to feel the vibe of my work and the passion that I put in to it. I have a lot of fun on stage, and I think that that comes through when I perform.
Format: How do responses to your show vary from country to country?
Dwayne Morgan: The response has been overwhelmingly positive everywhere that I go. I’ve always made it a point to have enough material in my repertoire to ensure that I go over well with any audience. I never plan my set prior to the show. I always get there, see what the audience looks like, see what happens on stage before me, and then go from there.
â€œI’ve always made it a point to have enough material in my repertoire to ensure that I go over well with any audience.â€
Format: One of the comments on your site reads, â€œAfter your performance, I saw many of my students who are deemed ‘at risk’ [â€¦] walking through the halls with copies of your book and CD.â€ How does a comment like that make you feel?
Dwayne Morgan: I make money doing what I do, but without sounding clichÃ©, making a difference is priceless. When you can touch people and have your work mean something more to them than you thought you could mean; it’s a great affirmation.
Format: Do you make a conscious effort to target youth?
Dwayne Morgan: I started writing when I was 18, and with what young people are watching and listening to, I think it’s really important that I show them another perspective. It’s important to challenge young people to think for themselves, and to be critical of the things that they see, listen to, and think.
â€œI started writing when I was 18, and with what young people are watching and listening to, I think it’s really important that I show them another perspective.â€
Format: What are some of the other creative outlets or projects that are a part of your life? Why have you chosen to pursue each one?
Dwayne Morgan: I started off song writing, but quickly switched to poetry when I realized that I couldn’t sing. I’ve since teamed up with a local artist named Matisse, and we’ve started song writing together. I’ve always had a love for photography, so I’ve started to pursue that a bit more as well. After filming a few short films, based on my poetry, I’ve recently written my first feature length movie, and I’ll be tackling my first one man show in the New Year. I think for me, it’s all about the story, and finding new ways to tell them. With each new way, there’s a new audience that gets exposed to what you do.
Format: Can you talk about your movie?
Dwayne Morgan: The movie is called â€œA Moment Between Friends,â€ and is an adaptation of my poem, Train 16A from my book, â€œThe Making of A Man.â€ Without going into details, it’s about a group of four high school friends who make a bet that they shouldn’t have. Once they’ve reached the point of no return, everything falls apart, and their lives are changed forever.
Format: Why did you start Up From The Roots?
Dwayne Morgan: When I first got started it was hard finding places to perform, so I decided to start my own company that produced events, so that I’d always have a place to perform. I met with the principal at my old high school, and he agreed to lend me the school to do my first show, which included a performance from now famous music video director, Little X. On that night, Up From The Roots was born, and it’s been going strong since 1994.
Format: How have you seen the company grow since its inception?
Dwayne Morgan: Well, the business started with $300 from my OSAP student loan. We were able to do our first show with that budget. We’ve now moved to the point where some of our shows cost over $10,000 to produce. When Up From The Roots first started, I was the only artist affiliated with the company, now we have singer Lorraine Reid (seven Juno nominations), dancer and choreographer Tamla Matthews, and Comedian Jean Paul. We also have a number of artists who are affiliated with the business.
â€œWell, the business started with $300 from my OSAP student loan. We were able to do our first show with that budget. We’ve now moved to the point where some of our shows cost over $10,000 to produce.â€
Format: Talk about the different events you put on, or have put on over the years. What do you feel each brings out that others donâ€™t? Why is each event important?
Dwayne Morgan: We’ve done a number of things from Jazz to dance, to poetry and comedy. We, UFTR, believe in bringing art to the people in all of it’s many forms. Sometimes we add dance to a poetry show to expose people to something that they might not otherwise be exposed to. We’re always looking for new ways to bring concepts to people. For example in 2005 we did a show called Spoken Wordz where we tried to show the connection and similarities between the spoken word and stand up comedy. We’ve mixed the spoken word with jazz, but most important, we run a monthly open mic where artists can come and do their thing. We use the open mic as an opportunity to see new artists that are out there, so that we can book them on other gigs.
Format: The spoken word scene in Toronto seems very tight-knit. Is that true? If so, why has it developed like that?
Dwayne Morgan: There is nothing tight knit about the scene in Toronto. There are a number of little groups and cliques all doing their own thing. There is very little cohesion. As much as I’ve done for the scene and the artists in it, I remain one of, if not the most hated people on the scene. I don’t get caught up with that though. I’ve got my own goals and vision that I’m working on. I still give opportunities to many of those who have negative things to say about me.
Format: Why are you one of the most hated people in the Toronto spoken word scene?
Dwayne Morgan: I do a lot on the scene. Everyone wants to have their name out there, but not everyone is willing to work as hard as I do, so when you see someone doing the things that you want to do, it’s easier to be a hater than it is to step your game up. I also produce a lot of the bigger spoken word events on the scene, and am known internationally for doing so, and people often feel slighted if they aren’t on the bill when a big show comes around. I don’t try to please anyone but the audience that has been supporting me since 1994. I do 150 performances a year, which gives me the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. With that information I’m able to plan events and book the artists that are going to give the audience the best experience.
â€œRussell Simmons is already exploiting the art form for profit, and any time you start to pump money into art, it often ceases to be art and ends up looking like todayâ€™s hip-hop.â€
Format: What are your plans for the future of UFTR?
Dwayne Morgan: Up From The Roots will continue to bring quality entertainment to the masses. One of the things that we’re known for, is giving people quality for their money. We’re always brainstorming and looking for new ideas. We always want to stay relevant. Earlier this year we produced the Carte Blanche Comedy album featuring Jean Paul and Marc Trinidad. People might see more release in the future. UFTR is pretty organic, so there’s nothing set in stone.
Format: How has slam poetry evolved over the last 5, 10, 20 years? Where is slam poetry going in the future?
Dwayne Morgan: The major changes within the slam scene over the past few years are the number of people involved, and the international scope of the genre. There are artists who travel from city to city, winning slams to pay their rent.
Things are still developing, however, it’s hard to say when the tipping point will come. Russell Simmons is already exploiting the art form for profit, and any time you start to pump money into art, it often ceases to be art and ends up looking like todayâ€™s hip hop.
More info: http://www.upfromtheroots.ca/