Talking the Talk
Ottawa slam man Chris Tse throws down the gauntlet
By Jen Lahey
After touring Canada for the past few years, the annual Canadian Festival of Spoken Word is coming home to its birthplace: Ottawa. Freewheeling poets from 17 teams will throw down in front of a live audience and judges in a battle for bragging rights and poetic glory. And those in the know will be watching for one of the festival’s fiercest competitors: Chris Tse. He’s Ottawa’s slam champion, the captain of the Ottawa Slam team, and he has already wowed audiences at slams across Canada and the United States.
What got you into poetry slam in the first place?
I love hip hop and wanted to learn more about its origins, so I bought Shane Koyczan’s very first EP. When I came to Ottawa for school, I went to a show, thought, Hey, I can do that, and did it.
What do you do when you’re not creating poetry?
I’m a student. School is why I came to Ottawa in the first place, and I’m going into my fourth and final — knock wood — year at Carleton for journalism. I also work as a barista/panini chef/line cook at the Wild Oat Bakery Café, an organic vegetarian spot in the Glebe.
Describe your poetry style for us.
A mixture of hip hop, free verse, and straight prose with indiscriminate pauses thrown in to give the appearance of poetry, and rarely with more drama than I speak with in real life, which is little or none. I’m not a spitter, though I can flow with the best.
What it’s like to be onstage during a slam?
Being onstage during a slam is a calming experience. I’m not one to get too hyped up for any competition. I used to run track in high school, and I’d get really, really anxious days before the race. But on race day, I’d be calm because I knew I had done all I could in practice to prepare myself for the race. Same with poetry.
What’s the best thing about the experience of slam poetry?
My favourite thing about Ottawa slam poetry is the spoken-word community. The sense of family within the city’s poetry scene is so strong and tight-knit. It’s different from other cities across the country where the scenes are divided upon racial, religious, and political lines.
What’s your greatest slam poetry strength?
Versatility and the ability to connect. I can bring material for anything, from political functions to black slams, from elementary school showcases to hip-hop ciphers, all the while being the one poet onstage who can make some cry, some laugh, and all relate.
How does poetry inform other parts of your life?
I think in poetry. I wish I could speak poetry to the person hurting on the bus or the homeless dude at Bank and Somerset, but I haven’t yet figured out how to bring poetry into my real life.
Catch Chris Tse at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. October 12 to 16. Various venues. www.cfsw.ca.