If you've never been initiated into the world of slam poetry, your reaction to being dragged to a show might be - “A poetry show. Huh?”
That's what Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan native Patrick Swan overcomes when he tries to break the stigma of the stuffy, academic side of poetry. Swan lives in a world where cunning words aren't housed in mouldy, leather-bound, 5th editions of Oxford Companions and Norton Anthologies. Rather, he takes to the stage to get political - and often controversial - about pop culture icons like Michael Jackson.
He isn't the least worried about being heckled by a crowd of boisterous ball cap wearing drinkers whose last encounter with a poem could easily have been Grade 12 English.
Swan is used to people not understanding what he does which is why when he opened for a band in Regina one of the members said:
“'Yo, dude, I'm not going to lie, when we came in and they told us a poet was going to open for us we were like, 'Ah...that's really fucking weird,” he said.
His poems live off the page, infecting those watching enough to give up their loud boozy chats to simply listen.
“When I first started doing it, it was all about making the world a better place and all that crap that everybody was talking about. But now I'm more jaded and I write about being hungover and heartbreak and pop culture,” he said.
Swan first started slamming in Vancouver in 2003 when he made it to that year's semi-finals, nearly earning the winning title. He then found his way back to Regina where he was recruited by a friend's band to go on a Canadian tour.
“At the beginning of shows I'd jump up and do one or two poems and go back to selling t-shirts for them,” Swan said.
Touring gave him a taste of what people want to see and hear and he then set about separating the wheat – his good poems –from the chaff – everything else. Then he headed back out West to give the Vancouver slam scene a run for its money, performing in more slam competitions. He later found he began to outgrow the competition aspect of it and started headlining as the feature poet at shows.
“When I was slamming I found myself at that point where I was just like writing three-minute poems that sounded good but I wasn't necessarily completely satisfied with. I wanted to try writing different styles so I started moving away from it,” he said.
Swan claims he isn't really a book man, so not surprising that he doesn't make it his aim to appear in literary journals or get a masters degree in creative writing. Instead, he produces his own books. His first, Texas Hot Talk, was a collection of poems he had printed at Staples and his second, Aesthetically Absurd Young Drunk Monuments was a collaboration with a friend who is both fan and graphic designer.
He also isn't one to fill pages and pages of notebooks on a constant basis but instead takes his creative cue like a Saskatchewan farmer reads the weather – working with what you've got and realizing you can't do much about it when it works against you.
“I don't write a lot. I don't force myself to write. I take notes here and there and then write when I've got something. I write when I'm happy and when I'm bummed out. But most of my better stuff comes out when I'm angry or feeling shitty. That's where the funny stuff comes from,” he said.
The funny – and often tragic – stuff also comes from Swan's Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition which is typically misrepresented in mainstream culture by television shows that parody the symptom of uncontrollable swearing.
Diagnosed when he was 18 – he is now 28 – Swan said he didn't really develop a complex about it and as a result, isn't hindered by the psychological label.
“I didn't have a clue what was going on until way later. After I first got diagnosed it was a little bit of,“Oh, this sucks” and then I got over it pretty quick and now it's just something I live with. When I'm on stage I'm very focused so it never really interferes. Sometimes, just before I start I feel like I'm going to twitch a bunch but then as soon as I focus on what I'm doing I'm good to go,” he said.
It has certainly provided food for creative fodder. He has written a piece called Tourettes that, if you are the sensitive type, will make you weep harder than a late 80's Bell Long Distance commercial.
What results from his maelstrom artistic process varies. He hit a creative drought and didn't write or perform for a year, brought on by the fact his latest material was not well-received and everyone wanted to hear popular favourites that he was tired of doing.
“I was presenting some of my new ones that I thought were some of my best work that I've written and people were saying, 'Let's hear Michael Jackson' (a humourous poem he wrote about the icon) and I thought, 'F#$% this',” he said.
It was a friend who pulled him out of his slump.
“My friend Owen said, 'Okay, so you're going to start writing again and we're going to book you some shows' and I said, 'Okay, I guess that's what we're going to do'.”
It doesn't come as a surprise to Swan that reactions to his work have been run the gamut from positive to negative.
“I got every little thing from people telling me they liked what I was doing to dudes throwing ice cubes at me,” he said.
At any moment, Swan has 16-or-so poems memorized with a lot of new stuff waiting to be committed to memory. He gauges what the crowd will like like a meteorologist assesses the weather patterns during Mother Nature's climate change-induced hot flashes.
“I'm at a weird point in my life where I actually have to select the poems instead of doing all the poems I have,” he said.
He goes with his gut and just rolls with it, depending on how he's feeling on the day. He hopes to eventually carve out a niche for himself outside of North America. But for now, he is content to march the untrodden ground of the modern poet across Canada and the U.S. The good thing is that he doesn't have to contend with getting stopped at border crossings like many other artists on tour.
“They'll ask, 'What are you doing?' and I'll say, 'I'm going to a poetry show in Seattle' and they don't really ask a lot of questions. They just say, 'Okay. Poetry show. How harmless is that?'” he said.