When the subject of poetry is broached in common conversation, it almost invariably leads to the same not-so-revelatory revelation—something along the lines of “Gosh, you know, poetry and rap are so similar. I mean, rap is just poetry to a beat. Why isn’t there more crossover between them?” And then, if one of the conversationalists tuned into Shane Koyczan’s performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony: “Well, what about slam poetry?”
Slam poetry is dead centre on the line between hip-hop and poetry, taking the delivery, flow, and urban energy of the former, and mixing it with the verbal consciousness, thematics, and inspirational candor of the latter. The result is an often hypnotizing hybrid that finds a happy home in tightly-packed cities like Vancouver. At the event horizon of that particular city, sits 20-year-old Sebastien Wen, a slam poet (2014 Vancouver Youth Grandslam Champion) and UBC student who performed at Nanaimo’s monthly poetry event, Wordstorm, in March, promoting his second chapbook of poems, Goodbye Charlie, in the process.
Watching Wen perform his poetry provided the optimal condition to digest it; Wen’s delivery is the prototypical slam poetry cadence, starting slow, ringing in the audience with emotional memories and heart-tugging once-upons, then building momentum in a flurry of rapid syllables before exploding into an inspiring or pathos-inducing conclusion. The style translates well to the page in Goodbye Charlie, though reading some of the lyrics feels a bit empty without Wen’s voice behind them.
Goodbye Charlie is divided into two sections. The first, “Gamblers,” deals with exactly the subject matter one would expect from the title. Wen marks the date of every poem in the section, visiting a range of noteworthy gamblers through history, and ending with a meditation on his own defiance of chance. The poems are gripping and gritty, opening with lines like “Gnarled, gangly, sixteen years and a loser / on the concrete their knuckles cracked / all his control out.” The thematic imagery of city grunge is repeated the same way a few times, however, as the very next poem, “Old Kings of the Oasis” starts: “There are no straight lines in the jungle / the last cowboys crack each other’s souls…” While a fixation on word repetition is perhaps a bit pedantic, the proximity of the sentiment and echo of the imagery remind the reader that despite his proficiency, Wen is still a student developing his voice and mechanics.
The second section is entitled “Shadow,” and deals with issues of the personal and contemporary. Poems in this section are grounded in memory and identity. Wen revisits foggy childhood recollections in poems like “You Always Get to Keep the Gun”—a title so epigramatic it’s bound to become a tattoo some day: “When you were twelve, you said / ‘if some guy gave me a gun? Sure I’d shoot my sister in the head / so long as I got to keep it.’ // Dakota // Please remember: Only my eyes were ever there. / Please remember: You always get to keep the gun.” Wen also addresses the scenes of his city surroundings in poems like “The City’s Crooked Lines,” and paints pictures of quirky, modern-day characters in micro-ballads like “Lazy Smoke.” Wen’s slam-stylisics bleed through in almost every stanza, and it helps to imagine him reading the poems in his earnest, eager voice to add to the impact.
As a result of Goodbye Charlie being a small-print chapbook, there are some vestiges of self-publishing present in its construction. I spotted a few typos on several read-throughs (an “I don’t you know who are” I’m fairly positive was supposed to be the more conventionally syntactical “I don’t know who you are,” for example), and the two sections are divided backwards: the opening suite of gambling-themed poems end with the prelude to the second section, “Shadow,” while turning the page to begin the new litany of personal lyrics gives us the preface to the section we just read—almost like the pages were inserted backwards. These are minor qualms in terms of the book’s actual content, but ones that affect the fluidity of its readability nonetheless.
For the relative inexperience of its author, Goodbye Charlie is a solid and powerful book of poetry where the thematics of slam poetry sometimes lean too heavily on hefty grabs for emotion or verbal delivery to outweigh subject matter. Wen’s poems seem to flirt between an even balance of both, though by his own admission the message sometimes comes on a little too hard towards the end. On more than one occasion, the metaphors, similes, and conscious “poetry-ness” of the verses feel a bit forced, almost as though one can see Wen’s revisions from his professor’s red pen, stressing the fundamental mechanics of “good” contemporary verse. And, no matter how evocative the imagination of the reader is, pulling words from the page into the brain just isn’t the same as attending Wen’s live performance—in the future, it might be worth taking cues from Mr. Koyczan, and releasing poems in CD or downloadable audio format rather than a book.
Nevertheless, Goodbye Charlie is a furious series of lyrical punches from start to finish. The book opens with a warning to the reader (“Before you read any further…”) and makes good on its promise to astound with profound verbal pugilism. While there’s room for improvement, for the cost of less than a week’s worth of Starbucks, Goodbye Charlie is a tantalizing sip of slam poetry on paper for both the well-versed and the uninitiated.