When poetry becomes competitive, Ottawa’s Apollo The Child emerges

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Khaleefa Hamdan did not grow up playing football, hockey or any other sport that values ​​rivalry. But when he discovered the intensity of a poetry slam, his competition row was lit.

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“I was very shy, very quiet,” remembers the Ottawa poet, now known as Apollo the Child. “I wanted to dive into my notebook and stay there, but I learned to love competition because it brings out the best in you.”

Next week, he is one of a field of 10 participants in this year’s Invitational Poetry Slam, an online event held on November 19 by VERSeFest, Ottawa’s International Poetry Festival. This year’s edition of the festival runs 13-21. November with both online and personal readings, performances and workshops. Of the 8 0 poets participate, main names include the iconic Anne Carson, parliamentary poet Louise Bernice Halfe-Sky Dancer, the duo MC Kuf Knotz and harpist Christine Elise and Ottawa’s two poets, Albert Dumont and Gilles Latour. (Tickets and details at versefest.ca.)

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To Hamdan, a former master of VERSeFest slam, the first thing he wants to explain to the uninitiated is the difference between spoken word and slam.

“These words are used interchangeably, but they are very different,” he said. “Speak the word itself is the art form and a slam is competition. The moment it becomes competitive, it’s a slap. It’s like the rap fight in spoken-word poetry. ”

In a slam, each participant is given three minutes to deliver an original poem, with points for going over or falling short. The winners are usually determined by the audience voting.

Hamdan, 31, threw himself into the mud about 12 years ago, at a time when art form was gaining momentum in Ottawa, with people like Ian Keteku, Poetic Speed ​​and Prufrock attracting attention for their talent and delivery, while they rhymed at the world championships.

“You have to imagine me, a small, thin, awkward 19-year-old with these juggernauts who have established themselves,” Hamdan said. “It forced me to hone my craft faster. And the thing is: you get judged, which can be one of two things. It can be either motivating or demotivating.”

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For him, it was motivating. The second child of seven born to Iraqi refugees fleeing Kuwait during the Gulf War, Hamdan began writing when he was 12 years old. To begin with, hip hop inspired him until he discovered the TV show Def Poetry, which featured performances by poets and spoken word artists.

“I thought the spoken-word artist was the coolest thing, and I said to myself that I wanted to be a spoken-word artist and be so cool, and not enough that I wanted to be at Def Poetry, ” he said.

Although the show ended before he got there, poetry became a big part of Hamdan’s life. He not only took over the leadership of the Urban Legends Poetry Collective, a grassroots organization that pre-pandemic hosted monthly slams in Ottawa, but also created an after-school program at the Ottawa Public Library. He published his first book of poetry and continued to compete and traveled to represent Ottawa in various competitions. A highlight was being invited to perform at a Martin Luther King event in Atlanta in 2019.

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One of Hamdan’s most powerful pieces is My Hero Drives a Cab, a tribute to his father who died this year. Elder Hamdan was a Kuwaiti political poet, persecuted and imprisoned for his work before coming to Canada with his wife and first child. Khaleefa was born in Montreal; the family moved to Ottawa when he was two years old. The poem touches on some of Hamdan’s recurring themes, including his legacy, his family history and finding his place in the Middle East and North America.

The artist name Apollo the Child came to him during a moment of boredom in the history class at Brookfield High School.

“I read on in the textbook,” he said. “I learned that Apollo not only had the task of bringing the sun and causing it to set, but he also ruled the art. I wanted a name that I could apply to both of my artistic practices, and Apollo clicked. I also took on the name Child because I think it’s important to approach life with childlike wonder, to keep his inner child alive and nurtured. ”

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Hamdan is also very into music, a member of two hip-hop outfits, Poetic Elements and Funky Colors, and co-host of a radio program on CKCU-FM. In addition, he has a demanding job as a behavioral counselor at a youth home.

When the pandemic closed for live performances and put the radio program on pause, Hamdan decided to work on projects that had been on the back burner. Among them is his second book titled Poems for Fools in Love, an EP featuring music featuring Funky Colors and a screenplay for a short film set in Ottawa.

When Hamdan is asked if he has any theories as to why the poetry scene is so vibrant in Ottawa, Hamdan sets it up for the sense of community.

“To be honest, it’s the camaraderie,” he says. “The community has very strong ties and it’s a weird, beautiful competition that you really do not want to see anywhere else. If there’s a big bang, we’ll call each other and send poems together. A football player will not call anyone from the rival team and play plays, but with poetry and spoken words, it has its own magic.

“The spoken word gave me an outlet, a voice, and because of that I broke through a lot of my social worries.”

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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