Poetry in Performance: A Look at York Region's 'Speaker Box' Slam Poetry Community


As you enter the Falcon & Firkin bar and make your way towards the back room, you come across a crowd of people booming with excitement. Their laughs and good-humoured conversation echoes throughout the room and creates a vibrant and friendly atmosphere. What do all these people have in common? A love for story-telling, lyricism, comedy and vocal rhythm.

As 7pm hits, Sterling Dillinger takes a stand before the microphone. The room goes deeply quiet and all eyes fall on him.

Ladies and gentlemeennnnnnn, please make some noise for this month's SPEEEEAAAKER BOOOOX!you traveled from far and wide to be here, some of you arriving by car, public transit, uber, helicopter, I saw a guy roll up on rollerblades, I didn't even know they made those anymore and we may even have a hitch hiker in the house tonight!Let's get right into things as we bring up our first performer, please give a huge round of applause for...

Holding the crowd in the palm of his hand they hang on every word and embrace the first performer with a roar of cheers.

The Speaker Box Series is an event for all musicians, comedians, authors, rappers, slam poets and all other performers that want to flex their skills in competitive slam and have their stories heard. The event takes place every 3rd Wednesday of the month in Richmond Hill. It begins with an open mic, and follows up with 2 rounds of a poetry slam competition, and closes with a feature set by a touring artist.

I had the honour of having a little chat with Sterling Dillinger, the quick-witted silver tongue host of Speaker Box, and a man who really knows how to bring a smile to someone's face.

Tell me about yourself

I grew up in Richmond Hill, and currently live in Toronto. I run my own graphic design business (www.IanMadeIt.com), coupled with public speaking gigs (entertainer, host, writer, comedian) and dating a fantastic woman named Lana. I ride a motorcycle to work most days before the snow sets in, and will be avid complainer about the TTC when I get forced back on it in December.

What motivated you to write poetry?

Love of hiphop made me want to explore writing. Trying to find my own way to express myself and connect with like minded thinkers. I found a lot of the radio content they play (in any genre) tends to just hit on 3-4 topics (sex, love, party, ownership of things) in the most generic and unspecific ways. So that anyone can agree and relate to it. But I always preferred the underground musicians, that took the specifics a step further and retold moments in their own life in such a distinct manner that only a handful of people could feel that same way. When I found myself listening to artists in that small pool of fans, it was an incredible moment to know someone was speaking your personal story. I wanted to be a part of that and writing, in a detailed manner about my own life lets me find others who have hit the same moments and build our connection. Its a beautiful thing.

What sort of poetry do you write?

I write comedic confessional pieces. Telling you something i've gone through, witnessed or experienced, with a lighter tone to show that life doesn't always have to be taken so seriously.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Ideas are pulled from life's experiences, good and bad, conversations, songs I wanted to build off of, quick lines I jotted down on post it notes and the occasional bathroom stall.

Name your top 3 favourite poets and poetry pieces of ALL time.

Kyprios - Hate

Sage Francis - hopeless

Eyedea - even shadows have shadows

All slam poets turned into rappers, one Canadian and two Americans. all having in common the ability to chop (rhyme very quickly and intricately) and share every bit of their life for the sake of a connection with someone feeling the same way.

Have you been published anywhere? if so, where?

Self published, 4 times (laughs). Not a lot of demand for slam poetry, but I've sold copies of my own chapbook at events. 1 being my own book, Chainsaws for Teeth and Wood for Tongues, and the other 3 being books created with a team (Little Read, Nothings Better and Rhymeipes) to help support our travel and accommodations to National Festivals like the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW).

How did you come across the idea of a poetry slam, and what was your inspiration to start Speaker Box?

I've been writing for 16 years, on and off, as I find my passion for it goes up and down, but even if I'm not creating, I'm still involved in it heavily, from the music I choose to the events I attend, it's all centred around the appreciation of lyricism, entertainment, story telling, voice work, etc. As a kid I thought the only option was for a boy to be into sports, and I failed at those miserably. I had no knack for it so I'd go out of my way to ensure I was a failing teammate who you could not depend on, so they'd stop passing me the ball. Which is exactly what I wanted.

Somewhere in the middle of 2011 I found myself living and working in the York region. It had been my home for many years up until College took me out to Oshawa for a 3 year program in advertising and design. But once I finished I was faced with two choices, move to Toronto, or move home to save up some money and buy a car quickly. I took the suburban path and began working for the local newspaper and spending all my free time in Toronto's diverse cultural scene taking in concerts, galleries, openings, lectures and the occasional poetry slam. When I first discovered these I was blown away, to find that seemingly anyone could get on stage and impact a room full of people with just their words.

How did you start Speaker Box Poetry Slam?

I started calling up venues in Newmarket, Aurora and Richmond Hill trying to offer the same services: a poetry slam show. They all said no. They either had no clue what a slam was, or didn't see the value in something that didn't include a guitarist and the usual cover band songs.

During that time, I made long drives to Toronto and Mississauga for their poetry slams. At one of those events, I met two people that wanted to bring slam to York region. I approached him and got all the information and a few weeks later I was designing the logo for the series called YorkSlam (one word) and preparing my first battle ready poems.

That first year was rough. I soon realized that writing was only one half of it and the performance was the other. The ability to speak clearly, quickly and with passion was something I needed to pick up on if I was ever going to master the craft. But the series was getting off the ground, someone had went and done the hard work for me and I became a part of the team feeding it. Eventually we moved it to the south end of Richmond Hill and watched our Markham arts grant disappear, our audience dwindled and suddenly we were left with a handful of poets performing for each other. It was crushing to the series and took a long time to recover.

The best move was for us to find a new venue as the one we were using didn't offer any divide between our show and the regular customers, so if they wanted they could watch our event for free, and the noise of the hockey game would carry over. The straw that broke the poets back was when a waitress began yelling over our microphone during someones set that she didn't know who ordered which wings and from what table in her frustration. Combine that with the owners note of "if a hockey game is on, [dont bother coming in for your show" and we were ready to pack it in.

So we moved North to the Falcon and Firkin in May of 2013 in Richmond Hill, were granted the crow's nest a room in the back of the bar with doors and we started to build again. We found that every time you move, you lost audience members who came because it was easily accessible. The entire time we did this though, we kept what audience we had entertained. Even with a dedicated team, it was tough to manage and some nights it was thankless for the efforts we put in. But with new direction our team of Karen, Shawna, and Mark found new hope and the motivation to push this rock, and it finally started to roll.

We won 2 grants from the township, built a consistent audience and began getting bookings for some of our top poets outside of our events. York Region was slowly discovering the hidden gem of spoken word entertainment and I put myself in the forefront to become the face of it. Every event I attended that was related to education, culture or even just open mics, I brought a flyer and spit the best lines I could to show them that this was something not to be missed.

In April of 2016 we decided to rebrand ourselves, as the show was expanding into more then just a poetry slam, we wanted to include more things like comedy and music. We picked the name Speaker Box, as the young guns told me they had no idea what a Soap Box was. But we wanted the show to be a platform for anyone to communicate their story in whatever fashion. Also we wanted it to sound good, speaker box just had the right feeling, the hiphop vibe mixed with the essence of what it is, people speaking. So now as we reach our 5th year of the show we have a huge list of accomplishments. 60+ shows, workshops, special features at York region festivals, our own line of merchandise, a TV series, and a stepping stone for those looking to pursue a career in the arts or just get something off their chest.

What are your upcoming projects?

- Speaker Box was just picked up for a 12 episode series on Rogers TV York

- We do an event called Speaker Boxing during Pecha Kucha Markham that is getting great praise as well as giving us a new opportunity to introduce spoken word entertainment to an audience that hasn't experienced it before.

- We plan to offer more frequent workshops

- Season 6 of our show begins in October 19th as we begin building the new team through our competitive season to find out who will be the 5 members that represent us on the national stage

What are some things you would like to improve about Speaker Box?

We want to be bigger. We love the bar scene but being a theatre event would be amazing like a Ted Talk vibe. We've had the space offered to us in Richmond Hill but we don't have a big enough audience to fill the space yet.

We're hoping to partner with a local radio station and bring more poets to the airwaves with weekly segments showcasing the talents of the region.

What advice can you give to aspiring poetry writers?

Take it public, stop sitting at home and showing your writing to that one person you have a crush on, who keeps ignoring your messages. You don't need to find an audience because they already exist within shows like mine and others. Once you start making these something others can hear, the feedback (verbal and nonverbal) will be the best way for you to sharpen this tool and improve. And also expand your musical tastes. I feel a bit biased but hiphop is the place to find the most interest word play. Using things that don't typically rhyme together, expanded vocabulary, rhyme patterns, vocal tones, etc. Let that inspire you and show you new ways to build your poems.

More info and event dates can be found on www.spkrbox.ca

[Banner photo credit: The Art Friday / Shutterstock.com]

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