October 2004. While putting the finishing touches to a collection of poems, Ivan Bielinski (who later became Ivy) discovered an art form that would change the course of his life: poetry slam. First imagined by American poet Marc Kelly Smith 26 years ago, this discipline is, at its very core, an oratory joust where poets go head to head. Firm defenders of freedom of speech, the creators of slam poetry still felt they needed to lay down some basic rules: no accessories or décor, keep the slams short (around three minutes), be a capella, punchy, carefully planned with no room for improvisation.
Thrilled by the electrifying atmosphere of those gatherings, he fully grasped the power of poetry slam. “It was quite a shock; before, I wrote poetry on on hand and folk music on the other. With poetry slam, I realized that it was really just poetry that adjusted itself ever so slightly to allow for a live contact between poets and an audience. And then I heard Grand Corps Malade. It was like poetry and singing converged and I really liked what I heard. The goal of slam was not the same as that of poetry, which is formally more classic. It means you have to move people in a more direct way. It’s the art of placing the audience at the very center of poetry and of its emotions. It really turned me on,” says the artist, visibly emotional about said art form.
All roads lead to slam
After a little known first folk-jazz solo album in 1999, he revived Ivy et Reggie, his folk-trash project in 2002, and soon thereafter decided to change course again. Thus was born Slamérica, a densely packed album, in 2008. The album came with a book. Launched earlier this year, Hors des sentiers battus is another example of how hard-hitting Ivy can be. This latest album was, again, co-produced by Philippe Brault (Random Recipe, Pierre Lapointe) and it is a more rounded out and musically varied effort whose lyrics are at once more personal and more universal. “After the last tour, I had enough material to record a new album, but I did not want to do Slamérica all over again. Being my own worst critic, I decided to let time do its thing. Right from the get go, however, I knew I wanted to involve a string quartet. I was convinced it would be cool! Musically, I wanted to explore a lot more than on Slamérica. Also, in a much more down to earth perspective, I had more financial resources for the creation of Hors des sentiers battus. I had the means to hire real musicians and that, for example, means that there are a lot of songs with live drums, something I could not afford before; everything had to be programmed. As time went by, I felt a need to be better understood, and this album is the result of that desire,” says the voluble poet.
A still-nascent scene
Where a few journalists and a handful of cognoscenti have hopped on the slam wagon lately, this art form still face a major hurdle, especially in Québec: bookings. The founder of Slamontréal and the Ligue québécoise de slam explains why: “There is no network for this type of show yet, so it’s still hard to convince people to get on board, which means we have to do things ourselves. We hang on. We need to find creative ways to convince people to come to our poetry slam events. It’s quite a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding because people are always impressed by the result,” says the man who is a fan of Jacques Brel and Richard Desjardins as much as he is of Corbeau and Walt Whitman.
Yet, despite all the hurdles in its path, slam has also helped open doors for Ivy, notably that of primary and secondary schools. Indeed, Ivy has, for a little while now, been initiating students to the creation of poetry. He strongly believes that slam, as a niche art form, will continue to grow and attract the attention of many a poetry lover. “I’m still hopeful that its market will grow. It’s doing well in France, but it’s hard nonetheless, to earn a living selling albums and books. Thank God for touring! But it’s hard, no doubt. Bookers are speechless. They don’t know what to do with slammers. Nowadays, you need to be labeled and fit in a clearly defined niche. Industry-types still have a hard time understanding exactly who I am and what category I belong to. To this day, slammers are still weirdos,” he says, a little agitated.
Forging links here and abroad
While preparing something big for February – something he’s keeping under tight wrap –, he still tours, whether venues or schools, in Québec and elsewhere. Next stop: Nantes. “Slam is huge there. It’s not perceived as coming from outer space. My latest album was quite successful. Enough that it’s worth going to figure if I can develop my career more over there. I did not want to take Slamérica to France because it was too Québec-centric. I was afraid they wouldn’t get into it because of that. Now, I want to see the people’s reaction. You see, I love to unite poets, forge links, and encourage them to keep going. And to write, of course. Music is my love, but words are my whole life.”