Local student makes finals in national slam poetry competition, giving voice to social change

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Making it to finals in a national slam poetry competition was a surprise to 20-year-old Star Martin who never intended to write for an audience.

At the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam, a nationally recognized poetry slam that brings together 24 poets from across the country to celebrate and battle through spoken word as part of the Verses Festival of Words, Martin competed for the first time against many established poets, becoming the only competitor joining online from Emo, Ontario, who made it to the finals.

Performing in person elicits more emotion and the added possibility of technological disadvantages was a source of concern leading up to the competition, however, Martin said that having low expectations going into the event lessened the pressure of needing a certain outcome.

“I just surprised myself, I didn’t expect myself to move that far into the competition. Like I said, it was like my first time competing. And because other opponents are very intimidating, but yeah, I think because I went into the competition with low expectations, I came out really satisfied,” she said.

Out of three rounds, between April 26 to 28, Martin skipped from the first round straight to the finals because she won twice in the first round, giving her the advantage of skipping the second day of competitions.

Martin competed against well established poets, some who had years of industry experience such as one poet who opened at shows for Rupi Kuar, a Canadian poet known for her New York Times bestseller Milk and Honey. “It was just an honor just to be able to perform next to them,” she said.

A new judging format was introduced this year, to bring a new element of relationality and fun, and to align with the vision that poetry is accessible to all, without prioritizing hierarchy or expertise.

Before each poetry slam night, a panel of judges were selected from the audience pool to include both in-person and online attendees who act as judges to the head-to-head competition for the night. Once the competitors went head-to-head, a live vote chosen by 5 randomly appointed judges took place.

Martin might have competed internationally if she won the final round, something so close to her reach, although she values the supportive community and new friendships more than any victory.

“These posts are amazing. And they’re definitely inspirations, and it’s the most uplifting community that I’ve ever been a part of. Everyone is just so supportive, it didn’t feel like it was a competitive atmosphere,” she said.

In a few weeks, those who didn’t get a chance to share their final performance at the poetry slam competition will put on a show, a chance to perform their best poem, the one prepared in case they made it to the finals, before an audience. The winner of the Poetry Slam will also share a few poems, further showing the supportive nature of the poetry community.

Her stage name is “Star Martin” when she performs slam poetry, a name not easily forgotten even when she was a young girl performing at musical festivals in the Rainy River District.

“Star is a star,” people often said to her, a wordplay with Martin’s first name.

Martin started writing poetry when she was 7, drawn to the rhymes found in her piano books and which motivated her to write her own. “I would keep these little notebooks and just write, and over time, I would make cards for special occasions for my family, and each family member would get a poem every birthday,” she said.

Emo resident Star Martin reached the finals of last month’s prestigious Canadian Individual Poetry Slam. She competed against several well-known poets. – Submitted photo

When she was a student at Fort Frances High School, Martin had the opportunity to attend a TEDTalk in Thunder Bay where Wali Shah, a poet and motivational speaker known for his messages of social change, performed his entire talk through poetry. “That was the first time I saw poetry actually being performed,” Martin said.

Martin was also a performing arts kid, she said, so seeing Shah perform poetry unlocked a new passion within her.

“Once I realized that you could actually combine those two things, it fueled another passion in me. And then I started shifting towards slam poetry and writing slam. And, all throughout high school, I wrote it, I never really shared it with anybody. I kept it to myself,” she said.

Living in Banff, Alberta, for a few months opened the opportunity to attend slam poetry events where she stuck to the sidelines watching others perform and immersed herself in the poetry community, before finding the courage to one day compete.

Slam poetry is set apart from other forms of poetry because it is written with the intention of being vocalized. Comparing it to the flow of free verse rap lyrics, Martin also noted that slam poetry does not need to have a distinct rhyme pattern.

“Most of my poetry is actually therapeutical for me. So normally, when I write, I don’t really write with the intention of sharing it with an audience,” she said.

One of her poems was a spin off of the paperbag princess story, twisting the narrative of a damsel in distress story to show “how women are actually powerful and capable of saving themselves.” Other ideas Martin explores in her poetry include mental health, trauma, and living in a small northern community.

In an excerpt of a poem exploring the theme of mental health and suicide awareness, Martin writes:

This is an ode to the human whose only reason for waking up is an alarm—but they still choose to rise.

This is an ode to you. To me. To us.

To the one who chooses alive.

Star Martin

Martin has been working on a poetry book split into four sections that explore experiences of living up north and other advocational ideas.

As a student at the University of Toronto studying sociology and political science, with aspirations of one day becoming a lawyer, Martin encourages people to write poetry for both its ability to provide healing in individuals and to evoke change in institutions.

“I think even encouraging our youth to start writing is such a phenomenal way to improve mental health and to uplift the community. I think there’s a lot of therapeutical benefits to poetry. And also, its ability to make a difference. So I think that poetry is so important for advocation and standing up for rights,” she said.

She said that those interested can connect with her on Facebook where she often posts updates on her shows and work.