Sexual Poetics caught on tape: Sylvie’s spoken-word artistry featured in Guerilla

Guerilla Magazine, Issue #1
By: Tony Martins

A dialogue about a film > about spoken word poetry > about sex or lack thereof

In the summer of 2001, riding an unprecedented surge in our spoken word poetry scene, Sylvie Hill reigned as Ottawa’s leading indie sex goddess, talking dirty and funny and scary into a live mic at the Step Up Slam reading series.

Hill’s lusty and brazenly honest rants plumbed the depths (both physical and psychological) of her unsatisfying attempts to get lucky. She collected her best stuff and self-published it as Hoxton Square Circles: Starfucking Tales of Sexless One-Night Stands.

Then one brightly lit night in July, it all climaxed. Author and screenwriter Nichole McGill led the filming of Hill’s book launch at the Aloha Room.

McGill, no slouch herself when it comes to spinning a bawdy tale, captured Hill’s launch performance with her fledgling film company, Niche Productions. The resulting 10-minute documentary, Sylvie Hill: Tales of Sexless One Night Stands, was profiled on local Rogers cable late last year and screened at the Brampton Arts Festival this February.

So to summarize, from spoken word poems there came a book, then a launch, then a film, then a TV show and an arts festival. If you are finding it a challenge to follow all these postmodern layers of reference, fear not. To get to the root of the matter, Guerilla arranged for a virtual ménage à trois: a penetrating and high-speed online interview that would entwine the poet, the filmmaker, and me, the journalist-voyeur. Here’s an up close look at what went down”¦


Tony: I’ll start with meaty questions posed to both of you. Sylvie, why did you write the poems? Nichole, why did you make the film?

Sylvie: To connect. To get my head sorted. The stories came from experiences I had with lovers or guys (and that one time, a woman) I took home after a night of live music and lots of Jack Daniels. Usually there was longing involved–no one stuck around for too long, and from the longing came a frustration or a need to understand feelings or why you took them home in the first place. Rather than stewing, I’d get feelings down on paper. It was a natural process. The rhymes would just come, not sure if that ‘randomness’ comes thru in the works being untailored or what? But, they’re pretty tight as performance pieces so I guess I was doing something right. It’s nice to get shit down in print form too–I love seeing my shit in print. So, I published the works.

Nichole: The spoken word scene at that time in Ottawa was quite strong–it was more of a phenomenon, a tempo that kept building month after month. And unlike typical literary readings which are dependent upon the oratory skills of authors who often are introverted to begin with, spoken word artists hone their performance skills. Their interaction with with the audience is as important as the words that they are spouting. I wanted to capture a snapshot of this phenomenon; a snippet of this part of Ottawa’s scene. Before it died, which, in one aspect, it did.

Plus, Sylvie had an incredible rapport with the audience. Her work was tragicomedic and that connection was made with the audience who would be laughing their asses off during the performance while simultaneously thinking, “Ouch, I’ve been there.”

Tony: Did the making of the film affect your performance that night, Sylvie?

Sylvie: Yes. Very much so. We had gone to the Aloha Room earlier that day–with my right hand woman, Karen, in tow. Nichole and Rick K were there setting things up and I did a few pieces. I usually do impromptu preambles before all my pieces.

Drew the Drunken Dragon, organizer of the Spoken Word Broken Brushes gigs, said to me last week that I’d get up on stage a “wreck.” So. It explains my nervousness at the beginning of performing a piece, but it was also this nervous energy that propelled me into some brutally honest rants about being nervous–usually I’d be self-deprecating and it’s likely this honesty to which Nichole refers when she said that people could really relate to me. Anyways, the preambles were somewhat planned but it was advised to cut them short.

Chain smoking Belmonts, there I was shitting myself to Karen, wondering how the fuck I was going to alter spontaneity. Rick told me to just do what came naturally, and Karen, having coached my performances before said just to do my thing … and I did know where Nichole was going. I respect Nichole for her diplomacy and she has been, and is, a great talent and an effective, very effective, mentor.

It was hard to know HOW to curb nervousness, really. When the performance time came I just ended up doing my thing. You’ll see in the film, the preamble is cut but the works are intact. It all works.

Also, Nichole had the night totally organized and we all promoted extensively. We were turning people away at the door. Nichole was on top of that, and how did it affect my performance? Well, shit … imagine a camera crew at your bedroom door about to film you having some great sex. You either feel really stupid, or in my case–I felt like a stud.

Nichole: Rick Kaulbars was the cameraman and my co-conspirator. He’s a local comic, screenwriter (“Kevin Spencer”) and also filmed his first feature last summer.

Sylvie: It was awesome and extremely productive having Rick on scene–as a stand up comic, and writer, he knew, it seemed, instinctively what I was going up against, what the night would hold. His winks were reassuring.

Tony: You “felt like a stud,” eh Sylvie? To what extent were your spoken word performances exhibitionistic? Were you inviting an audience into your bedroom and getting a thrill from it?

Sylvie: It’s funny. Not at all. I’m up there talking about giving head or getting it from behind–sounds exhibitionist alright, but it’s not me. There’s a disconnect from writing for me when it comes out and is published. When it’s on the page, it’s no longer me. It’s a scary thing, that. Means you can get up and talk about all kinds of lewd things but you risk the chance of being ill perceived. I think it takes a brain to understand that the Writer is not necessarily the Person.

I had just started a job at the government and my new boss and co-workers were there, as well as some students I taught at Algonquin College. I was worried about what they would think! It was my female boss, at a Christmas party one time, who did the talking for me when, straight-faced, someone asked me: “What do you write about, Sylvie.” Sylvie as the Person was all worried about the impression I would make on people telling them I wrote about cock and ass.

Then my boss said: “She’s a persona, it’s like she writes in character.” I thought, fucking great point. Bang on. That’s what it is. I’m acting, really. There was no thrill as in, “Wow, people will want to fuck me I’m so great in bed.” The thrill was rather honest”¦ great if I could connect with someone, better if they could relate and connect to me on a more emotional level.

It takes a lot of dedication and volunteering to get things going. Without that interest and selflessness, shit happens and things fall apart.

Nichole: Wasn’t Moms there too, Sylv?

Sylvie: Yeah, ha ha ha.

Tony: What was her reaction? Are you disowned? Are you comfortable discussing the Mom thing?

Sylvie: Not a problem to talk about my mom. Everyone gets a kick out of the fact that I brought her to the Laff for my birthday one year. She’s a very open woman. It was a huge deal for her to be at the Laff since back in the ’50s her own mother, being a woman, wasn’t allowed in. I think Mom finds it rather liberating that her daughter is into this stuff because it gets her thinking about her own body and experiences.

Mom was concerned about all the one night stands I was having, though. I do find a lot of my works and attitudes about the casualness of sexual activity that I was engaging in almost every weekend for years sort of are a reaction against her whole “ladies don’t behave like that” mentality. I said she was open, but I mean she is open to listening to her kid. She won’t judge. That said, she was always concerned about my reputation and virtue and that a guy wouldn’t want me if I talked the way I did and if he found out about how many guys I went with. I hate that double-standard.

Tony: Nichole, what did you mean earlier when you said the Ottawa spoken word scene had “died”?

Nichole: Well, Step Up Slam died and although the spoken word scene has continued in other aspects–i.e., the CBC Face Off annual slam poetry fest, spoken word events held at the Mercury Lounge, my durtygurls series to an extent, other events that take place in the city–but the initial excitement that surrounded Step Up really fuelled the scene. Many slammers had their first start at Step Up.

This was my viewpoint as an outsider; outside the spoken word scene but a part of the literary sphere.

Tony: Do either of you have any thoughts on why Step Up Slam died? Not enough slammers in a town of this size?

Sylvie: Organization. Personalities. Management issues. A large chunk of Step Up went away. Oni, Anthony Bansfield, Nth Degree–that whole contingent had their own thing in the works and it took off for them. Things were already dislocating with Kris Northey stepping down as head.

What we’ve lost and what I miss are the Kris Northeys and the Pierre Ringwalds–the two who started Step Up. We don’t hear much from Matt Peake, but Melanie Noll is still active on the scene. Step Up was an incredibly intense effort to manage. We were lucky and got an amazing graphic designer on board named Tony Szydlik–he was responsible for the whole marketing campaign I guess via posters and little flyers when Step Up moved to Mercury Lounge. His posters and the logo he branded Step Up with made the collective and the gigs clearly identifiable and exceptionally cool. He’d even poster the damned city himself! It takes a lot of dedication and volunteering to get things going. Without that interest and selflessness, shit happens and things fall apart …

Nichole: I can say from experience that putting together a reading series takes a lot of time and effort–much more than you’d think. The people who start series and keep them going on a regular basis, that’s a second life.

Tony: Okay, Nichole, so now you have this film. How did it end up at the Brampton Arts Festival? And what else have you done with it?

Nichole: I sent it to a few places where it ended up in a black hole. Little feedback even with prodding. ZED-TV and other lit channels that will not be named. Then a colleague pointed me to Bramptom where it was accepted. It was also featured as part of Roger’s recent Indie Xposed series on television.

Tony: What has been the reaction to the film thus far?

Nichole: Good. Positive. It’s not a film that wows people but one that makes them say, “Hey, that’s different from what I normally see.” I’m satisfied with the film in that it was “mission accomplished”–our goals were met. Though I’m surprised and disappointed other lit venues didn’t pick it up. I’ll still keep sending it around.

It was my first effort directing something creative. I have worked in the TV industry as a story editor and writer, and I directed edits and camera crews. But it was my first “fun” piece.

Tony: Are there any more Niche Productions in the works? And how’s your novel coming along?

Nichole: I’ve been writing screenplays–one is the screenplay version of the novel I play with. There is also a short film in the works but in nascent stages.

Tony: Sylvie, now that you have appeared in the local CBC Face-Off coming up in March, does this mean you’re “active” again as a spoken work poet? If so, what’re your plans?

Sylvie: Not a clue. We’ll see. I published and performed ’cause I believed I had something important, relevant and thoughtful to say and because there was a perfect venue available for that outlet to be funny and crazy. I don’t see a venue nowadays–not sure how my little sex poems would go over in the hip hop world that is now the spoken word scene in Ottawa. Also, in terms of topic and theme, I think I’ve calmed down. The Muse is a beautiful thing but she’s a bit unsympathetic to monogamy and stability. I’m sure I’ll blast off at some point. I’ll just need a steady diet of Jack Daniels or something.

Tony: Won’t keep you ladies any longer. It’s been great. Much thanks.

Nichole: Night all.

Sylvie: Take care.