Images via Queen’s Poetry Slam

BY CASSANDRA LITTLEWOOD                       


For the third year in a row, a Queen’s poetry slam team is going to the U.S. for the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) from April 4th to 7th in Philadelphia.

This year’s team comprises of coach, Billie Kearns, a fourth year Electrical Engineering student on internship, and competitors, Jill Pineau, a third year English Major, Indigenous Studies Minor, Kobe Holas, a third year English Major, Drama Minor, Haley Sarfeld, a fourth year English Major also completing a Sexual and Gender Diversity certificate, and Eliane Findley. a fourth year Fine Arts Major and Psychology Minor. MUSE sat down with the team (exempt from Sarfeld and Findley who were unable to be present) to learn about spoken word and poetry slam and how the team in preparing to perform on the international stage.

What is the difference between poetry slam and spoken word?

Billie: Spoken word is the art form where it’s like poetry but it is meant to be said out loud. Slam is the competition that uses spoken word, so it’s the format where you have all these poets that go up and are scored by random judges. Fast forward to now it’s easier to market a slam because the whole reason slam started a long time ago was “How do we get people to come to our poetry shows? What if there was a competition?” So it’s more known as slam and there’s a certain style associated with that vibe of competition.


How did you each get started in poetry slam?

Billie: Writing has always been something I’ve loved doing, but in high school, I was in a writing class and a spoken word poet came in to do a workshop with us. I had heard of slam, but I thought “oh I don’t really know if that’s for me, it seems kind of corny.” Then Ian Keteku came in and absolutely blew me away and it was a week eleven workshop, I wrote a poem in it then he was like “you should come out to the poetry shows in Ottawa.” The next year I actually got out and I’ve just been performing since.

Jill: I got into the poetry slams when I was in high school. I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness and I started watching her slam videos on YouTube. Then when I got to Queen’s I discovered the Poetry Slam Club and I went to all of them but I was too nervous to do it until second year.

Kobe: In high school I took drama and it wasn’t a great drama program so our final project every year was always to bring a monologue and I ran out of monologues from T.V. shows that I wanted to do. So I started looking up poetry online.


What was the process involved to becoming a part of the team for CUPSI?

Kobe: It was organized by Billie. There was a poetry qualifier slam at the Grad Club so you could go and it was like “Okay, it’s going to be like a normal slam but instead of getting a prize from the back of Billie’s closet, you get to go on a trip to Philadelphia and perform poetry for an international audience.”

Jill: That was my first time every slamming. I usually open mic since slamming is competition but I felt like I really could do it since Billie is super supportive and wanted us to come out.

Billie: When I was in second year, two years ago, I was on Queen’s Poetry Slam Exec and somebody messaged us saying, “Hey, so there’s this competition called CUPSI. It happens in the States but if you didn’t know it’s also open to international teams.” No one else on exec knew what he was talking about in term of what CUPSI was but I had heard about it. It’s a massive competition but because it was in the States I thought it was just an American thing. This guy was from Ryerson and he said “I brought Ryerson and it was super fun and we were the first Canadian team ever.” So I said let’s be the second Canadian team ever. I basically did the same thing I did this year, I held a qualifier slam and got four other people and got somebody else to host so I could also compete. That year, the five of us went to Austin, Texas and it was the first time Queen’s went to CUPSI and we did the same thing last year where we went to Chicago and we’re doing it again this year.


How have you been preparing for CUPSI?

Kobe: There’s four of us on the team and there is a certain amount of spots to perform so we broke it up, deciding how many poems we would need to come forward. We wanted a variety of solo pieces as well as team pieces so we broke it all down figuring out how many team pieces we would need and how many solo. Then we brought ideas for those poems and Billie has been working with us to flesh them out, so we’ve just been writing so far and we’ll be moving into practicing performance.

Billie: There’s also been a lot of planning logistics, booking travel, booking accommodations fundraising. We’ve got a Kickstarter page so we’re trying to get as many funds as we can because the exchange rate isn’t kind and neither is the registration fee. Then we’re going to holding a showcase to help fundraise as well which is coming up on the 27th. It’s basically the logistics half where someone is doing social media, another is doing merch, somebody planning the showcase, so everyone has their responsibilities plus their stuff that they have to write. So it is delegating the work and making sure people are still writing in their own homes turning out a couple drafts. Once the writing is to a good point then we start practicing performance then we go to competition.


What are some the topics you like to cover in your spoken word?

Jill: I really like to talk about anything I feel vulnerable about so love, femininity, sex. I have a poem about banana bread and love. It’s just talking about stuff that affects me and makes me emotional.

Kobe: I like to write about things that I have trouble articulating or ideas that I can’t shake. It often ends up being about my family or cultural identity, those are the main two.

Billie: Most of my poems explore ideas that I have trouble talking about to other people. It’s when you are telling someone a story or complex issue, I’m telling you this right now but I’m giving you all the wrong ideas, often in my spoken word I’ll use extended metaphors to add nuance to those ideas and present them in such a way where people can understand them on multiple levels. I like writing about friends, family, cultural identity is a big one, indigeneity and storytelling.


What is your favourite part of spoken word?

Kobe: I like the control. It’s one thing to write poetry on the page or write a script but being able to write something and perform it and pretty much everything you control, except maybe the lighting, but it’s all you one hundred percent, I like that.

Jill: My favourite part of it is the community and no matter what the event is, a spoken word community is always really really supportive. I love what you have to say and you really feel like you can get up there and say anything that’s controversial, or a bit scary to say or makes you feel vulnerable and they’ll be really supportive.

Billie: My big thing is that a lot of the time I have trouble articulating what I want to say and slam allows me to take these complex thoughts and write them into a poem into a metaphor or something and I can say something exactly the way I want to say it. I’m saying it in front of crowd of people who are listening to me and hearing everything I’m saying and not interrupting me so I get that time and that space to say exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it and have fun with it. Performing is a big way I’ve maintained some sort of self confidence in the past while since it’s something I feel I’m good at and I can bring a different part of my personality on stage that I might not do in other situations.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarification.

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