Setting the Record Straight on Competing for Up From the Roots

Next month Up From the Roots (UFTR), one of the two teams which represent Toronto at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW), will be holding its team qualifying SLAM. Being a proud member of this team last year I am curious to see what the outcome will be. I am especially curious as I have been following the rankings this year and notice that besides Dwayne Morgan (can someone please knock this guy off the team already lol), the top ranking poets are all youth of color, with at least one female poised to be on the team again. I look forward to following the outcome and then the performance of the UFTR team at the CFSW which takes place in Winnipeg this October.

Besides their performance, I am more curious to see what kind of reception this team will get at CFSW after last year’s team experienced what was in my opinion a rather hostile send off. After spending a week in Saskatoon last year, for the most part silently observing the way in which this team was targeted, our poems nitpicked for signs of misogyny (and attacked with made up lines when folks conveniently wanted to strengthen their case against my team mates) and the most traumatic finals stage I have ever experienced, my only hope is that the lessons learned from last year’s festival were heavily taken into consideration as the CFSW aims to create a safer space for EVERYONE at this year’s festival.

My passionate feelings around what was a horrible experience for me at last year’s festival had come to a definite simmer until last month when a young female poet came to me asking me to confirm rumors about UFTR being a team that was fortress for misogynistic poets. Upon hearing these words my heart broke from sadness and my blood boiled from rage simultaneously and those feelings rose up again with a vengeance. I decided that at this point I had to write this blog to set the record straight as the only female member of last year’s UFTR team.

Up From the Roots was started and is still led by Dwayne Morgan. Dwayne, who was one of the founders of the CFSW, has been on every UFTR team since inception and not only goes as a team captain but also as a mentor. Throughout my whole experience from making the team to being at CFSW, I was so thankful that Dwayne was there. I learned so much about the spoken word scene at a national level, the poets, the passion and sadly the politics which I tried to keep my distance from but got heavily swept up in regardless.

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UFTR 2015 Team: Pauline O’Kieffe, Dwayne Morgan, Joshua “Scribe” Watkis, Gavin Russell

Dwayne is a tough coach, mentor and captain. He is a poetry beast and tries to instill that in his whole team, holding us accountable anytime we started to slack which I appreciated. We wrote and/or edited as well as rehearsed all of our poems together, including the one that got negative reactions on the finals stage and ultimately cost us a chance at the championship. Upon reflecting on that poem I would say strategically it was not the best option to put on a finals stage knowing that its content would be heavily critiqued based on our assessment of the overall vibe of the festival over the week. I could even agree that it may have been insensitive, again considering the vibe and audience. But to have our whole team labeled as misogynists (and I of course painted as the helpless, silenced, female team mate) was a far stretch.

I spent the whole week listening to poetry that honestly upset me, triggered me (I suffer from depression and anxiety) and just poetry I thought was completely unacceptable and insensitive in the way it was presented. Not once did my team boo, hiss, take poets aside and attack them nor did we call for the ban of any teams whose poetry heavily offended us. We were at a spoken word festival and as much as the organizers tried to ensure a safe space, it is difficult to create such a space without unintentionally silencing or stigmatizing one group. Unfortunately, we were that group last year. I applaud the effort to create a safer space for women, non-gendered and binary poets, particularly those who have experienced sexual trauma (being a survivor myself), but the lack of intersectionality that considered things like race was lost in the mix. Therefore for a woman of color, I had to sit there and listen to folks break down my feminist heroes like Bell Hooks because her brand of feminism was not in line with a particular poets views for example.

Up From the Roots is not just a team, it is a family. A family where folks are open to criticism, critique, learning, and unlearning all the way to our team’s founder. A family where I as a woman of color can call out misogyny at any point and members, including Dwayne will check themselves.  Not once did I feel silenced. If I didn’t like something or thought that it triggered my anti-oppressive radar I spoke up and was encouraged to do so because the men on the team recognize their privilege and the fact that they might not have considered perspectives which I appreciated. The rumors which hurt me the most were the ones that accused Dwayne of forcing me to go onto final stage in my slot with the whole team as I begged him not to which is completely FALSE. In fact Dwayne Morgan, whose team makes final stage almost every festival, gave me the option to go up with another poem or not at all as he saw I was quite shaken. I said NO, I came here with my team, we rehearsed our piece for a long time and I was determined not be shaken by anyone. Unfortunately, I was shaking after our final slot and Dwayne was the one who mobilized the team to get me out of there as I was just short of having an anxiety attack because the hate vibes were so strong in the space. Even my dad who was watching the live feed checked on me via text message because he could tell and heard the strong negative reactions.

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Up From The Roots team competing at CFSW Semi Finals. 

Following CFSW I had some very important and great conversations with organizers and I look forward to seeing what this year’s CFSW experience will be like for UFTR. This post isn’t about CFSW and its failings as a festival, this is about setting the record straight about competing and representing the UFTR team. This is probably the only team I would compete for and that is mostly due to the supportive and familial atmosphere of its founder and other “family” members. It is one of the only teams (besides Hamilton Youth Poetry who were amazing) last year that not only spoke to issues of assault and sexual violence, but also covered race, a critique of the whole scene itself, anger, and even had a bit of comedy (which was also somehow turned into a manifesto for misogyny). But when you are a black person, “aggressively” speaking on issues that aren’t readily relatable to the majority of the audience or a male poet who has their words twisted so someone can scream misogyny I can see how UFTR could leave a bad taste in your mouth.

So for any poets who are thinking of competing to make the Up From the Roots team this year, I hope you take in this message from the only female member of last year’s “controversial” team, don’t let the rumors sway you. This is a great team which supported me and will do the same for you to if you make the team and really understand the kind of love this team has for its members. UFTR is a team made up of four poets, four human beings who are as fallible as any other poet that sets foot on that UFTR stage. No one is perfect or exempt from learning (or unlearning) at any point of this festival. So I hope this year instead of attacking each other, poets can focus on competing with the best poetry performance they have and look to support each other (sans ego) in the most positive way to facilitate that learning (or unlearning). Either way I know I will be there front row and center to watch the Up From The Roots team qualifiers on Sunday April 17th at Harlem Restaurant (67 Richmond St E) at 8pm. Hope to see you there!

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