Black poetic voices take centre stage highlighting themes of joy and pain

The allure of the blank page is an irresistible magnet for creatives

Image by: Uwineza Mugabe
Three Black poets sit down with 'The Journal' to discuss their art form.

While the world of poetry offers a blank page for each poet, for Black poets challenging history, the page expands. With each stroke, these poets can redefine conventional notions of Blackness, infusing their verses with resilience and grace.

Exploring the intricacies of Blackness within relationships and the unique journey of being a Black creative, three poets bared their souls to The Journal, unraveling their raw experiences as creatives.

“Black comes back. Black attracts black. Black goes with everything, sure. But what would you give to be the blackest thing on earth?” reads a line of Britta Badour, better known as Britta B.’s, poem Black Boots.

“Said no black and broke into black boots. Loosen the strings of my black, black hoodie, pulled my head see-through. Soak black worry in a bath of black laughter tucked into, tinkered out of black turtleneck fractures. Saw the spy on the other side of the tunnel,” she performed in spoken word in an interview with The Journal.

Britta B.

Born and raised in Kingston, Badour is an acclaimed artist residing in Toronto. Her debut poetry collection, Wires that Sputter, recently released by McClelland & Stewart, has garnered attention in Canada and the United States.

Wires That Sputter is an intimate collection of poetry, playing with form and punctuation. Within its pages, Badour navigates themes ranging from pop culture and sports to family dynamics and Black liberation.

“I can remember when my mom taught me how to spell my name. Since that moment, I have just felt a great draw towards the blank page and have had this inclination to write,” Badour said.

This poet’s creativity blooms on three fronts: as a poet, performer, and educator.

Though Badour believes the power of the spoken word is adjacent to the written word, the primarily spoken word poet contends hearing the original author articulate their work, infusing it with their unique cadence and embodiment of language, holds profound significance.

Badour feels sensitive to affect; when she feels moved by the spoken word, she’s lured to move herself.

“When I hear sounds and music in my head, I want to mimic those sounds and that music in my head. I do that through the best way that I can, which happens to be spoken word,” Badour said.

The essence of spoken word performance exists in the dynamic exchange between performer and audience, where the poet creates a magnetic energy that fills the space in real-time, Badour explained.

“After all this time of being exposed and gaining experience in this art form, I think the magic of it is getting to see how people connect to, of course the words, but the movement and embodiment of the words.”

Although she’s predominantly a spoken word poet, Badour believes the written word is just as powerful.

“I think we need to be reminded that all poetry should be read aloud. Even if you come to a poem on a screen or page, read that work out loud because there’s some sense or understanding that can be attained through the sound of the language,” she said.

Many of Badour’s poems deal with anxieties and relationships with friends, intimate relationships, and relationships with family.

While Badour examines relationships to Blackness and what it means for her own Blackness, she tries to expand on her personal experiences while tapping into experiences she’s been exposed to from others.

“While I’m writing, it gives me a sense of freezing time, a sense of freedom a little bit as well—a little bit of freedom,” she said. “It reminded me that an experience, such as an emotion or a feeling, has the ability to pass. What will I do with its passing? What will I do with its presence?”

Armed with a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, Badour is a professor of spoken word performance at Seneca College in addition to her work as a poet and  performer.

Honoured as Toronto Arts Foundation’s Breakthrough Artist and COCA Lecturer of the Year in 2021, Badour’s work has graced prestigious platforms such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, CBC Arts: Poetic License, and TEDx. She leads artist training seminars and poetry workshops for various organizations, including JAYU and Prologue Performing Arts.

Badour’s upbringing was marked by her mother’s dedication to reading, writing, and fostering her comfort in public speaking—a gift that instilled confidence within her. This upbringing ensured that whenever she finds herself in a room teeming with people, she doesn’t falter.

“In regular conversations, I’m in need of more courage. However, the written word is what helps me have confidence in seeing what my works look like and rehearsing them to have a sense of self,” she said.

Badour navigated her youth often as the sole Black person in her classroom, unaware of its significance until she ventured beyond Kingston’s borders. It was in communities where racialized and marginalized individuals were more visible that Badour grasped the weight of her upbringing.

“Even though I was a minority growing up, along with a few others of my age and of my background, I was focused more on what it meant to be dealing with mental health and mental wellness issues,” she said.

“As confident as I was public speaking, I was still dealing with this internal monologue that was eating me up inside. I didn’t really know how to express myself. Through writing, I was able to find more leverage in how to handle what I was going through,” she added.

Apart from poetry, Badour’s background includes being involved in school. Before moving to Toronto, her undergraduate years at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo were enriched by her integral participation in the Association of Black Students (ABS).

“I was someone that always participated in extracurricular activities. That’s something that made me want to be integrated in communities and have connections to as wide a range of people as possible,” she said.

In the landscape of a predominantly white city, Badour navigated her identity with an African American father and a white and Algonquin mother, keenly feeling the subtle currents of whitewashing shaping her journey of self-discovery.

Badour recalled what it felt like when she was approached to join the club and said she felt nervous about not being Black enough.

Once she accepted the invitation, however, she was instantly comforted and affirmed by people on campus that to be amongst other Black people in a space like ABS would be encouraging, supportive, and empowering.

She found herself enveloped in a familiar warmth, akin to the comfort of her grandmother’s home surrounded by her cousins.

“Having culture-related clubs on campus is really important because you might not understand how isolated you are until you are amongst people that share your experiences,” she said.

J-Marsh

Also known as “J-Marsh,” Jermaine Marshall’s art follows the theme of searching for joy and connection amid pain. His works transcends romantic and platonic connections and redirects attention to the individual.

Navigating a labyrinth of paradoxes, Marshall dances between the lines of love and fear, familiarity, and estrangement, home, and foreign lands. Despite the contradictions, his emigration from Jamaica to Canada embodies the blend of feeling both like a stranger and finding a sense of belonging in the embrace of a new homeland.

In 2023, Marshall was awarded the City of Kingston Mayor’s Arts Champion Award, which recognizes a living individual, organization or corporation who makes an extraordinary contribution to the arts in Kingston.

Spoken word is a significant medium of Marshall’s creative expression, likening singing to poetry due to its structured arrangement. He identifies his medium as a fusion of spoken word and embodied singing, a concept where vocal expression intertwines with free-form movement, creating a symphony of emotion and meaning.

“A lot of my artistry, both musical and poetic, seeks to highlight some of those tensions and the experience of going through difficult emotions,” Marshall said in an interview with The Journal.

With Marshall’s journey through the arts beginning under the warm Caribbean sun in the vibrant streets of Spanish Town, Jamaica, much of his poetry is an homage to the kind of environment singing created in his Pentecostal church growing up.

From a tender age, he graced the aisles of his local church choir, serenading the congregation with soulful spiritual melodies, and danced to the timeless beats of disco pop legends such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Gloria Gaynor, and ABBA.

“It really felt like there was something magical going on, when people would be singing and telling stories and sharing experiences through song,” he said.

In his childhood, Marshall found solace in a weekly ritual at church, where he could simply sit and observe. Despite not excelling initially in singing or dancing, the church provided a non-judgmental sanctuary. Though challenged by homophobia, this environment nurtured his burgeoning artistic inclinations, marking the beginning of his creative journey.

Marshall received his Bachelor of Laws from the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, before obtaining a Master of Arts in Social Justice and Equity Studies from Brock University in St. Catharines. Since 2021, he’s been an inclusion and anti-racism advisor at the Human Rights and Equity Office (HREO) at Queen’s.

As an independent vocalist and poet, Marshall’s creative work intertwines the rhythmic cadence of spoken word poetry with the fluidity of freeform dance. It also explores his identity as a proudly queer Jamaican.

Marshall said his artistry serves as a conduit for the complexities of his intimate relationship with suffering, sorrow, hope, and loss, molding him into a vocal advocate for pride and diversity within the Jamaican 2SLGBTQI+ community.

Currently, Marshall feels he’s in an artisticchrysalis phase. The familiar places where he found inspiration and creativity in his earlier days don’t feel the same anymore.

Reflecting on his early years at an all-male high school in Spanish Town, Marshall vividly recalls penning his first poem—a pivotal moment in the journey of a young queer individual navigating adolescence in a complex environment.

From the depths of pain emerged a moving blend of emotions, intertwining sorrow with fleeting moments of joy amidst the turmoil of self-discovery.

“One of the things about my migratory journey has been seeing how my art has been evolving,” Marshall said. “I’ve started to flow a lot of my vocal work with my poetic work into these mixed melded pieces.”

Marshall reflected on Trevor Noah’s words, resonating with the sentiment of being “born a crime” and the inherent struggles that come with it.

“From the minute you spawn your identity, your existence is deemed illegal […] there’s this disconnect that can sometimes happen between the self that you are and the projected images of who they [society] perceive people like you to be,” he said.

Beyond the stage, Jermaine is a catalyst for change in his community, spearheading initiatives during Black History Month celebrations in Kingston.

On Feb. 9, Queen’s, St. Lawrence College, and the Kingston Grand Theatre partnered to put on a free opening reception featuring authentic Afro-Caribbean foods and fostering community connections.

There have been Black business fairs, performances, shows, and dances.

“It’s not just about finding those safe spaces, those trusted spaces, those non-judgmental spaces. Sometimes you have to make them, you have to create them, you have to highlight them, you have to support them.”

D.M. Bradford

While living in a white and Black household involves dealing with two ends of the racial spectrum, living in a simultaneously English and French speaking home in Quebec can be polarizing. Darby Minott “D.M.” Bradford’s interracial background aligns with this narrative.

Bradford is a poet, translator, sometimes editor, and sometimes curator, based in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal). Their mother is French-Canadian, and their father is from the United States.

Bradford attended French school prior to General and Professional Teaching College (Cégep), Quebec’s equivalent grade 12.

“I switched to English, which was the time that I could do that—before that, it was all French. Something came alive in the material I was being exposed to. I ended up studying literature at that level […] I started fiddling with poetry and journaling, and then short stories. One thing led to the other and suddenly, I was taking it very seriously in a way that I hadn’t before,” Bradford said.

The author went on to obtain a Bachelor of Arts from Concordia University and an MFA from the University of Guelph.

Bradford’s 2023 poetry collection, Bottom Rail on Top, challenges prevailing notions of Blackness by juxtaposing personal narratives with American antebellum Black history. Their 2021 collection Dream of No One but Myself won a myriad of awards, including an A.M. Klein QWF Prize for Poetry and was a finalist for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize.

In Dream of No One but Myself, Bradford dives into the hyper-personal, challenging the conventional expectations of trauma literature and its impact on the author. The collection intertwines prose poems, verse, and photographs to unearth the challenges of growing up in a mixed-race family in Montréal’s South Shore neighborhood.

Many techniques Bradford deploys in their work are influenced by thinkers that align with the Black radical tradition in one way or the other. This perspective informed Bradford’s techniques in his second book, Bottom Rail on Top.

Bradford wanted to write something historical—thinking and rethinking about what history can do and should do, how we should be writing it, and what kinds of things that should be made more visible, that are often subsumed, hidden, or erased all together. While Bradford said he was raised in a “mainstream USA” kind of way due to his father’s American roots, that didn’t reconcile with what his life was.

Speaking to the conceptions of Blackness is the diaspora, Bradford mentioned Black Studies in North America is often very American-centric.

Bradford explained the trajectory of Black Studies in North America often prioritizes a masculine narrative, tracing from the plantation era through resistance, military enlistment, and the Civil War. It focuses on milestones like the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement, perpetuating a notion of Black progress tied to respectability, referencing the societal expectation for Black individuals to conform to certain standards to gain acceptance from the dominant culture.

There are overlooked narratives and individuals often sidelined in mainstream American representations of Blackness, he stated. While there are many issues in renderings of the Black community in North America, one of the biggest issues is in rendering the Black community in a monolith.

“We don’t really shine that much of a light on, say, Black experiences of enslaved people beyond the Caribbean,” they said.

“A lot of people complain about the American centeredness of Black studies, Black history, Black thoughts, to the point where sometimes, there’s even people that will start parsing the authenticity of Black experiences in North America versus Black experiences elsewhere in the world. What’s Black enough? Who’s Black enough? Who’s really leading a Black life and having “Black” experiences?” they explained.

Bradford, along with several other Canadian thinkers such as Dionne Brand and Canisa Lubrin, examine the connections between Black writers and the global community, aiming to foster a more egalitarian relationship between Black cultures in North America and elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of people that are trying to take that apart a little bit, shine a bit more of a light on it, and show that there’s a multiplicity of different Black cultures that are contributing to this bigger, not monolithic space.”

Moving forward, Bradford is being influenced not just by identity, but more so the experience of identity.

Corrections

A previous version of this story used the incorrect pronouns for D.M. Bradford.

The Journal regrets the error

Tags

BHM 2024, black history month, poets

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