Storytelling & being heard: Indigenous Poet Billie the Kid discusses storytelling through spoken word poetry

Billie the Kid discusses her craft

Billie the Kid is a spoken word poet. 
Credit: 
Supplied by Billie Kearns
Billie Kearns, Sci ’19, commonly known as Billie the Kid, is a K’ai Taile Dené and Nehiyaw spoken word poet and storyteller.
 
Kearns began writing spoken word poetry in Grade 10 while attending high school in Ottawa. She was inspired by a week-long workshop in her literary arts class taught by Canadian poet Ian Keteku. 
 
“Previously I’d heard about spoken word and thought: ‘I’m not sure if this is the type of poetry for me’ and then he came in and I was totally floored,” Kearns said.
 
“Before high school I was pretty quiet. But in high school I started coming out of my shell,” she added. “Once I actually started admiring spoken word as an artform, when I started performing, I was like ‘oh I get to be on stage and say exactly what I want to say exactly how I want to say it.’”
 
What Kearns values most about performing her poems is “being able to inhabit a different part of myself because who I am on stage is different from who I am hanging out with my friends.”
 
But for her, storytelling is more than a means of self-expression. “Storytelling is a duty and a way of passing things on and letting stories live,” she said. 
 
Kearns talked about how storytelling and spoken word poetry helped her learn more about her K’ai Taile Dené culture and form her identity.
 
“When I was younger, I used to write more about exploring that identity and that was a big part of me processing that,” she said. “More recently, [I’m] exploring the ways that spoken word and slam feel connected to Dené traditions and traditional Dené storytelling.”
 
When she started writing poetry at 16, she said to herself: “everyone’s doing love poems, I’m not going to do a love poem.” For this reason, she chose not to perform any love poems for a long time. 
 
“I would always write whatever in my notebook, so sure, I wrote a love poem in my notebook but I’m not going to perform it. That’s a different thing,” she said. “You get to choose what stays in your notebook and what you talk about on stage.”
 
But during her four years at Queen’s, she matured as an artist and now feels more comfortable sharing private emotions in her work. 
 
“I don’t need that rule anymore,” she said. “Whatever story I feel compelled to write about is what I write about.”
 
According to Kearns, new experiences and emotions enrich her poems. In fourth year, Kearns took a creative writing seminar and was told to write either a love poem or an elegy. “The elegy wasn’t going well so I decided to do a love poem,” she said.
 
“I wrote it, and I was actually quite happy with it and then I started performing it,” she said.
 
While she shied away from love poems as a teenager, her time at Queen’s taught her to embrace all aspects of her inner voice. “There’s actually this boy that made me feel a thing,” she said.
 
Kearns has been performing since she started writing spoken word poetry at 16. Her first competition was the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam Team. Then, as her career as a spoken word poet evolved, she was sent to the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word on the Ottawa Poetry Slam Team.
 
Kearns said the festival was a great way to meet many spoken word poets from across the country and “hear people with narratives very similar to yours or even narratives totally different to yours.” 
 
“You all share this love of performing and writing. I have made some really beautiful friends and have learned a lot from them.”
 
Currently, Kearns is involved with Voices of Today, which is a poetry festival for youth, run by youth. She said it’s important that “youth shape the community the way they want to.” 
 
Kearns started with Voices of Today while she was a student but has taken on a larger role now that she’s graduated.
 
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Voices of Today Poetry Festival has transitioned to an online setting. The event has no entry fee and all presentations are pre-recorded, so performers don’t have to worry about internet connection which is often a barrier in many rural Indigenous communities and communities up north, she said. These changes allow for the festival to be accessible to all.
 
For Kearns, spoken word poetry is all about telling stories and being listened to. “To really feel like ‘oh wow, people actually like my poetry and they connect to it,’” and “to have people remember something that I said—that’s what anybody wants.”

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