Andre Fenton stands against a graffitied wall in the Halifax Common. He flips through his notebook, hollowed with ripped out pages.
“She sells sea shells by the sea shore,” enunciates Fenton.
Sirens wail in the distance, vehicles honk at the intersection of Windsor Street and Quinpool Road, and children yell from the playground. Amidst the sounds of everyday life, Fenton, wearing a newsboy cap and grey overcoat, prepares to bare his soul.
After nodding that he’s ready to begin, Fenton reads aloud the poem — so new it’s nameless — he will perform at the upcoming adult slam later this month.
Fenton, 19, is a slam poet from the north end of Halifax. He spent the last two years pursuing a degree in screen arts from NSCC and working a part-time job at Lawton’s, while performing slam throughout the country and organizing youth and adult events in Halifax.
After qualifying for a place on Halifax’s 2013 and 2014 Youth Can Slam teams, Fenton will help coach this year’s five chosen youth poets for the national event in Ottawa in August.
He says performing feels like a high more elating than therapy. “When you first start [performing] it feels like you’re sticking your head underwater,” says Fenton, “but eventually you’ll learn how to swim.”
A shy person, Fenton says he was morbidly obese up until two years ago and has been struggling with mental health and depression since his early teens. Spoken word has been his catharsis.
“You’re taking everything you deal with, your deepest confessions, and turning it into an artistic expression.”
Taking the plunge
Fenton’s passion for writing started in elementary school, around the same time El Jones began visiting his school and performing. It was during one of those performances that Fenton realized he wanted to meet the present-day poet laureate.
He found Centreline Studios on Gottingen Street and began using the studio as a space to write and practise recording poetry. One afternoon, while he was sitting in the back room jotting down his thoughts, Jones came into the studio. She asked to hear what he was working on.
The piece, Invisible Walls, focuses on the contrasting social treatment Fenton received before and after losing 145 lb. He says he has always been the same person — whether 300 pounds or less.
Jones asked Fenton to come to the poetry slam finals that were happening that night in Dartmouth. He didn’t know what to expect, but agreed to go along.
“We were going over the bridge and she was coaching me on this poem I literally just finished,” he recounts with a smile.
Jones registered Fenton for the slam and he performed while holding his notebook in front of his face. The crowd snapped and cheered. No one had ever clapped for him before.
Fenton placed third during his first live performance and qualified for a spot on Halifax’s 2013 Youth Can Slam team. He travelled to Montreal two months later for the competition.
Competing in the Youth Can Slam gave Fenton the opportunity to grow his confidence. “There was something I could do that I felt good about,” he says.
Hali Youth Slam
Fenton has been an active member of the slam community since his surprise debut. He has worked closely with David Zinck, the head of the Halifax poetry collective, to create Hali Youth Slam, a society that hosts monthly open mic nights.
Hali Youth Slam began in 2013, but didn’t have a full season. There were three rounds of competitive slam nights.
The first official season of Hali Youth Slam began last August. After having monthly slam nights, Fenton believes the consistency of this year’s season will help prepare the young artists who are competing for a spot on the Can Slam team.
Finals will be held on April 29 at the Alderney Gate Public Library. The top five poets will qualify for the 2015 Youth Can Slam.
Fenton will coach the team of five and accompany them to Ottawa for the national event. “I’ve never coached a team before,” he says, “but I think they have faith in me.”
He wants to ensure qualifiers work to perfect their pieces so they will be ready for harsher criticism by the time they leave for Ottawa. Fenton says the Can Slam judges are not very lenient.
Memorizing pieces is encouraged. Fenton says memorization builds confidence and improves public speaking; it keeps performers from reading their pieces like robots.
Although Halifax’s adult slam scene has dried up over the years, adults will not be left out for long. The first 2015 adult slam night is planned for April 30.
Fenton — no longer a youth — will be competing and hopes there will be more to come in May and June.
After graduating this month, Fenton has plans to combine his love for poetry and film. He hopes to start a blog where slam night performances can be posted and shared. He is also beginning to turn one of his pieces into a cinepoem, a work of poetry accompanied by a video to tell a narrative.
Fenton is currently working on a video for Just Shine, a poem he wrote and performed at the 2014 Canadian Spoken Word Festival in Victoria.
He hopes the cinepoem will be completed by the end of April so that he can enter it into an online competition. Canadian artists post their videos on YouTube, and the winner will receive a paid trip to compete in the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam in Vancouver.
Just Shine is inspired by the career counsellors who told him there was no money in writing.
Fenton says he writes to make people feel connected. While admitting that competition is a crucial part of slam poetry, he also believes the most important thing is the community.
Fenton names off a list of celebrated Canadian slam poets: Jeremy Loveday, Erin Dingle and Scruffmouth the Scribe. El Jones and David Zinck are also inspirations, as well as his peers who write and perform slam.
“I’m really nerdy,” says Fenton. “When I think of all of these people, I think of them like super heroes.”
Fenton believes there is something powerful about watching someone on stage with three minutes to speak their mind. Slam poetry is a way to share his voice, and he believes the power to leave an audience in goosebumps lies in a piece’s sincerity.
“Honesty is the best poetry.”