When Sisters Speak is now in its 17th year! It's North America’s largest and longest-running showcase of Black spoken word poets curated annually by Scarborough Walk of Fame inductee Dwayne Morgan.
The show brings together six poets from different walks of life from Canada and the U.S. to discuss their perspectives on the world they share, through the lens of being Black women.
We caught up with Paulina O'Kieffe, one of the Black Canadian performers taking the stage.
Tell us about your background and how did you get started in the entertainment industry?
I started my career as a poet in 2005 as a member of R.H.Y.M.E, a poetry collective which was led by renowned Toronto artists and poets SPIN, Motion and Heather Hermant. Under their guidance, I began performing and then eventually teaching spoken word poetry around the city. In 2007 I entered Dwayne Morgan's Toronto International Poetry SLAM (TIPS) and thus began competing on the SLAM stage for a short time. After a brief hiatus, I returned to SLAM poetry in 2014 on the TIPS stage again and in 2015 I made the Up From the Roots slam poetry team to compete for Toronto at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Saskatoon. That experience has since fueled my desire to work towards performing, writing and teaching as an artist educator on a more full-time basis.
Tell us about your poetry.
My poetry is a reflection of myself and the things in my life that I find myself most passionate about at the time. When I first started it was very much focused on social justice in a very revolutionary context mainly because I was studying Political Science at York at the time so all my work was drawn from that material. Upon my return to the SLAM scene, it shifted to themes of black Canadian culture, black Canadian social activism, feminine empowerment and of course motherhood (as I had given birth to 2 children during my hiatus from the SLAM poetry scene). My poetry is very real, very raw, barely filtered or censored and is spoken from a place of complete passion. I like to paint pictures and tell stories with my poetry and present the subjects in their most realest forms most often with a deep message for the audience to take away. For example with themes of motherhood, I will talk about how beautiful it is to be a mother, but I will also make sure to speak about the challenges and the ugly, self-doubting parts as well.
What is the best compliment you have gotten about your work?
The best compliment I have gotten about my work has always been the thank you's I receive from people who let me know they appreciate me being a voice on certain issues. I am unafraid, unapologetic and very open and so to hear that people appreciate that about my work really makes me feel that this is truly my purpose.
What is your inspiration to keep on writing?
So many things keep inspiring me to write. My children are definitely my number one inspiration. I basically create art for them so that they will have literature and recorded evidence of messages that are designed to uplift and educate them specifically as black children. My art is the counter messages that will help them to cope in a world that shames them for the colour of their skin. Another huge inspiration is the students I teach and coach. Every time I hear how excited they get after performing a piece they have created, or when I see their self-esteem just shoot up, I get so excited and reminded that at the heart of my career I am happiest when I am not only creating and sharing my own art, but safe spaces for others to do the same.
Do you remember the first time you ever got on a stage to perform? Where was it and what did it feel like?
I will never forget my first time. It was sometime in 2005, at an open mic that took place in the back of a restaurant called La Cevejaria at College and Ossington. I remember having my paper in my hand and I was shaking all the way through the piece but as I continued to read it I felt this energy just come through me. After I was done I was so hooked and since then I have never looked back. That first performance baptized me into this art form and I am so grateful.
What other projects are you working on right now?
Those who know me know I am always working on some kind of project. Right now, artistically speaking, I am working on my first book of poetry entitled You Are Mother. As the title suggests it will focus on poetry that speaks to all the aspects of motherhood - the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and of course the magical. I am also working on turning one of my poems into a play that will highlight the journey I have undergone with my stepdaughter's mother and explore the building of what is now a beautiful co-parenting relationship with her in hopes to really inspire other women to connect with each other in the same way.