We’re just about one week away from the finals of the First Citizens National Poetry Slam, the closing event of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. On Sunday 29, April 15 poets will challenge 2017 returning champion Camryn Bruno for the 2018 Grand Slam title.
We recently caught up with one of the country’s top spoken word artists Derron Sandy, artistic director of the 2 Cents Movement, former Slam competitor, now creative director of the FCNPS.
We learnt about his experience as a Slam competitor and this thoughts on spoken word in Trinidad and Tobago. While working full time on a range of creative, youth development projects, Derron is also the host and co-producer of the entertaining Slam review web series.
REC: Exactly one year ago you were preparing to compete in the FCNPS finals. What has taken the most getting used to, transitioning from being a kind of veteran Slam competitor to now providing creative direction to the Slam competition?
DS: Being in the Slam from the onset, nothing has changed much. The energy is now placed in a different direction. While, I may not be learning a poem or riling up my supporter base, I am still in rehearsal mode in terms of using the same time to rile up the poets and provide as much support as I can for the organising team for the National Poetry Slam.
You’re one of the foremost spoken word artists on the scene: does it ever cross your mind, “It would have been nice to have one Grand Slam title under my belt” before moving out of the competition?
DS: Yes, of course. I think I missed it in 2015, when I came in second. But it will always be like a vacant spot on my shelf of accolades, but maybe one day I will return to have a crack at it again.
As a (former) serial Slam competitor and teaching artist whose vision for the artform is to promote youth voices and engagement, do you feel conflicted about the merit of competition vis-a-vis the evaluation of real, often difficult material that emerges? And do you think it can turn into a celebration or glorification of pain in pursuit of a prize?
DS: All competitions have the potential to turn into negative emotion. Sometimes artists get caught up in the title and the title only—that is where the work loses value for while it is good to win, I believe that the poet’s first mission should always be sharing his thoughts with the audience in the most creative and memorable way. The stage is bigger than any prize money and while that sounds cliche, many performers tend to forget that. On the other hand, sometimes performers tend to use their trauma to get higher scores. This is an extremely dangerous practice if not managed correct. A person’s mental health is much more vital than a slam score. As a teaching artist, I suggest that a lot of training and negotiation must happen between the poet and his or her work before bearing it on stage. Fortunately, the glorification of pain has not been prevalent in our National Slam so far, nor has it been shown any positive bias.
Which of your Slam finals experiences brought you the most satisfaction and why?*
DS: My 2017 performance was essentially a thank you note to the many people who would have supported me over the years. In that moment, nothing mattered except the experience of the audience and I truly abandoned everything I will traditionally do to deliver a high energy soca-esque performance laden with antics, similar to some of my very early performances.
Tell us one thing about Derron Sandy, the stoic performer/competitor, that you think would surprise many people.
DS: This is a tough one because different people know different parts of me. But generally people tend to think I am some kind of enigma, when the truth is I will tell a stranger everything about me if he or she asks the right questions. I am extremely open with almost anyone.
Misconception number one is that slam is for youth alone. Misconception number two is that the slam favours “2 cents” poets alone. The FCNPS is for every voice.
You (and some of your colleagues) bring to the table the experience of a much bigger, more established poetry slam in what could be described as the performance poetry mecca of Chicago: what are major takeaways for you from that experience and how do they inform what your team (the Bocas Lit Fest and the 2 Cents Movement) does here?
DS: The first one was that our poetry scene in Trinidad and Tobago is not that far off, if off at all, from international standards. The second one is the need to establish the poetry scene amongst secondary school students in a very deliberate, formal and celebratory way. Secondary school poetry should be a grand spectacle and we are currently working on that model.
What is your vision for the First Citizens National Poetry Slam? Is there some kind of Slam nirvana you can envision?
DS: Easy question. It is for the spoken word veterans to make a return or at least see the competition as something valuable to them. At the moment, the competition is dominated by youth under 30 years old. While nothing is wrong with this, I believe that a National Slam should reflect all the practitioners of the art form. I think when names such as Muhammad Muwakil and Keegan Maharaj, headline a final, only then will we have a true representation of the best of what spoken word has to offer. But, at the moment the Slam is more than pretty good.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions, you think, about spoken word and the Slam?
DS: Misconception number one is that slam is for youth alone. Misconception number two is that the slam favours “2 cents” poets alone. The FCNPS is for every voice. Additionally, poets who have worked with The 2 Cents Movement have only won twice out of the six times the competition has taken place: 2014 with Idrees Saleem and 2015 with Akile Wallace. What the 2 Cents Movement has done is work with winners subsequent to their titles, so to the public it may seem like these poets were part and parcel of The 2 Cents Movement.
If this is your largest audience, let them hear every word that you have to say. It gives your artwork relevance and it gives your purpose validation and direction. It calls for reverent and consistent practice, editing and mastery of your craft.
In your new role with the FCNPS, how important is it for you/the Slam team to foster a sense camaraderie among rival poets? How do you set about that?
DS: Social media banter is always fun. Through Slam Review, which is a program designed to follow the national poetry Slam, we engage with the poets. The poets also get to see the non-competitive side to each other and get to know each other better. Also, this year we have been using supporter frames on facebook. Some rival poets have used frames from other poets which is always a good thing to see.
How has competing in the Slam helped you as a writer/performer/human being? And now that you’re on the other side, how do you hope to use the forum to improve spoken word as an artform?
DS: The National Slam is the largest Spoken Word Poetry audience for the year. You need to bring your best version of your performance self to that stage because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I always encourage people to cease and seize the moment. Let time stand still and take as much as you can from the moment. Some of the pieces that I have created on the National Slam stage still exist today in my performance sets. If this is your largest audience, let them hear every word that you have to say. It gives your artwork relevance and it gives your purpose validation and direction. It calls for reverent and consistent practice, editing and mastery of your craft.
The 2 Cents Movement is a youth-led NGO that uses performance arts to do youth outreach.
The FCNPS is hosted by the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in partnership with the 2 Cents Movement. For the second consecutive year, the competition finale will take place at the NAPA auditorium. Showtime is 6pm sharp. Tickets cost $200 and are available at NAPA Box Office and Francis Fashions outlets.