Deneka Thomas is a poet, writer, educator and activist. She is the Program Manager for the local chapter of the NGO Girl Be Heard, headquartered in New York. She is also the reigning First Citizens National Poetry Slam champion, a title she will defend on Sunday 5th May at the 2019 Grand Slam finals, the closing event of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.
Thomas will be featured at the next edition of the “In Conversation with” series hosted by The Writers Centre on Thursday 7th February.
For more information, visit www.bocaslitfest.com/2019/events/in-conversation-with-deneka-thomas/
Tell us a little about your spoken word journey. How did you get your start and why did you stick with it?
I performed my first spoken word poem in 2012 at an open mic called “Open Up” and I’ve been performing ever since. I started because I wanted to be better at expressing my thoughts and experiences. I also thought “if I’m experiencing something, there must be someone else going through the same thing”, and that maybe I could help others while finding my own healing. In 2013, I saw The 2 Cents Movement perform at NAPA and it changed spoken word for me forever; it changed the way I wrote, the way I performed. From then I started workshopping my poems, asking for advice and doing everything to produce solid work. I’ve stuck with spoken word because it’s always evolving, becoming something new within me but also before my eyes. Once I improved how I crafted ideas on the page I saw how my work started moving audiences.
What kinds of opportunities first opened up for you once you embraced performance poetry?
A number of the experiences and opportunities came my way when, for lack of a better term, I ‘became part of’ The 2 Cents Movement. My participation at UWE Speak – a UWI St Augustine open mic I attended every month to get my dose of “good poetry” and which inspired me to experiment with my own work – allowed me to be noticed by 2 Cents, who invited me to take part in their annual school tour in 2015. I must acknowledge, too, the huge role that the The Free Speech Project played in my growth. This was a 96.1FM radio segment that provided an unprecedented space for paid work and exposure.
Did you ever have a specific vision for yourself, your career or life in general using the art form?
The idea was always to get to a place where I could contribute effectively to the well-being and upliftment of others. Years ago I didn’t know how I was going to do it with spoken word in particular but I wanted this to be the thing to which I gave my everything, which was scary because, at that time, it wasn’t something that earned income. I was doing many free gigs. But I maintained the mindset “give to your craft and it would give back to you”. My first school tour with 2 Cents and working with youth in such a major capacity was all the proof I needed. And in 2015 I left my 8-4 job to pursue a career as a full time artist. Ideas such as youth empowerment, youth development and positive youth intervention started to feel much more real once I got deeply involved in the work and became more invested.
Describe the work you do with Girl Be Heard T&T. What do you find most rewarding about the program?
Essentially, I run the Girl Empowerment after-school program at Bishop’s Centenary. The program aims to develop, amplify and celebrate the voices of women and provides a safe space to have discourse about issues that affect them and teaches them how to become advocates for the issues they care about. Every six months the program takes on 15 new girls. I taught in the classroom for two years, but now focus on fundraising, training other teaching artists, building and maintaining relationships with the girls, their parents, the school and looking after the general operations of the program.
For me, the transformation of the girls is the most beautiful thing. I’ve witnessed them move from quiet, unassuming and coy to bold, confident and simply powerful. The evidence is in them saying, on record, it’s the one space where they feel safe to be themselves; parents messaging to say they’re seeing changes in their children; seeing girls who had never before touched a stage now freely sharing their creativity before a live audience, and delivering quality performances. It’s the kind of impact that’s both measurable and inspiring.
Which three things would help you and your GBHTT team improve your work? How can the average person get involved?
-Sponsorship – we absolutely need the material support of the wider, national community!
-More support from parents – we need parents to get on board, check in with their children, show up for them, and help reinforce the positive values we’re working so hard to instill.
-More buy-in from schools beyond Bishops’s, and teachers who can appreciate the benefits of arts-intervention. See that our work isn’t trying to undermine their work in the classroom. Instead, we’re all about complementing the monumental effort and investment of teachers. Both are valuable.
You present bold and brave on stage, but otherwise you seem quite shy. Was it ever a struggle deciding how to represent yourself to the public, especially via social media?
I am still learning how to represent myself to the public, in public and on social media. Still learning ways to be unapologetic but there is also this question of safety in sharing, especially as a queer individual and making sure that I understand the consequences of that representation. I learned how to be brave on stage. I workshopped my poems and my performance; they became better with practice. I’m now going through that same process with my public self.
Can you imagine your art without your activism or vice versa? How important is one to the other?
Not at all. I cannot do my art without my activism and vice versa. My art is the vehicle for the activism. It is what carries it, what keeps it beating and breathing and active. The activism is the statement or plea for change. Both ask people to move. They complement each other. They’re like peanut butter and jelly: you can have them both separately but they work so beautifully together. The goal is to inspire people to change or help create change and make a difference (inwardly and/or outwardly).
At 26 years old, what have you found to be your greatest challenge to date and how have you addressed it?
My greatest challenge so far has been separating other people’s stories and experiences from my own. I’m what you would call an empath so I absorb the emotions of spaces and of people with whom I interact, and sometimes it becomes overwhelming. Now, I engage in much more self-care. Therapy is so necessary for doing this type of work as it’s easy to become over-stimulated and burnt-out. I’ve learnt that while we’re doing the work of looking out for others and empowering others we have to take time to take care of ourselves. When I was new to this work I didn’t appreciate that. Now, I do. Now, it’s a staple.
As you get ready to defend your Slam champion title on May 5, 2019, tell us what it has meant to you to be the 2018 First Citizens National Poetry Slam champion, personally and professionally.
This title has been such a transcendent experience. Firstly, the Slam finals stage already gives you an audience of 1200 people. It says “give them your best work and make it count”. I always want to make it count because there is no greater stage in the Caribbean at present for spoken word poets to perform meaningful work. I was able to take a public stand on the treatment of LGBTQI folks, a subject that many people are still warming up to. It put me in the spotlight. It put my name in people’s mouths. It gave me greater responsibility moving forward. It pushed me forward as an artist and an activist because of I what I choose to speak for. It was such a relief to know that I worked so hard at being a performance poet for the 5 years prior, having entered the Slam 4 years in a row and winning. Professionally, it added much more to my credibility as a Caribbean performer. I’ve since been afforded great performance opportunities and opportunities all around. It has been truly amazing.
What can we look forward to from Deneka Thomas in 2019?
I theme every year depending on where I’m at personally and professionally. 2018 was branding: I was able to get my personal logo, launch my website and develop my brand in a way that not only professionalizes my work, but makes it easier for people to connect. 2019 is for personal storytelling and self-exploration through my craft. I’m going to do more brand development, but, ultimately, the goal is that by the end of 2019 I would have shared a lot more of myself than in previous years.
That includes me putting out my first spoken word EP, and hosting my first solo show on February 24th. International performances are also on the cards at Trinity College Hip Hop festival in Hartford, Connecticut and the Woman Deliver conference in Canada. And, I’m hoping to finish my first collection of poems! This year will be a lot of firsts.
I just want to do things with my craft that I haven’t done before and push myself outside of my comfort zone.