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National Poetry Slam winner stunned
“I’ll be damned if I continue letting closets be a place where people hide.” That was the powerful ending line in Deneka Thomas’ winning poem at the First Citizens National Poetry Slam 2018. The poem, which spoke from the point of view of the proverbial closet which many LGBTQI people hide in until they come out, or sometimes kill themselves in, packed a powerful punch as Thomas built from the invention of the closet to her powerful closing line. Her performance elicited a roar of approval from the sold-out crowd at the National Academy for the Performing Arts (Napa), Port-of-Spain.
She said this has been the hardest poem she has ever written. “No poem has ever taken so much out of me that I contemplated quitting every time a line came out on the page that reflected my whole soul,” said Thomas. “Prior to writing there were real tears shed and plenty nights of my partner staying up till late trying to convince me that I was enough and this poem was worth it every time I got scared and started to doubt myself.”
Thomas was visibly stunned when she was named the winner, to the extent that she ran off the stage and had to be coaxed back by her fellow competitors, who were visibly happy for her. She said: “I cannot remember my performance, only how it felt to say every word, and the out of body experience I felt when my name was announced as the winner. This narrative was so important. Telling this story is all that matters. I wanted to give people a glimpse into a part of the queer experience that is often never seen or considered.
“This accomplishment means I get to continue that conversation in a huge way and this is the greatest reward at this point in time. The reason why I committed to this artform, to spoken word poetry, to advocacy and youth work, to this competition for the last four to five years is because of its magical ability to open spaces.”
Thomas’ poem was one of four which referenced the subject of LGBTQI rights, whether wholly or partially, continuing the event’s trend of poets building poems around the hot topics of the day.
Second place winner Kyle Hernandez took the stance, both figuratively and literally, of Jesus on the cross, taking his followers to task for the hatred some of them show towards LGBTQI people in his name. “Not much has changed since I last died. It is not finished,” were his final powerful words.
Brendon O’Brien’s poem also asked Christians who were against the LGBTQI community why they were going against their God “I know God is love, so who the ass you praying to?” Deja Lewis also mentioned the community in her poem, among many other topical references.
Another popular topic was that of domestic violence, with third place winner Idrees Saleem delivering a stunning piece centred around the ideas of consent and the things that people have done when rejected romantically. “This juxtaposition between gods and monsters who walk amongst us; No means No!”
Poets also based their poems on other social issues, including the prevailing thought that “Trinidad is not a real place.”
Other popular topics were domestic violence, violence in general, politics, the police, corruption, legalisation of marijuana, the environment, the loss of traditional values and the use of culture for empowerment.
A couple of poets spoke about the difficulty of composing a poem that would fit into the new three-minute limit and also win $50,000.
Other participants included Shenique Saunders, Alexandra Stewart, Davon Musgrave, Jillian Smith, Marcus Abraham, Marcus Millette, Carlon George, Dellon Mathison, Akile Wallace, Ahmad Muhammed and defending champion Camryn Bruno.
The show, which was the final event of the Bocas Literary Festival, flowed smoothly, with the newly instituted three-minute rule per performance keeping the poets on their toes. An opening presentation from UWI Afrikan Society, I-ACT - I Am Christian Theatre and Derron Sandy, as well as performances during the intermission by I-ACT and the Modsec Group Exhibition Slam kept the audience entertained throughout.
The judges were chief judge Paul Keens-Douglas, Jessie-May Ventour, Sharda Patasar, Mervyn Taylor, Anthony Joseph and Raymond Antrobus.
Keens-Douglas said the judges had a difficult time picking a winner because of the high quality and standards of the poems. “The real winner tonight was spoken word and poetry. There were many high moments and wonderful use of dramatic imagery. We’re very proud of the fact that the poets showed care for the society.”
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