Andrea Thompson is, among so many things, the winner of the League’s 2019 Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award for excellence and innovation in spoken word poetry. The Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award is an annual literary prize crafted specifically to highlight the unique strengths and values of spoken word poetry.
We chatted with Andrea about her spoken word inspirations & beginnings, her involvement in community arts projects, finding community, and what poetry means to her.
League of Canadian Poets: How did spoken word become part of your life?
Andrea Thompson: Spoken word has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was raised by my grandparents, who both loved poetry. My grandmother especially, could remember poems she had learned as a girl at school, and would often spontaneously burst out in verse when she was in the mood. I grew up thinking this was a normal way to punctuate conversation.
Still, when I was younger, I was pretty intimidated by the idea of sharing my own poetry on stage – until the mid-90s, when I began co-hosting a spoken word poetry show on the University of British Columbia’s campus radio station. At first, I was terrified of being on air, so volunteered to do research on the local poetry scene. This was pre-internet, so the only way to really find out what was going on was to attend events in person. It was at one of these poetry events that the host persuaded me to get up on stage and share my work. It was both terrifying and thrilling – and changed my life from that day forward.
The radio show also gave me my first appreciation of spoken word (or “performance poetry” as most of us called it back then) as a vehicle to express an artist’s individuality. We were playing a lot of tracks from “The United States of Poetry” as well as Lillian Allen’s “Revolutionary Tea Party” and Jill Battson’s “Word Up” album in those days. Those recordings had a profound effect on me. The work was unlike anything I had heard before, and the poets were so diverse – so uncompromising in their expression of authentic voice… It really opened up my idea of what was possible with the art form.
LCP: Who are your biggest artistic influences (of any genre)?
AT: In terms of performance, one of my biggest influences is singer/songwriter/poet, Kinnie Starr. I remember seeing her live in Vancouver in the mid 90s, and being completely overwhelmed by the power of her stage presence. She had such a perfect mix of power, authenticity and vulnerability. Watching her perform left me thinking… yeah – that’s how it’s done. I’ve since called that experience exquisite misery–when someone’s work leaves me feeling simultaneously inspired by the possibilities of what I could hope to achieve as an artist, and humbled by how much I still had to learn.
Some other poets who had a significant influence on the development of my work are, George Elliott Clarke, Sheri-D Wilson, Lynn Crosbie, Cass King, Adeena Karasick, Motion, Maya Angelou, D.J. Renegade, Alice Walker, Saul Williams, Rumi, ee cummings, Sonia Sanchez, Gil Scott-Heron, Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith…. (to name just a few). My poetic aesthetic is also deeply influenced by music –especially the work of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Lauren Hill…
LCP: What community supports were meaningful to you as you were starting out your spoken word career?
AT: When I was first starting out as a young poet in Vancouver, there were no Slam poetry events anywhere in Canada. It wasn’t until organizers, James McCauliff and Graham Olds decided to put to National Slam team together in 1996 that I had the opportunity to witness firsthand what poets were doing to revolutionize the art form across North America. Again, the fact that this was pre-internet made McAuliffe and Old’s efforts even more valuable. Not having the luxury of doing an online search to find out what other artists were up to meant that creative cross-pollination required physical re-location. James and Graham also offered me a tremendous opportunity as an artist in 1997, when they sent me as a solo poet to represent Canada at the National Poetry Slam Championships in Middletown Connecticut. Their support and faith in my work meant the world to me.
I also feel grateful for the support of the League of Canadian Poets. I first became a member of the League in 2000, and shortly after that began to work for the League part-time and on a contract basis until around 2008. As a new poet on the scene, my association with the League offered me a tremendous sense of camaraderie and community – something precious for a writer with a penchant for solitude. Through working at the League, I had the opportunity to learn much – from connecting with and learning about writers on the scene (especially poetry elders who helped shape the Canadian literary landscape) to learning about the realities of small press publishing and how an established national non-profit organization operates. It was a wonderful education and a time of my life that I will always think of with fondness.
LCP: What community projects are you currently involved in?
AT: For the last few years, I’ve been teaching and advocating through Workman Arts – a multidisciplinary arts organization with a mandate to promote “a greater understanding of mental health and addiction issues through creation and presentation.” This year, I’ve also begun leading workshops through Parkdale Project Read, “a non-profit, community-based literacy program that operates an adult learning centre in the Parkdale community.” And I’m looking forward to facilitating a workshop this summer for the Poetry inPrint Writer’s Residency – a project created by Marureen DaSilva (Studio Manager of the inPrint Collective) and organized with poet Jacquline Valencia. The initiative pairs poets and printmakers to create a series of hand-printed, hand-bound chapbooks and offers artists in both genres a way to use creativity to facilitate activism.
LCP: What are you currently reading?
AT: The Bible.
LCP: What does poetry mean to you?
AT: To me, poetry is love, language, rhyme, rhythm, vernacular, cadence, ancestry, freedom, self-expression, memory, memoir, praise, exaltation, oral history, tradition, catharsis, transcendence, cultural transmission, mentorship and a vehicle for versified resistance (among other things…. ).
Listen to Andrea perform “Free Write Manifesto” from her 2018 album Soulorations here.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, educator and spoken word artist who has been publishing and performing her work for over twenty-five years. In 1995 she was featured in the documentary Slamnation, as a member of the country’s first national slam team. In 2005, her spoken word CD One was nominated for a Canadian Urban Music Award. She is the author of the novel Over Our Heads and co-editor of Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out (both Inanna Publications). Thompson currently teaches at Workman Arts, as well as through the Ontario College of Art and Design University and The University of Toronto’s Continuing Studies departments. She has written several academic essays on spoken word, “Spoken Word: A Gesture Towards Possibility” (Writing Creative Writing: Essays from the Field,2018). Her most recent CD, Solorations, is available through iTunes, Amazon and most online streaming services.
The Golden Beret Award was founded by Sheri-D Wilson and the Calgary Spoken Word Society. Formerly a lifetime achievement award, past iterations have honoured a Canadian spoken word artist who made substantial contributions to the development of spoken word, through the originality of their writing/performance works and involvement in the expansion of the spoken word community.