Shawn Katuwapitiya

You just got back from travelling. How long were you gone?

3 weeks, still a little bit jet lagged. We went to Thailand and Vietnam.

What stood out for you?

We were really taken aback by how beautiful the scenery was in Vietnam. If you've ever been to the North part there's this province called Hagiang that had some pretty stunning viewpoints. We were able to get off the beaten trail from where the tourists tend to go.

We’re pretty big into food so a lot of the food we ate out there was pretty tasty.

You're in Toronto now?

We were in Toronto for the weekend, that's where my family is, but we're back in Ottawa now.

Are you working on anything artistically right now?

I think the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word is such an incredible experience, and I think it takes a lot out of you. You put a lot out there and after that it was nice to take a bit of a break. I'm starting to get back into writing more again, but there was a period of time where I wanted to take a break from writing and kind of digest the week and experience there.

Yeah, I've done it three years in a row, so I understand the necessity of taking a break.

It was super fun and seeing poets like yourself who are really inspiring—but at the same time it's very draining as well.

Did you start writing when you were in Ottawa?

I've been writing for a long time. Poetry is something I have loved ever since I was a little kid, and I really didn't get exposed to the slam scene until I went into undergrad. I was at Western in London, Ontario, and even then I just kind of dabbled with official university sanctioned events. I wasn't exposed to the London Poetry Slam scene until I finished undergrad, took a couple years off, and went to medical school. It was when I was in medical school in London that I started doing a couple slams there, and started to explore the scene. When I came to Ottawa I started performing more consistently, initially with CapSlam and then with Urban Legends. RIP CapSlam. It was really cool to come through Ottawa and having two collectives made it very easy to find something that worked in my busy schedule. Since then, Urban Legends has become a really nice family. But I'm sad—it really depends on what rotation I'm working at the hospital. Any time I go it feels like a very familiar environment.

Are you a resident right now?

Yeah, I'm approaching my last year of residency. It's a long process but it's been really interesting and enjoyable. I'm learning a lot. Part of me wants to be finished and another part of me realizes how much there is to know, and how you can always be learning. Even when you're done it's kind of a life-long process.

It's a really long timeline.

It certainly feels very long. As you progress it's surprising because you're in your fourth year of residency and you still remember when you were starting—the whirlwinds, working overnight shifts at the hospital, and putting in the time. You look back and it's already been four years and you're kind of like "Oh, wow, this is really flying by.”

I've seen your work in your writing, but do you think it has a pretty heavy hand in what you write about?

Yeah I think when I started writing I was kind of just doing what a lot of people start out writing about—things that are impactful, like your relationships. As I got more into medical school I really realized it was a pretty unique position to be in. I really value where I'm at and I hear so much of people's stories. I'm exposed to these environments a lot of people don’t necessarily have exposure to, especially from the perspective of a resident or physician. It's definitely shaped my work. Initially it wasn't intentional, but I found that it was coming into my poetry.

There's a year of medical school where you're expected to lose everything else. They call that clerkship. In the first two years of medical school you're kind of just in lectures, and it's not really special, but in third year you're a clinical clerk. You’re rotating through all the different specialties in medicine and you're constantly challenged and made to feel like you don't know a lot, and you're put on a different schedule, working overnight shifts in the hospital. That’s the time when everyone tells you you're going to lose your work-life balance. When I felt that starting I thought I'd lose my ability to write poetry so I made a commitment to write a poem every day of clerkship. These are pretty short poems, but by the end of it I had written 200 poems, and I still have that to look back on to this day. It's a progression of not only my medical school experience and gaining knowledge but also my style of writing. It was a really interesting creative experience. That shaped where I went from then on—seeing the stuff that I'm seeing and the emotions that I'm feeling.

That's a big project, a poem a day, during your clerkship.

If I was really tired it would just be a haiku or something. It's pretty funny, it's kind of like journaling in a way. I have colleagues who would try to remember important cases they've learned from. I'm never writing anything that can identify a patient but I can remember through the environments I'm describing, and put myself back there. We're privy to so many important aspects of people's lives.

You have such a unique perspective on it that is sometimes left out in spoken word poetry. For a lot of poets there's a lot of cases of really bad care that a lot of us have received. So it's interesting hearing from someone who's in a position of caring for others.

I'm in such a privileged position to be where I'm at, and I certainly value every time someone goes up and performs something about their experiences with their own mental health or mental health professionals. I think poetry is such an incredible way for us to put our emotions out there and do something constructive with them. I remember going to poetry slams all the time and wanting to hide who I was--I felt like it was a secret that I was in medicine, and going into psychiatry.

As I've got into writing in the medical scene I've encountered a lot of poets who have performed or are page poets in medicine. it's an interesting community because what I try to do when I perform is show that we're just like everybody else. We try our best and we see a lot, and it's a hard job that we really value doing. At the same time, it's always a really fulfilling and interesting experience.

So tell me more about the medical poetry community.

There is a humanities section in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and in recent years they've expanded to include an online humanities blog. So they regularly post poetry from people in medical school and from residents and doctors. The Journal of the American Medical Association does as well. I had one of my poems from my clerkship project published in the Canadian journal.

Very cool.

They actually have poetry competitions too. William Carlos Williams was a poet who was also a doctor and they have one in his name every year. It all exists under the umbrella of narrative medicine—books, poetry, short stories. I haven't met too many medical poets in the slam community but I hope that that can change, and that there's more voices from this perspective.

Do you have a canon you've looked up to? What would you consider your literary influences?

I hope that it's not cliché to say it, but I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop. The first time I was exposed to slam poetry was Def Poetry Jam, which introduced me to artists like Black Ice, Shihan, and others in the New York scene. Hip-hop was the bridge. Growing up I wrote poetry—and if you're into hip-hop, you write rap lyrics. Seeing a new form of expression helped me realize that it existed. But it was pretty daunting to a 15-year-old, so it wasn't until later that I found my voice within spoken word. Looking back, I wish I'd found it sooner and earlier. It's been an incredible experience feeling like my work is improving just by seeing other people's work. I see the youth program that they have in Ottawa, and the young poets starting at the age where I wish I had started, and it blows me away.

When did you start writing?

I have a book of poetry I reference if I'm allowed to MC from grade three or grade four. The poems in there are pretty hilarious.

That's a long time ago. I've been doing this for like three years—we're coming at it from two different places.

I'm sure the poems you wrote three years ago have a bit more depth than my grade three poems, but I stand behind them.

Have you ever done one of the "adults read things we wrote as children" nights?

No! It's something I really want to do. Our teacher made us print poetry on computer pages, and it's spiral bound. It's fun to bring out and show people. But it was a lot of bad poetry for a number of years before finding my voice.

I think part of getting better at poetry is just the grinding and getting it out—eventually you're bound to write something good. Your 200 poems a year probably drastically improved your writing.

It's funny looking back at the first poem, and then reading poem 195. Suddenly when I write now I have more of an idea of how I want to write something. But I'm still inspired by the music I listen to and certainly other slam poets in the scene including yourself. Some of the poets I saw at CFSW made me think "Oh yeah, this is how I want to be presenting what I'm writing."

What are some poems you still want to write? Topics, style?

There's a lot of stuff we see in psychiatry that I find really powerful and I just haven't found the right ways to talk about those topics. The concept of aging, things like dementia, have really moved me. Every time I try to sit down and write about it, though, it’s really a lot to cover. Just continuing to push towards more abstract connections from my day-to-day experience in the hospital is a goal. As a writer, you find your niche and you're used to it, but it's one thing to have an interesting perspective and try and take it to another level and talk about bigger topics—like death and dying, and what it is to find meaning and purpose in a life. I think I need to process those better for myself first.

They're both incredibly heavy topics.

I start a new rotation working in psychiatric care in oncology, so those are the environments where I'm learning a lot and seeing a lot, and being inspired by the strength of those you work with. There's so much that goes through your head. It's easier to write in hindsight than it is at that moment in time.

Do you have people who you think are looking up to you?

It's hard to say. It's funny, as someone who writes and wants to be out there performing but my job is such a big part of my life, so I never consider myself as someone who is a part of the scene. I always feel like I'm just dabbling. I don't think of myself as someone that other writers are taking ideas from, but if that is the case I'd be very flattered. I'm always wishing I could spend more time writing poetry, so it makes it special when I do get a chance to go to a slam. I hope to always have it as a part of my life in some way.

I definitely don't think that doctors have a good work-life balance, from the people I know.

Of the specialties where we talk about work-life balance, psychiatrists should be the ones who practice what they preach. We can see the impact of constantly working or not having a creative outlet or sacrificing the things you enjoy to do what you feel like you're supposed to be doing. So far I've found it pretty easy to say "Hey, this is where I stop doing work" and then do what I want to do for myself. Hopefully in medicine that becomes more of a focus as we talk about physicians with addictions, or anxiety. It can be a tough job sometimes.

I definitely consider you as part of a growing brown community of writers. I don't really see one in spoken word so I'm trying to figure out the place my voice plays, or if people are depending on me to say things and bring their voices up with mine.

I feel like my connection with where my parents are from, growing up in Canada, waxes and wanes. There's times where you're like, "I just want to fit in, I'm just like everyone else, I've been here this whole time" and other times I’m hearing poetry where I'm like "Hey, that's happened to me" where you're hearing something that's happened at a grocery store or an airport. There's a tumblr poet who has a hard-to-say Arabic name and she endures people saying her name wrong because at the end it's been so meaningful for her to hear them say it at all. And man, I'm out here calling myself Shawn when my legal name is Shehan. I think if I had more of those voices when I was younger who knows how different my relationship with my identity might have been.

There are more representations of us in movies and on television now and I would hope that people can be considered to have more to their identity than simply "I'm Canadian and I have brown skin." It's easier for me to be proud of that stuff than when I was younger and I just wanted to fit in.

I definitely went through a lot of that. I feel that exploring my identity as a poet has really allowed me to reconnect with the parts of my culture that are healthy or that I want to preserve versus the parts I see has unhealthy or the parts that I've lost. I definitely grew up wanting to fit in but I listened to punk, alternative rock— and that tradition. Childish Gambino has these lyrics where he's talks about being the only black kid as a Sufjan concert.

I totally relate to that.

And for me some days it's like "Oh, do you want to go to Osheaga?" But I find now that there's definitely a hunger out there for more diverse stories. I feel more accepted.

It's valuable to have voices from all sorts of communities. I remember growing up and being like "There's a brown guy in Sum 41, that's cool and that's the style of music I like".

Everyone knows the brown guy in Sum 41.

Yeah, and then it was "Oh there's a brown guy in Billy Talent" and I remember all the brown guys in the bands. There's a Sri Lankan lead singer of this band and I thought "That's great" to see someone with a similar background as myself. I wonder what it would be like growing up now. Growing up it was just Apu on The Simpsons, or people trying to say your name wrong and make it funny. If anything, now I feel more connected to my identity than when I was younger. Part of that is seeing other people talk about how they've struggled, and always not feeling like they're from somewhere. When I go back to Sri Lanka I'm not from there either.

The concept of home is a whole other interview.


Do you feel that there is a growing creative community? There's a lot of comedians coming up now—Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj—do you see a Canadian equivalent of that? Are there people who are more visible we can lean on?

It's something that if I see it, I bookmark it and I try to support those people as best as I can but I also don't know if they're people I seek out enough. There's brown YouTube celebrities who are branching out into music and film but I guess the ones I most keep track of are the comedians. I wish there were more in music—there's Das Racist and M.I.A. That list is shorter.

So you write about food and music too, right?

I grew up writing about music. When I got to Western I was writing for the Gazette and had the opportunity to interview a lot of great musicians and review shows. Music is a big part of my life. Music is another way of maintaining my work-life balance.

Any song recommendations?

We just saw Charlotte Day Wilson so if you haven't listened I would recommend her song "Work".