Joshua 'Scribe' Watkis


It's almost like a year since we met. How are you?

I'm very good. Life has been very strange and wonderful lately. The good kind of strange? Yeah. How about you? Life is good. I'm not complaining at all. Got married. No big. Basically my life has started back up with poetry and that's been the really only really only thing that's going on right now. Like getting married. It was kind of my life for a year. Yeah, I can imagine that. And now that that's done, I'm just kinda going back to my usual. Tell me what your usual is for poetry. My usual for poetry is scratching my head 'till like 12:30 PM and praying that ideas come to me for poems, writing those things down and kind of editing through my ideas, planning workshops and then executing workshops. So I'll go into schools around the GTA and/or teach. I feel like I work four jobs at all times. So there's the workshop portion, so like being an arts educator in actual education system. And then on top of that there's running community programming. So like Poetry Saved Our Lives with the Toronto Public Library and being just a performer and artist, which I see as separate. And then I have part time jobs. I worked at a movie theater but that's it. So I say it's my job. Yeah, I think that's kind of the case or just like having a diversity of things that they're doing and income streams and they all kind of support each other. You know, a serving job for instance allows you to maybe ask for a gig on a certain night or something like that. I think it gives you a lot of freedom and I think, I guess, if all goes, well I'll have another education job and a couple of months and then I will lead my serving job. But I'll probably still use it because it's a great way to connect with people, interact with others, but then also like work on performance. Services actually in my mind is like my biggest performance job as well. Because you have to be on for a whole shift, I can definitely see the the connection there. Exactly. So what are you kind of working on right now?

The first one is chapbook which is weird because I've been doing this professionally for like six years, but I'm working on my first chapbook because I didn't want to scrap together a bunch of my poems and say here! A chapbook! I'm a perfectionist that way with my art. I'm not going to say the title name because if not I'm not making it real and then people will expect it from me. And then I'm also working on a short album EP. Who are your partners on that? It's a rap album. So yeah, I have producer named ONGLISH and we worked together through the whole project, which is nice. So it'd be like a Dre produced album (that sounds like mad arrogant and I don't mean to use a comparatively. I'm just trying to think of someone that's not Kanye who produces a whole album) but basically a producer and rapper slash poet are working collaboratively together. That's what we're doing. Can you tell me a little bit about what got you writing? Um, no, because I've always been writing. I've been writing since I learned how to write. It's just something I love doing, I love telling stories, it's kind of just in my blood. Do you come from a culture that values storytelling? Absolutely. Jamaica is the place of storytellers. Between reggae and it's like very, very political roots in storytelling, and the fact that it's the most religious country in the world, and religion is very much story based. Even if my family doesn't necessarily practice, I'm still very ingrained in that and then on top of that (I don't know how many Jamaicans you know) Jamaicans are top tier, extra storyteller. My grandfather was a fisherman. -I say Jamaica culturally, because people think black people when they think Jamaica. That's not the truth. Jamaica is a very, very diverse place in terms of in terms of race and how race plays dynamically in it. So my grandfather was a half-Chinese, half-white Jamaican. But he was a fisherman, and for him he was white and Chinese, but he grew up in Jamaica. Only speaking Patois was a part of the culture. The storytelling was embedded in the culture. Although there is definitely a heavier black presence in Jamaica, I would say that storytelling aspect is much more cultural than it is racial. My culture doesn't hold it in the same place, although we love music and we love film. Okay, so what does your artistic practice look like? Do you mean like the crafting of my work? It can mean whatever you want it to mean. If you want it to be technical, how many hours a week do you spend making art, or if you want to be more high level, what's that process like? Do you think of an idea? Do you sit and go through with it right away? Do you have it marinate for a few weeks? How does that work? I'm pretty intense. Which is weird. I'm an intense person, but I'm not a very disciplined person. Art is where the two of those things kind of come together in terms of how much time I spend writing. There's times where I don't have the ability to write because I'm in a workshop for one minute and the next minute I'm working a shift that spans anywhere from 5 to 12 hours. So in the actual discipline of writing, I'd say anywhere between 2 hours on a bad week to, if it's a good week, 12 to 24 hours. That's a big workload. In terms of performance, I'm slacking lately. Getting married took a lot of my time. But when I practice poems to completion, I spend, I couldn't even tell you, because that's how much time I spend pouring over my work. To really learn it and understand the emotions and the vocal range and though I don't really intentionally do choreography, also the body language I like to use. And then in terms of process and method, I think I enjoy watching life and then wanting to explain it the best way I know how. I think that's what like my artistic practice is more than anything. It's looking at the world and trying to come to an understanding of it and trying to figure out what meaning I can draw from very meaningful experiences. But then also some very mundane experiences. I think everything kind of comes together and is important and I don't like to sanitize that and I like to keep everything is as honest and as human as possible and that that's where I find I get the most gripping art. I'm just trying to explain what it is to be a person and then, depending on the context or the pieces on creating, I draw from there too. So like as a man, I think like what is my positioning in this make it easier or more difficult for me to explain what I'm going through or what I'm sharing. And then from there I kind of navigate those things. So you're saying you write differently when you're talking about being a man versus writing about your blackness. Yeah, sometimes if those two things have to intersect I'll address them that way, but I think my biggest thing is I like to say things that haven't been said yet, and looking for new ways to say the same thing, or to try and actually come up with something new. So that takes a little while. What's your relationship to slam then? I love slam, but I think my relationship to slam mostly comes from just my come up and poetry, if I'm being honest. I didn't start writing poetry because of slam. I started writing poetry years before my first slam. I started writing raps years before. Slam was just kind of how I elevated myself or was elevated by my community. I think that's better to say. I did make a name for myself as a younger poet. I was really just kind of pulled into it by the people who were around at the time. What year was this? I'm 25 now, so I think I started doing this when I was 19 or 20. Maybe 2013. I'm curious about how long people have been in the in the mainstream scene because it varies. There are some people who write their whole lives and discover slam in the last few years, and then there's some people who start out in slam and they come up in slam and they write because of slam. I would say 2011 or 2012 was when I started showing up to slams. I'd say that definitely helped me transition into doing it as a full time thing. I wouldn't do poetry full time if I hadn't done slam. My relationship to slam is mostly competitive. I'm a very competitive person. I'm from a very competitive culture both as Jamaican background, but also I grew up in Scarborough. We played ball on the streets outside every day in the summertime, we played football at recess in the wintertime. It's just kind of the culture and the family I grew up in: very competitive, very driven. Slam kind of appeal to both those things for me. So it appealed to my creativity and simultaneously appealing to my competitive nature. I really enjoy slam as where I grew as an artist and being able to curate and work in two scenes now in my city. I used to be a lot more competitive. I don't compete so much anymore. I think I've, at least in Canada, gotten all I can get out of being a participant in slam. But then in terms of giving back, I think that's just as important. I'm running, alongside Patrick De Belen and Lex Leosis, BAM! Youth Slam. And I help Dwayne Morgan curate and run Roots Lounge. And so while I'd say my relationship to slam used to be much more of a take what I can get and compete, and make a name for myself, I'd say now it's much more about how can I help contribute to other young poets, how can I contribute to other people who are looking to share their stories and how can I use it to drive forward the culture? So what do you think a successful career in poetry looks like? So I'm going to run with your use of the word career because I think there's a difference between a successful poet and a successful poetry career. I'd say a combination of getting paid, because it's a career, getting paid to create or perform your content consistently or at least in a way that allows you to earn an income. I think that's successful. I think creating content that allows you to be different and allows you to kind of have your own market, that's successful. If being a performance artist isn't your way of having a successful career, so if you're a page writer or if you're not necessarily a big fan of competition or touring, then being able to publish your work would make you successful, or being able to be an arts educator. I think finding a lane and running it, and getting paid in that lane, is what makes you successful. I find that that's important. The future of spoken word is kind of being made up as we go. We're all finding what are niches are. Some of us perform constantly, and a bunch of us, or a huge number, do the workshops and teaching. And then people go into intense periods of arts creation, and they do residencies, you know, and projects that they brought out two months of the year. It's all very different. And on top of that, so many people have careers or jobs outside of the art.

Yeah. What's the story that you haven't written yet that you want to? So, so many. I think my favourite story that I haven't yet been able to properly explain in the way I want to is my eighth grade Halloween. There's a lot of context that is necessary for that story and I think I'm still fighting for the freedom of writing longer poems. Right. Like, exceptionally longer poems. And so the story is about basically this escalating of racial tension in my neighbourhood on Halloween night because some white boys came into my neighbourhood in Scarborough and they were messing around and we weren't the type to be messed around with. I had a moment at the end of the night, when we chased them out of our neighbourhood. I'll never forget. As we're chasing them down the block, I realized my little brother, my little brother is three years younger than I was in eighth grade, he was in fifth grade, 10 years old (I was 13 at the time). I remember stopping and realizing like, yo, there's a kid with me who isn't like us. Like my brother wasn't necessarily hardened or experiencing any of the things that made us who we were and even in my anger, I was able to hold back in that moment and be like, this is messed up, so I tell the guys that I'm with, my friends, go get them and if you beat the crap out of them, then that's that. So I remember telling them like, okay, do what you have to do with those guys. And then as we're walking away I kinda had like one of those moments where I was way too mature for my brain to be thinking it (then again, I was not necessarily immature for my age, I was more mature) I'm like, yo, this is a damn shame. That's so violent and evil, like why are we like this? And I just had this really weird moment of clarity about it. I'm still trying to explain the context of like why did a bunch of 13 year olds have weapons on them? Why did I have weapons on me? What made us so aggressive. Why, even though there were no white boys in our neighbourhood, why were we so aggressive towards white people and why were they so aggressive towards us and feeling entitled? There were some really weird things that were happening. That's a lot. But yeah, that's the story I really want to tell. Yeah, I think it's super important to go over because it's like toxic masculinity and now obviously, but in the context of it, it was girls that were like kind of the drawing factor of the problem, and then the weapons, all of that. I started writing about parts of it. So I wrote about like why had weapons on me and what those things meant to me. But I think that the story I really want to tell.

What's a project that you've done that you've been really proud of? So I'd say I was proud of my first rap album slash spoken word album when I put it out. I'm not proud of it now. I'm not, I'm really not. It was terrible mixing. I went in as an artist. I was writing my rap to show how proficient I was and not to make good music. Right. So I did a few songs on there that I'm very proud of, but the overall project, not so much. Otherwise I'd say artistic projects that I've worked on? I really enjoyed being part of mentorship, helping other poets and artists create content, that's what I'd be most proud of. So my work at BAM Youth Slam or my work on any of the Up from the Roots Teams I've been on so far. What do you think the future of spoken word is going to be in Canada? Oiy. I am going to borrow a song title from Paramore: For a Pessimist, I'm Pretty Optimistic. I worry that spoken word in Canada is heavily reliant on slam and because it's heavily reliant on slam and the culture that I believe has kind of manifested in slam, I'm worried. I'm just going to say it because I hate Taylor Swift and I think she is an example: I really feel like spoken word has become Taylor Swifted, that being that it's been white feministed. It is necessary for all people to be held accountable for their actions and it's necessary for all people to consider the feelings of other people while performing their work. I'll even go as far as to say as necessary for men to consider the women in the room when they're writing and when they're performing. I will say that there's been a huge optic of co-opting spoken word's culture, which is black culture in and of itself. I won't say slam is black culture, though it was heavily in its origins populated and made popular by black people and black artists. The policing of black people specifically from low income or more aggressive (and I'm saying aggressive in quotations) cultures and contexts like Jamaican ones, for instance or northwest African context, there's almost a line drawn about who is allowed to act how. And so I know I've been multiple times told on and off stage that I'm too loud of a person and then I know white women who will yell through an entire show and be told that they're doing a fantastic job taking up space. And so that worries me not because I think men should be able to take up space too. That's not what I mean. I mean, my culture is by nature loud and when we talk about being intersectional and we talked about understanding that not all people come from the same place and that there's a need to understand each other for all cultures and all peoples to move forward, there has to be an understanding that like if I come into a place where I'm being given permission to say what I think I'm not necessarily unjudged (because if you're in a slam and if you're at an open mic those are different things) there's this tendency there's this tendency to forget that people communicate differently. The idea that somebody whispering makes it a bad poem or speaking softly makes it a bad poem is wrong. I think that while it's not my style, I think it's wrong to judge somebody for like being quiet and a little melancholy (note that I said melancholy, not monotone). And then there are some people who I need to be loud, like I'm never going to tell a black woman who gets on stage that they need to keep their voice down because they've been told to be quiet all the time. They're told when they talk, even quietly, that they're being loud and taking up too much space. It's black boys in my neighbourhoods that I mentor and teach poetry in who never get to speak because if they say anything they're seen as talking out of turn. So I'm not going to tell them to not yell. They can have the opportunity, you know, I'm not going to tell them not to yell on stage with their three minutes or six minutes or fifteen minutes. And I know that from personal experience, like I'm a black man who grew up in Scarborough. I know what it's like to have your behaviour restricted. And so I struggle. That's why I'm pessimistic. I don't necessarily believe that the people who have, who get easy access to funding because of that privilege, ho gets easier access to funding because the systems, love to popularize things using black culture or other cultures like Filipino culture (and black culture is so vast, so like, let me be more specific: off of Caribbean culture, off of east African culture, specifically Somalia). If we're talking about Nigerians or people from Ghana, like there's, there's just, there's so much push for us to run these programs and then the moment that a white person comes in with programs, that are less effective or they understand language better or the program seems more accessible to funders they'll give that money to them, and that programming will be run for those kids or for kids who already have access to sources that would help them work through things. So that's what I'm pessimistic about in the culture of spoken word. Where I'm optimistic is the fact that there's some pretty revolutionary dope ass woman of color running shit. I find that like in this culture, while I'm very wary of call out culture and how I really think it's less about justice and more about revenge and retribution, people are more concerned about anger and medication and all of that stuff in colour and culture. But I also believe that it's very effective when it's used to hold people accountable and to use restoration and love as sources of propelling community forward. SHout out to Nasra. I'm very, very proud of them for using their work that way. But yeah, my pessimism lives with people like that who want to see the culture evolve for everybody. My optimism is with people like Dwayne Morgan who continually finds ways to, if not rebrand, elevate spoken word as an art form in terms of what's possible. So getting two TV shows, getting your name inducted into the Scarborough walk of fame, having a career that's lasted 25 years doing only poetry. I think people who elevate the game and then people who change it, those people make me hopeful because it shows how much is possible with it. And then also, like, I'm the future of spoken word. I don't say that as a solo "I'm the future of spoken word", gripping my fists and shaking my fists at the sky, but that I'm 25 years old. I have a lot of time to manifest and build and I have a lot of people coming up behind me who have time to manifest and build. So I'm not gonna say that I doubt myself. I'm not going to say that I'm incapable of creating something that'll benefit the culture and there's people all around like yourself who are dope, who I one-hundred percent trust to continue creating dope content that will allow people to experience spoken word in new ways and from there develop it, like really, really grow it into something that's not just beautiful, but necessary for the culture because that's what poetry is. It's a documentation of where we are in time. So long as people are speaking, you know, like that's something I think will be a positive change. So that's like my double-edged sword. Good answer. I guess one last thing before we wrap up is just, do you have any influences or people who have influenced you that you want to give a shout out to? Oh, it's a whole list. First and foremost, Dwayne Morgan, Patrick De Belan, Patrick Walters, Spin El Poeta, Lishai Peel, Paulina O'Keefe, Gavin Russell. Lishai was the first poet who made me feel something. Give yourself a shout out. Nasra, Dwennimmen, Jillian Christmas, Isaac Bond. Open Secret. Ian Keteku. Did I say Brandon Wint? Not yet, but we can put him in. Brandon Wint! Miss Britta B. Gemini. Tommy Buick. There's so many people. Siaara Freeman, she's not Canadian, but she's my mentor right now. JG The Juggernaut, Jamaal St. John. Moe Clark. There's so many people. Yeah. I came up in a pretty dope era of spoken word. It was like the end of the golden age. Oh, Chris Tse. Chris Tse has to be on there. Jacob Gebrewold. But yeah, the golden era was really weird, man. It was the end of seeing The Recipe do their thing. So like having world champions like collaborating together and having legends still slamming back when Ottawa was poppin' and Toronto was just coming up as like actual champions. It's not that we didn't have poets in Toronto, like there's just so many people who like influenced me right at the beginning in like 2013 when Youth Can Slam happened. I think that was when OGs we're kinda still trying to pass the baton. The big thing for me was that like all these people just really exemplified (and there's like a ton more I'm missing for sure without question) artistic excellence and clearly even without teaching me because not all these people were my mentors, but they really taught me what it meant to share. The heart of the story can make human connections with just words. And when I came into that it hadn't been tainted in any way. It was still a very pure, beautiful thing. And it made me realize that what I wanted to do with this gift was share that opportunity with people. It was like church to me, as weird as that sounds, I had been like kind of scattered and away from away from church at that time in my life. I was confused about my actual faith but spoken word gave me a connection to God. I know that's a really, really big ass list, but it's just a bunch of people who made me feel like I was still connected to something bigger than myself and I still am. And it's wholesome and it helps me in the same way that it gives other people their power and their voice. It was just very beautiful. They all did that for me. That's a pretty important. Don't know where I'd be without like some sort of older their mentor group which are not always around anymore. And then you find that you're kind of, like, mentoring people now? I just wonder how I got into this position. Like, I wasn't ready yet, but I'm here now. Is there anything else you want to add that maybe I missed? How long does this take to transcribe? If I do it manually, like two hours? Whew. You're a braver person than me. What do I want to add? You have to tell people that rhyming isn't bad unless it's bad rhyming. I can put that in.