Inter-verses #2: Jillian Christmas
Jillian Christmas, Co-Director of the Verses Festival of Words, is interviewed by Miguel Burr.
Inter-Verses #2: CHRISTMAS STORIES (An Interview with Jillian Christmas)
Miguel Burr: I’m here with Jillian Christmas…
Jillian Christmas: Hello.
MB: And who better to interview in December? So Jillian Christmas, do you celebrate Christmas?
JC: I do celebrate Christmas, but maybe not in the most traditional sense. I celebrate the holiday season. I like to get my friends together. My family is all in Toronto so I don’t expect to celebrate with them; I didn’t last year at least. But I did have a nice Christmas or holiday; we called it a Festivus at my house.
MB: Was there an ‘Airing of Grievances’?
JC: There was definitely an Airing of Grievances. Most of us were roommates. It was mostly a good time.
MB: Were there ‘Feats of Extraordinary Strength’?
JC: Well, if you consider keeping down all of the meal a feat of extraordinary strength, then yes, there was.
MB: What kind of meal was it?
JC: We did all kinds of stuff. I think we did a chicken instead of a turkey; we had the whole spread, with loads of wine and eggnog of course.
MB: The quasi-traditional…
JC: The quasi-traditional!
MB: Let’s talk about Verses Festival… what are you doing with it this year?
JC: I’m part of the ‘Directa-Trifecta’; I’m helping to organize it with Jessica Mason-Paull and Chris Gilpin, who you’ve already interviewed. We’re just pulling everything together right now. We’ve finalized all of our venues and the ball is rolling…
MB: Did you work as an organizer last year?
JC: Not for the Verses Festival, previously the Vancouver International Poetry Festival, but I did organize for Hullaballoo (the partner youth festival) as a volunteer youth coordinator.
MB: Did that make you want to do Verses?
JC: Absolutely! It was actually one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had in the arts community and as an organizer. Particularly because we got to work with the youth, some of whom I had mentored through spoken word workshops throughout the year. Getting to see the final product of that at Hullaballoo was phenomenal.
MB: I was there at the finals night. It was fun too.
JC: It was so fun and wow, some of the stuff that youth come up with… it’s fresh, things that I wouldn’t even consider thinking about or writing about…
MB: Maybe stuff you thought about and forgot…
MB: And how are you finding being an organizer different than being an artist?
JC: It’s vastly different. In my artist life I get to focus on esoteric things. I get to use a whole different part of my brain. As an organizer I feel I have to be a little more regimented. I don’t get to be as free but I get to see a lot of rewards come out a little more quickly, a little more tangibly than in my artistic life.
MB: Last year at the Spoken Word Festival, you won…
JC: I did…actually it was a part of the festival. It was the Vancouver Poetry Slam Finals…
MB: The VanSlam Finals…
JC: It was at the very beginning of the festival.
MB: What was it like to win?
JC: Amazing. It was really important to me, actually, because I came from Toronto and it wasn’t an accident that I came to Vancouver. There are a lot of things about the scene in Vancouver that drew me here. I used it as a benchmark. It was kind of like what I aspired to. A lot of the artists that I saw out here were doing so much more with their work and it inspired me. So to come here, and to win finals night within less than two years was…I think you saw my face, I was… really stoked.
MB: How does it change things for you?
JC: I feel very connected to the community here. That connection was one of the my catalysts in wanting to be an organizer in the Verses Festival. I feel driven to create that kind of experience for other people and to help further the work that was happening in the school year.
MB: Can you remember a time before there was poetry in your life?
JC: Well, I guess I can…I hesitate only because I suppose I think of poetry in a broader definition than most people. I think of poetry in music and in dance and all different kinds of genres. But my first experience with poetry was probably when I was in the grade six; before that I didn’t really have any poetry to reference in my memory.
MB: What were you into before that?
JC: Before that I guess I was more into visual arts, into painting, as well as athletics like horseback riding. It was a teacher that opened me up to Robert Service and changed my whole life.
MB: Robert Service was your first big…
JC: Robert Service was my first big first connection.
MB: Any formative experiences after that?
JC: That teacher really pushed me into writing all different kinds of things. My parents were very involved with church, which doesn’t seem like it’s a direct connection, but my mom pushed me to get up in front of the church to do one of the readings. The connection with the church community didn’t draw me in, but looking people in the eyes, talking to them, and having that kind of ordered experience was something that sparked.
MB: I see going to VanSlam on Monday nights much like church.
JC: Exactly. It is. It’s our church. It’s not as traditional. But we have sayings that we repeat.
JC: And we have a congregation that comes here.
MB: It is kind of cult-like sometimes.
JC: Some people see it like that, I suppose.
MB: That’s not what I’m getting at though.
JC: We always have voices of dissent or deviation in the audience though…not quite cult-like.
MB: That’s right. And church-people can’t get up and swear.
JC: (laughs) No.
MB: On Facebook I saw somebody criticize you for using the term ‘attention-whore’.
JC: That’s true. That happened.
MB: You were using it, just to set the stage, humorously and self referentially. So here’s the question: is free speech dead?
JC: Um… that is a tough question. I don’t think that free speech is dead, especially not in a place like the slam. We offer a stage for all voices to be heard, with the exception of hate-speech. Hate-speech is not invited here; it is not welcome here. I think the context in which that statement was made was slightly different: it was on my social networking wall, out there for anyone to criticize or comment on. And so she critically commented. I guess it didn’t fit her belief system, and honoring free speech, she’s allowed to say that. We had a little bit of conversation about it on the wall there. It’s not that free speech is dead—I think it’s quite the opposite. The fact that we can engage about things like this and have discussions openly indicates free speech is very alive.
MB: How would you describe ‘hate-speech’?
JC: I think ‘hate-speech’ is defined as anything that steps on somebody else’s rights or infringes on their ability to have the same rights as you do.
MB: The only thing I question about that is…are you familiar with the book 1984?
MB: And the concept of Newspeak?
MB: Where two things are put together to create…
JC: …a new meaning.
MB: But you lose the original meaning of the two words.
MB: And it empowers the user of that new word to… how do I say it… pull rank… or blot out the original.,.
JC: I think I know what you’re getting at here, and it’s a really complicated issue, because it happens in so many different aspects of life. In some of the activism work that I do, and within communities, sometimes people become too familiar with a certain type of language, which can then become exclusive or end up creating insular definitions. When you try to talk to people outside of that community, you’re not having the same conversation. You use the same word and you’re talking about two different things…
MB: Attributing different meanings…
JC: Exactly. And it becomes very complicated. But I think that we have to be able to have conversations in order to break that down and get to the root of what we’re all talking about. In the same way that we have to get to the root of what we’re all talking about, understand that we’re using the same language in order to have this conversation at all.
MB: As a poet, are there any words in the English language that you will not use?
JC: No, I cannot say that there are any that I will not use. There are some that I refrain from using or maybe because I know their power, I use them sparingly, and only when necessary. I think you would be hard pressed to find any recording of me ever using the N-word. It’s something that I’m very careful about. And it’s one of those words that we were just talking—people have tried to reclaim it, and give it different meanings or message…it’s very muddy to me when that happens.
MB: That’s a scary-powerful word.
JC: It’s a very scary-powerful word, and it can complicate things. It can give permission to people to use the word when maybe it shouldn’t be used in certain context, or it shouldn’t be used as lightly as they’re using it or not in that way. I think that being careful with my language, being careful with the words I know already have so much power and weight is the only way that I can do. But I wouldn’t say that I strike any of them from my vocabulary.
MB: I went to high school in Alabama, and down south…I don’t take that word lightly. I think some white kids born in the suburbs in Vancouver don’t grow up witnessing the power of it, behind it, and then it doesn’t have the same weight.
JC: There’s a lot of truth to the desensitization that happens, whether it be on the internet, whether it be on X-Box Live, where there’s words like that being thrown around. People don’t even give a second thought to all of the emotional history that comes with it. Hearing words repetitively can cause people to normalize things. Normalize words that really shouldn’t be normalized.
MB: You mentioned activism. I saw photos of you counter-protesting the anti-abortion protesters.
JC: That would be it.
MB: What was that all about?
JC: I’d noticed the protest, what I like to call the ‘anti-choice’ thing happening there. It was brought to my attention by some people in the community. We organized a rotation whenever we could on Saturday mornings, to make our presence known there as well. Just to let people know that there’s a voice for people who believe in choice. Because of the location, there are a lot of young women who go by there, older women who go by there, women who need to know that they are represented. There are people who agree with them, or feel like they should have that power over their own body and…
MB: Is there a planned parenthood clinic there? That’s probably why…
JC: Yeah, there’s one there. That’s why they’re there. They use guilt as a tool, and we want to be there to show those women that they have community. We rotate whenever we have availability.
MB: Are you seeing results?
JC: We are. We have some signs that say, ‘Honk if you Love Choice’. A lot of the truckers seem to really support us; and we’ve had growing numbers of people from the community come down and show their support. We’ve had people from sexual-health clinics come to distribute condoms, information. I just think it’s important to have a presence there.
MB: Have you made friends with some of the ‘anti-choice’ people?
JC: I can’t say that I’ve made friends. I’ve had some conversations. Some that were very meaningful, others (laughs) that were not as meaningful for me as per…but yeah, we’ve definitely spoken. I wouldn’t say that any of us are inviting the other over for dinner anytime soon.
MB: What exactly does ‘douche-canoe’ mean?
JC: Oh, Douche-canoe. (laughs) Douche-canoe is one of my favorite slurs, because it is interpreted differently by everyone. Douche-canoe to me would be like a canoe filled with all the refuse from the dirtiness of washing. But other people have told me their various definitions. I’m just happy that I get to hear different people’s definitions for douche-canoe every time I get off stage after doing that poem.
MB: It’s very lyrical.
JC: It is. It feels very good in the mouth.
MB: (laughs) Oooh.
JC: That doesn’t sound good.
MB: I don’t know. Hearing that it feels good in the mouth doesn’t sound so good. I was watching a video of Beau Sia, just getting kind of acquainted with him before…I found out he’s going to headline at the festival…
JC: He is.
MB: I don’t remember the piece he was doing, but in one piece he had this big rant about how Asian people fuck better than white people.
MB: Do you know that one?
JC: I think I’ve heard that one, but it’s been quite a while…
MB: Do you think he was joking or do you think he believes that?
JC: I would say probably joking. He’s excellent at satire—I think that he was probably giving you a run for your money (laughs).
MB: You think it was satire? Do you think he’s almost like a stand-up comic?
JC: What I’ve seen from Beau Sia may end up being a little bit different from what he presents this year at the festival but he seems to be the kind of person who can just say whatever’s on his mind and be so endearing in saying it that the audience is always with him. He does it in a funny way, he does it in a relatable way, he does it in an energetic way; the audience wants to be on board with him. I think he’s also incredibly intelligent and thoughtful, so it’s all interwoven into a great audience experience.
MB: Is there still a line between stand-up comedy and poetry?
JC: Oh yeah, I hope so. Not that I have any problem with stand-up comedy—I’ve got some friends who do it and I actually love it very much. It’s an incredibly difficult art. But I think that there are two different audiences that consume spoken-word poetry and stand-up comedy. Not completely different, they overlap, but when you go to a stand-up comedy club there’s almost an expectation of heckling. The audience is almost waiting for you to mess up. Whereas the audience in spoken-word venues (as I’ve experienced them in communities across Canada and the States) are very willing to listen to what’s going on on stage. They want to accept and understand people’s perspectives. They’re willing to give you a little bit of rope, and hopefully you won’t hang yourself with it.
MB: (laughs) Right.
JC: They will be critical of you up to a certain point, but they have a lot of acceptance. There are open arms in the spoken-word community. I think the people are still hungry to hear poetry. They love humour, but they’re still hungry to hear the combination of the two.
MB: What’s the harshest criticism you’ve received on stage?
JC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve received very harsh criticism on stage, but I have received criticism offstage for some of my poetry. The criticism was that a piece of mine, or rather, two pieces of mine, had made one of the listeners in the audience uncomfortable. He came up to me and told me that one of my poems made him feel uncomfortable for being a white man, and the other made him feel uncomfortable just for being a man. One of those poems was a piece about blackface. I don’t read that one very often, but I use it when I feel that I’m in a space that needs to hear it perhaps and this was a room that had a predominantly white audience. It’s mostly an informative poem.
MB: Is it about Al Jolson?
JC: No, it’s not about a particular…
MB: Just the whole phenomenon?
JC: Yeah. It actually takes images of blackface people throughout history, the most recent in 2011 where it was used on a runway stage at Fashion Week in New York. Anyway, it’s just my experience and historical experiences of it. This wasn’t something that the listener was familiar with, but the knowledge of it made him feel very guilty as a white man. I feel like it’s poetry’s job to make people feel uncomfortable, so that’s the reason why I did the poem. The other poem was about domestic abuse—it’s actually a letter to a friend of mine who found herself in a cycle of abusive relationships. It wasn’t directed at the man in the story at all, it was actually asking her to break the cycle. He took it and internalized it. Not to say that some of my poetry is deserving of some of these critiques. But I felt like those were harsh critiques that weren’t necessarily about my poetry but more about…
JC: Yeah, his connection to those topics.
MB: What did he expect? He was telling you, ‘Hey, you made me feel uncomfortable.’ Was he hoping you would…
JC: Apologize, I think.
MB: Or make him comfortable?
JC: I don’t know if he wanted me to apologize or not do those poems anymore, or maybe make him feel comfortable by saying…
MB: That makes me uncomfortable!
JC: It made me uncomfortable too! That’s why I keep doing those poems.
MB: What a little fascist.
MB: Do you have a day job?
JC: I guess you could call it a day job. I spend a couple of days a week taking care of the most brilliant six year old in the world.
MB: I’ve noticed a lot of professional writers seem to equate making your living from writing as imparting a certain kind of authenticity. But plenty of great writers made their living at other things. So, in your opinion, does it make a writer more authentic if they earn their living solely from their writing?
JC: I don’t think it makes a writer more authentic. I can understand why people have that belief sometimes—in a lot of people’s minds, monetary reward defines success. If you can make enough money to live off of something, then obviously you’re doing something good, obviously you’re doing something that people…
JC: That’s the idea that it comes from. But there are a lot of phenomenal writers who choose to do something else because it’s something that they love to do. There are people who balance both of those things or many of those things in their lives. And there are some people who go through phases in their life, where they’ll concentrate on their writing or concentrate on their music. So don’t think that making a living day to day on your writing necessarily means that you are a success, or that not making a living means that you are not a success. It’s more about where people choose to put their focus, what they deem success to be. For me, when I moved out to Vancouver it was a goal to make most of my living off of my writing; not because I needed a monetary reward to say that I was a good writer, but because I wanted to be able to spend that much time on my writing. And I wanted to be able to immerse myself in my writing community. That’s the only way that I could see to do it, to make it that big of a part of my life. I do still do some other things on the side; I organize, I teach writing workshops, I also work with a wonderful little boy, and…
MB: Do you guys write together?
JC: We do write together. We also do a lot of photo-journals together. He’s a poet and if you ask him if he wants to be a poet when he’s older, he will tell you that he is a poet right now, just so you know. And he’s wonderful.
MB: If you had Santa-like powers to discern between absolute good and evil and be anywhere instantaneously, what would you do with them?
JC: (laughs) First of all, I don’t know that I believe in absolute good and evil. I think it’s actually one of the redeeming things about humanity that no one is completely bad or completely good; we all kind of have the potential to be whatever we choose to be in that moment. But, if I were to believe in absolute good or evil…hmmm…I guess I would want to reward all of the people who do all of the good wherever they do it…I’d like to give something to those people which could act as a motivator to everybody else, to see that, ‘If I do good, I can also share with those people.’ To give an example of what is good.
MB: That sounds exactly like what Santa does.
MB: We’ve just come full circle.
JC: I suppose. I don’t know what I would do with the knowledge of absolute good or absolute evil. I feel I’m not equipped to be a judge.
MB: I kind of set you up just to become Santa.
JC: (laughs) I wouldn’t want to punish anybody.
MB: I think I was hoping you would rob banks or something…
JC: I don’t think that’s what the purpose of that power is…
MB: No, probably not.
JC: But it’s an interesting question. We—myself and other workshop facilitators— often ask kids what their super-power would be, or how they would feel if that super power was taken away. We get some wonderful answers.
MB: What are some of the best if you can remember?
JC: There were some who had mundane answers, like they would have the super power for their homework to be done for them. Let me think…
MB: Any super powers you heard of that you’d never even thought of before?
JC: I’m sure that there are…
MB: There are always the standard ones: Invisibility. Flying. Being able to read minds. Super speed. Super strength.
JC: There was one boy who just wanted to be able to make cheese pizzas on an ongoing basis.
JC: It was a running joke in the school, because apparently they had a fondness for cheese pizzas, so that was the super power he had chosen.
MB: That would be like a Spiderman thing (pantomimes shooting cheese webs from wrist). On the twelfth day of Christmas, what did your true love give to you?
JC: I suppose it’s meant to be very grandiose, but, in fact, on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me the most awesome pair of cowboy boots I’ve ever seen.
MB: What did you do in them?
JC: I wore them every day for three months, until I wore a hole right through the heel, and now they’ve been taken away from me for repair. I also traveled all over the west coast performing in them. They’re turquoise and black.
MB: They were taken away though…
JC: He took them away for repair.
MB: He’s going to get them fixed? I know a good cobbler.
JC: Really! No one even uses that word anymore.
MB: There’s a really good one up on Main and about 30th…
JC: I think I know the place.
MB: My girlfriend calls him the ‘hot cobbler’. I try to keep her away. What’s the last word?