In the autumn of 2019, I went to my first poetry event, put on by the Peterborough Poetry Slam Collective, and the direction of my work as a writer was changed forever. The event had a number of seasoned slam pros and experienced spoken word artists working with young novice poets presenting poems on stage for the first time. The intensity and the honesty in the presenters, as well as the importance of each individual narrative, moved me so much. A seed was planted in my brain, which led me to start thinking about the importance of individual narrative, the power of words, and the importance of storytelling. It made me question the work I was doing and it led me down a new creative path, which I continue on today. I was truly inspired and it was an important event in my own creative journey.
At the center of the event was spoken word artist and poet Jon Hedderwick. Current artistic director of the Peterborough Poetry Slam Collective, Jon’s powerful yet calm presence, matched with his masterful command of the human language, left me in awe of him. I immediately recognized Jon as one of the important figures in the spoken word community. I spoke to Jon briefly that night, thanking him for helping to organize such an inspiring event, but it took me another two years to sit down with Jon to talk about his work and his personal journey through the art of words.
Meeting on a cool autumn night, Jon and I sat at the statue of a wolf and her cub in Peterborough’s Millennium Park. I’ll admit that I had never noticed the statue before, but the landmark is a favorite of Jon’s. He has been meeting people there for years to talk, write, and collaborate. As day turned to dusk, I was able to talk to Jon about how he started his own journey as a spoken word artist.
“I often credit my Nana as someone who brought me into poetry inadvertently.” Jon begins. “She went back to school in her 70’s or 80’s to do a philosophy degree, so we’d have these wonderful conversations about the finer points of philosophy with my Nana. But once, she said something about how the right words said at the right time had literally changed the course of history. That just hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t know if I will be, or should be, the one to say the words, but I am fascinated by the power of words. I think of poetry as this thing we do whereas we reach for the things we feel just beyond the reach of language in the hopes of giving emotional content to abstract things that we cannot say yet. I think I was drawn to this concept very early on. So I wrote poetry for the school newspaper and in high school, and then went to York and studied creative writing.”
“I got a little disillusioned at York, to be honest,” Jon continues. “Not in regard to the program, but for what I was seeing in the Toronto art scene—the way in which poets are put in front of patrons. I was in a headspace where I pulled away and disappeared from poetry for a long time. I traveled and I was very blessed to live overseas for a while, but I didn’t do much with my practice for a really long time. But then I moved back to Peterborough around 2007 and I kept seeing these posters for Poetry Slams. So about 2012, I finally got the courage to go and see one and I hated it. It wasn’t what I perceived poetry to be.”
So what exactly is the difference between a poetry reading, and a poetry slam? As Jon explains, the two are remarkably different. “Slam Poetry is a show and spoken word is the art form,” Jon clarifies. “So you perform spoken word at the poetry slam, which is a competitive poetry show. I’ve heard Slam called a movement, and it’s been called a subculture and it’s been called a culture and cultural appropriation, so it’s many things. So on the one hand, there is this competitive poetry show, and we compete and the audience gets to judge it. But Slam functions on the basis that your gut is as good a judge of what is good or not great art as the expert gut in the world. So we work in that vein. We subject ourselves to virtual strangers, because the judges are picked from the audience at random. In many ways the slam competition is based on who can connect the most with five random strangers by the end of the night. Its imperfect and complicated, especially within the biases of our society is reproduced in our audience, so there is endless amounts of debate over this. But at the same time, this community of spoken word artists have emerged, and what I love about the slam is that, win or lose, everyone gets two spots to perform a poem that night.”
“So I had come from an academic setting and had these preconceived ideas about what I felt poetry was, and initially I didn’t think I got this,” Jon tells, continuing the story of his first exposure to the slam. “I thought poetry was something that happened in quiet rooms where people read thought-provoking things to silent audiences who thought and listened and pined over the words and decoded and were willing to invest countless amounts of time picking apart and playing with lines. I think that’s why I had become marginally disenchanted with the practice. I think, at first, I took a defensive position that I think a lot of people take when you’re confronted with something you don’t know and you don’t understand and you just decide you dislike it. But there was a passion in the room that was inescapable and there was an energy among the audience and this energy exchange between the audience and the power that I never expected.
So I went back, and I kept going back. I finally got up and read my first poem at an open mic stage and I was nervous and I was embarrassed and I got off the stage and I was so anxious afterwards. I think I spent a week crawled up in the fetal position just digesting the experience. But it got to me, and gradually I was able to see it and feel it and also recognize how the work I was doing as a poet that wasn’t speaking to me was so disconnected to my audience. What I love about this art form is that immediate connection between the audience and the poet. There is this immediate feedback component as well, which is a chance for very powerful moments of connection and empathy. Empathy is the big one. What I think is unequally capable of triggering empathetic connections between people.”
“What’s amazing to me about the slam is that I’ve never brought someone to the slam that hasn’t had their hair totally blown back by one piece or who didn’t have their world view rocked just a little bit by at least one piece,” Jon continues. “Even people who I bring that say, ‘I don’t understand this thing you do, and I think it’s really dorky, and I don’t know why you’d bring me,’ still walk away and say, ‘You know something? I heard a few things tonight.’ It’s this really powerful exchange of narrative. I think what spoken word teaches people to do, and it’s really an accessible art form in this way, is to allow people to stand confident in your own narrative, and how to use that narrative to connect yourself to people you have very little connection to.”
In the past year, as I’ve retooled my own life as a writer, I have pondered the cultural traditions of the storyteller, and the weaving of narratives. The culture of storytelling is a big part of the poetry slam, as well as Jon’s own life as a spoken word artist. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge is that the way we practice spoken work in Canada is a black and indigenous art form,” Jon states. “In most ways, this was pioneered by black and Indigenous people here and in the United States. When I started out in this community, I used to say for the amount of space I take, I’ll make miles. That’s a great recipe for burnout. But we all have the capacity to do what we can do. Part of the work is that I have stories that are important to share, and being a storyteller is deeply important to me. It’s in my history. There are few storytellers who were ever good as my Bubbe was. She was the keeper of our history. I learnt how to tell stories around her table. Ilearnt to tell stories by talking philosophy with my Nana. I learnt to tell stories by listening to my grandfather talk about moving across the country and making his way. This is part of who I am.”
I admit to Jon that one of the difficulties I still face as a writer is telling my own stories, which is why I spend most of my creative process lifting up others. But the initial inspiration of the honesty of the poets I’ve seen on stage is still something that I long to one day achieve. But I am still too scared to write about my past. “The stories that are the hardest to tell are often the stories that are standing most desperately within us and asking to be told on some level,” Jon responds to this. “I think how we tell our stories matter. I think when I’m working with young poets is that I ask them to consider that the moment you bring that story out onto the stage that you are bringing your audience into the story. I don’t need you to censor yourself, but I do want you to consider your audience within the process. Spoken word is done in front of an audience, so where is your audience in the process? How do you bring them, and where do you bring them into this process and where do you consider their place in the narrative you’re telling? I think that’s important.
“At York, I studied under a wonderful professor named Priscila Uppal, who used to say that when you felt a little bit afraid of your poem—you felt a little bit afraid of your story—that’s probably the story you most need to tell,” he continues. “That always stayed with me, and I’ve always tried to stay within that place of vulnerability and honesty and I think I try to do it as humbly as I can.”
While Jon is a visible member of the Peterborough arts community, he has also travelled through Canada, performing on stages at festivals and shows, both as an invited guest and a slam contestant. The result is that Jon has been able to mine the larger slam community for connection and collaboration. “It’s such a gift to move and take your art with you,” says Jon. “I create and make art with and for the people in my community first, and to find that that art has resonance outside that environment is a blessing. So I’ve been very fortunate. A lot of the work I’ve done out of town has been in the Slam scene. I’ve done work with the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and The Versus Festival. I’ve been invited as a solo feature in various places, which has been great. I had my cross-Canada tour planned with my friend and creative partner Saleem Ansari for just as the pandemic started. But we pivoted and we did an online video tour, and we travelled to campsites across Ontario and live streamed into zoom performances in all the cities we were supposed to perform at. But travelling with your art is beautiful because it expands your community in a lot of ways, but it also a complicated version of community because we end up with relationships with people we only see once or twice a year if we’re lucky. It’s a very interesting experience.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, the local Slam scene has been shut down since 2020, and the Poetry Collective has only begun to organize small live events again. However, through the pandemic, the group stayed busy with live streams, and archiving the works of local members. But as performance spaces open up, Jon is busy preparing some personal projects for his return to in-person performance. An ‘artist in residence’ in Peterborough’s annual Precarious Festival, Jon is gearing up to perform a very personal one-man show at the end of November.
“I’m working on a one person show, which will be about my great grandmother and the story of her migration from Poland to Canada after the First World War.” Jon reveals. “When I was a little boy she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I went with my Mom to clean out her apartment when she decided to move into a home where she could receive care around the clock. In a drawer I was told I could clean out, I found a cassette tape and I decided I was going to make a mixed tape out of it. So I was literally poised to tape over it, with my finger on the pause button, and I thought, ‘Is this actually a blank tape?’ So I stopped and I pushed play and discovered it was not a blank tape. My Bubbee had chosen to record her life story before she had lost it. So I listened to the story and it proceeded to tell the story of her life during the First World War, and it comes to this place about a soldier being shot by a police officer in the market in the village where she lived, and I stopped it and got my Mom, and my Mom took the tape away. She kept it for thirty years and gave it to me on my thirty-seventh birthday. The story that follows was a story about how the townspeople decided to organize a pogrom and kill all the Jewish people in the community. It obviously didn’t happen, but the story of why it didn’t happen is what followed on the tape. I think my Mom knew the history, and in knowing the history knew that at ten or eleven years old that I was not old enough to take this in yet and kept it for a very long time.”
Jon is also pairing up with local musician, Garbageface, for a long form project based on the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which will hopefully take the stage in 2022. Five years in the making, this project has gone through a series of incarnations. “I’ve loved the story of Gilgamesh since I was a teenager,” Jon explains. “It began as a poem, and then became a series of poems, and now it’s going to be a show with music. It’s the oldest piece of surviving literature that we have. Gilgamesh is this tyrant king who is terrorizing his people, and the gods and the behest of the people send a Wildman, Enkidu to battle him, and through a series of misadventures they go and fight and they somehow come to a measure of peace. But Enkidu becomes melancholy, after having left the forest, and Gilgamesh becomes restless and they decide they can’t live in peace, so they go to war and the gods, knowing that they must rebalance the world, take Enkidu and kill him. My play begins in the underworld with Enkidu waking up and trying to build a dream house so he can find a prophetic way to get out of the underworld and back to Gilgamesh.”
“In this project I’m looking at the psychology behind it. I look at the ecological crisis, climate crisis, capitalism and the way which we oppress each other and I think of it in terms of our narratives, and I look at this story as one of our deepest narratives. This is the mythological playground in which all of the Abrahamic religions have emerged. As a people of Jewish, Christian and Islamic descent, this is the story that preceded all of our stories. In it, there is this deep wound of the first city-state ripped from nature, and the model for civilization that has be precipitated for a really long time. I’m interested in unpacking it and looking at it more deeply.”
In every society throughout time, there has always been the storyteller. Although Jon has become an essential part of this historical tradition in Peterborough, he also has the ability to share the power of narrative, and help mentor and encourage people of all ages, in every stage of their life, in doing the same. It has not only become a passion, but also an important part of his life. “I have been blessed by being embraced by a community and to be invited and to be given so many gifts,” Jon reflects. “I feel the joy in having received those gifts in what I do every day, and it’s so important to be giving forward. To be working in an art in which we can build a community around, instead of just building up myself. I don’t think I could be the person I am without being part of this art form or being embraced by this community, which is part of the gifts of my life. I’m blessed I’ve had a few, but this is one of the things I’m thankful for every day.”
PHOTO GALLERY BY JESSICA SCOTT