Story and photos by ISABELLE DOCTO
Patrick de Belen adjusts his black and red Toronto Blue Jays cap as he stands in front of an eager crowd of students, parents, teachers and poetry lovers at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram and Bluma Appel Salon.
“So, this is a very reciprocal environment,” he begins, as he deftly commands their attention. “What I mean by that is that the poets get up here and share their stories, vomit their souls onto all of your faces and you guys have to return the favour, OK?”
They holler in agreement, but they’re not here for de Belen and he isn’t here to perform for them. As a seasoned spoken word artist, de Belen is at the PAN AM All-Star Slam as a host and more importantly, a mentor to 12 youth spoken word artists who are part of the BAM! Toronto Youth Poetry Slam program.
De Belen demonstrates the different ways the audience can return the favour: the classic finger snap, the enthusiastic foot stomp, or the heartfelt pig squeal.
The poets have three minutes and ten seconds to share their story, he explains. No musical accompaniment, no props, just a person and their words.
The 23-year-old, Filipino-Canadian spoken word artist remembers the first time he experience the impact of the spoken word. A slam poet from New York City came to his grade 11 class for a workshop and he was hooked. “It was honestly one of the most life changing experiences for me, obviously considering the fact that I do it for a living now.”
In his senior year of high school, de Belen attended a poetry slam run by Canadian spoken word artist Dwayne Morgan, who soon after became his mentor. De Belen’s first performance at a slam was that same year and he presented a poem about poetry. “I personified poetry as a girl I had a crush on,” he says with a laugh. “Remember, I was in grade 12.”
Love isn’t the only emotion he draws from for his poetry.
People always ask de Belen why his poems are so angry. Anger is an emotion that moves him to write, he tells them. “When I’m happy, I’m enjoying the moment, but when I’m mad that’s when I have to say something, you know?”
Macaroni Pasta came out of his frustration with a close-minded education system.
He also draws a lot of inspiration from his Filipino heritage; art helps him make sense of the mixed bag of cultural identity he carries. This is explored in Why I’m Not a Doctor, a rant about internalized racism.
Taking rein of the issues and challenges that he faced as a young man and expressing them through performance poetry was cathartic, but de Belen wanted to do more. As an older brother and a former youth leader in church, he grew up having that big brother mentality. He decided to mentor young poets.
Rewind to an hour before the Slam begins. De Belen arrives with a cohort of spoken word artists. Carrying a clipboard decorated with a sticker of the Philippine flag, he calls out to one performer, directing her to go to the green room for performers. He gives another a high five and asks, “Are you good?”
De Belen has earned a string of accolades. He is currently the youngest Canadian Spoken Word Poet to carry the National Championship title (CFSW 2012) and was The YouthCanSlam 2013 Poet of Honour, according to his bio. But he is most proud of the work he’s done helping youth find their voice. “ We’re so bombarded with messages and distractions. Just developing your voice amongst all of this noise I think is pretty important.”
Lex Leosis, one of the more seasoned poets at the slam, is in a poetry collective with de Belen called The Messengers. She says its been astonishing to see him rise. “He’s just catapulted into this spoken word god.”
De Belen turns wistful as he watches his students bare their souls to an appreciative crowd. He now finds watching them tell their stories more rewarding than being a performer himself. “It’s the reason why I still do it [slam] today.”