Poetry saved our lives

Eden is 21 years old and was born in Israel, she moved to Toronto when she was 8 years old. As she stands behind a brick back drop in front of the rest of her class, she looks down at her paper for a few seconds then looks up. “I wrote this when I was 14, its about the first boy that I fell in love with but he didn’t feel the same way about me.” The poem is called ‘Fallen at 14’ and chronicles her experience with a boy who was in a coma for two years. She goes through the poem until she reaches the line, ‘How do you love when your heart is broken, how do you speak when you’re so outspoken.’ She then looks up with a tear in her eye and says ‘I’m sorry, I can’t finish.’ She sits back down looks at the wall for a couple minutes and then gets back to writing. Patrick, her mentor, stand up and reminds everyone of a quote by performance poet Sarah he keeps just above the whiteboard,

“Spoken word poetry is the art of performance poetry. It involves creating poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper, that something about it demands it be heard out loud or witnessed in person.”

Patrick De Belen

This all takes place in a very regular Toronto Public Library which is situated in the cold and sleepy sub urban area of Don Valley Village. Its well-lit and stands up like a lighthouse in the storm. Once you make your way to the top floor of the library and swing a left, you’re greeted with a sight that will put a smile on your cold weary face.
This is where you can find the ‘Poetry Saved Our Lives Programme.’ It is a place for teenagers and aspiring artists to receive first hand mentoring from professional performance poet Patrick De Belen. As well as learning a new creative art it also allows teenagers to overcome anxiety, bottled up emotions and meet like minded people.

Patrick always looks the same as he waits outside the class room for his students. He has enormous headphones around his neck and he’s holding a pencil in each hand, drumming to the afro beat that’s protruding from the sides of his head. As I move closer to him, his left eye flickers open, as if sensing someone has entered his musical zone. He lifts his head and smiles, revealing the full length of his wispy beard. His hand swings from out his pocket and lands in my outstretched one. We sit and talk for a number of hours, all the while smelling the strange air of the public library, a smell not of old books anymore, but of bleach and technology, it’s a very modern library.

Just as the conversation begins to slow down one his students walks into the corridor and approaches us just outside the classroom on two stray chairs. He gives Patrick a bro hug and slaps his back onto the wall before sliding down into a crouching position, his outfit is made entirely of waterproof Nike and Adidas and it swooshes and crinkles as he half dances and half messages someone on his phone. The size of his headphones completely overshadows that of his mentor.

The workshop

While the unnamed student remains lost in his own world, Patrick begins to explain his relationship with this particular teenager. They have known each other for over five years and Patrick has been using his knowledge of poetry and rhythm to try and advance the young students hip hop career. Patrick unlocks the door to the classroom and as the student gets up from his crouching position, I notice him wincing and shifting in pain. I ask Patrick if he’s okay. “Oh yeah, he’s fine, some guys banged him up with a baseball bat last week, but he’s better now.” We enter the classroom.

Talking more to Patrick he gave me an insight on his proudest moment in his career. He didn’t expect it to begin with the steel doors of a juvenile prison closing behind him. Eight weeks. He had eight weeks to mentor a group of some of the most dangerous and troubled teenagers in Toronto. His task was to teach them performance poetry in preparation for an open mic evening in front of an audience of parents, prison guards and correctional officers.

The mentoring sessions went pretty much the way you’d expect. Patrick struggled to break through the rugged façades that stared at him while he was armed only with pen and paper. But one boy stood out from the rest of them. Reminiscing, Patrick explains to me how “He didn’t say sh*t in the eight sessions that I was in there. He didn’t say one f*cking word! He refused to share, refused to even write that much.” This particular teenager was famous in the prison because his story was published all over the news. He was the kid that sat on his own table at lunch, the kid that parted groups of people walking towards him in the corridor, the kid that shot two people dead in a drive by shooting before he even became a man.

However, he was also the kid that had been secretly writing poetry in his cell when Patrick wasn’t around. On the day of the open mic he approached Patrick and expressed his desire to perform a piece he had written. Although he was sceptical and unsure of what he had written, Patrick decided to let him perform.

It’s at this point in the story that Patrick takes a moment to stop talking. He leans forward in his seat and tells me how, “This kid goes up and he shares this whole love poem. To his mother. About how he’s sorry that he couldn’t make the right decisions for her.’ It was the proudest ten minutes of Patricks career. The boy shocked the entire audience, received a standing ovation and didn’t leave a single dry eye in the room.

Among the current classroom there are number of talented teenagers, including aspiring performance poets, hip hop artists and even an Ontario poetry slam champion. But among all these students are hundreds of children who have had their lives changed by Patrick. Whether its overcoming anxiety, discovering a new talent or simply creating a process of channelling the emotions that come with being a teenager in the 21st century. Patrick has proven that poetry does change peoples lives forever.

Ontario under 18 poetry slam winner Akil Young stated that, “Patrick really brought out the best in me, the best thing about the workshop is that you know you won’t get judged. You know that everyone there is in the same boat as you and its all about helping each other grow and express ourselves as best as we can.”

Patrick and Akil

As a sports fan Patrick ended our interview referencing a quote by Muhammad Ali, “It’s not the mountain you have to climb that wears you down, it’s the pebble in your shoe.”

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