Poetry, Language, and the Power of Affect: Speaking with Ian Keteku

On Saturday, Feb. 22, I attended an intensive Spoken Word workshop organized by the Peterborough Poetry Collective. Award-winning poet Ian Keteku facilitated the workshop at the Theatre on King. Keteku is the 2010 World Poetry Slam Champion and has recently released his debut spoken word album Lessons From Planet Earth (Re-Evolution). He has worked with members of the Wu-Tang Clan, K-os, and Saul Williams, and has performed for former Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean.

The purpose of the workshop was “digging deep and finding truth in the grey area. Exploring the poetry of the body and how to be a metaphor in your skin.” It was an opportunity for poets and aspiring poets to learn how to articulate their inherent stories into spoken word. It was as funny, insightful and inspiring as it was serious and emotionally demanding.

Keteku dug deep and pulled out struggles, teaching us how to put them onto the page. The therapeutic quality of spoken word really revealed itself in those two hours. The workshop quickly filled up its reserved spots and more people showed up despite this; it was a full house!

Afterwards, Keteku featured at the Barbeside Salon on Hunter at the Black History Month Celebration held by the Peterborough Poetry Collective, The Trent African and Caribbean Students Union (TACSU) and Public Energy.

Other performers included Bathsheba Alal (Beth Lexah), who read from her debut publication Spilt Milk, and Ki Notshe, with DJ Spanish Dub providing tunes for the night.

I had the opportunity to have a few words with Keteku prior to the workshop to discuss his views on poetry and what inspires him. Read on for a one-on-one with one of the top Canadian spoken word artists in Canada.


Photo by Ben Legere

How long have you been writing for?

There’s this old Zimbabwean saying that says, “If you can talk, you can sing, and if you can walk, you can dance.” And I think that I’ve been writing before I even came to the planet. I think that all the stories we write and everything that we produce as artists, as people, everything we create… something had to happen before that. So, I can’t really put a date on when I began writing, but I’ve been doing poetry professionally for the past five years.

How did you first discover spoken word?

It was 2008, and I was doing an event. I used to be like a rapper/musician kind of thing – I guess I still am in some respects. So, I was doing an event at the former Governor General’s place, Michaëlle Jean’s, and there was a poet there who invited me to the slam after seeing my performance. I went to my first slam and was just wowed by the amount of energy and positivity, the diversity of topics that people were talking about, and I was hooked.

What do you usually find yourself pouring into your poetry? Do you have certain themes that tend to reveal themselves?

I like to be influenced by whatever is happening around me. Events, circumstances, all around the globe really. So, at any given time, I think life is not necessarily black or white. I think that we as poets explore the grey area of life, and the grey area of life involves so many things. Politics is part of our daily identity; love is part of our daily identity; struggle, flippant, and very seemingly mundane things are part of our every day thoughts.
So, as many things that we think about, I like to explore and put my tentacles into. I think poetry is kind of like journalism, whereby we’re articulating whatever is happening in the world around us, but also what’s happening within ourselves as well.

How would you describe your writing process? How does your poetry manifest?

Sometimes I think about things that have affected me and people around me. I try to ask the question why and most times I don’t have the answer. If I don’t have the answer as to why, then I think it’s a good basis for a poem. I feel poems attempt to articulate the fact that we don’t know something.
So, if it’s falling in love, if it’s heartbreak, if it’s political situations around the world – why is this happening? What can I do to change it? Can I change it? Why hasn’t it changed yet? And then I like to explore from there.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of sitting down and seeing something interesting and being inspired by that. The world is such a beautiful place. The Universe is so perfect, I believe, that inspiration is not fleeting – it’s all around us, and all over us all the time. It’s just a matter of being open to letting it affect you.

Do you have a muse, or a particular set of muses?

Yeah! Imbalance in the world is a big inspiration for me. I believe speaking out against and about things that aren’t necessarily spoken about in mass media and in our everyday conversations are important. Also, the human condition is something that inspires me a lot. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to communicate or connect with human beings? I really like the human experience.

So, is the whole concept of language and articulation in itself something you focus on?

Language is an interesting thing. I relate poetry sometimes to a painter and a canvas. The words are the colours and there are millions of different, almost infinite, ways that you can put something together – that you can paint a painting, that you can write a poem.
Even within that, it’s limited. The English language is probably one of the most limiting languages on the planet given its rules and grammar. You know, in some languages, there are 10 different names for love and friendship. But given that, I like the fact that we have these parameters in the English language. How do you play with it? How do you work with it?

Do you have any experiences with other languages?

I speak Twi. It’s from Ghana, West Africa, which is where my parents are from.

Have you explored poetry in Twi?

I’ve definitely experimented in writing with it and I’ve occasionally read some Twi poems. My proficiency is not very high but it’s definitely something that I feel inclined to always go back to and always look at, for sure.

Tell me about some of the achievements you’ve accomplished in the spoken word community.

The biggest achievement that I’ve had is being part of a movement that’s so beautiful and profound. I think spoken word as an art form is very inclusive. It’s very powerful and allows people to connect in ways that other forms of art might not allow. We all communicate; this is something that we do as human beings, and I think spoken word really attaches itself to that. I go to a lot of schools and work with various groups and universities, leading workshops and such, and it is a huge achievement for me to be able to be part of a process where people are finding the value in their stories, feelings and emotions, and are sharing that with other human beings. It’s been very rewarding.

What are some of your influences?

You know, when I was a kid, I would come home and ask my parents if I could watch television. [They] would allow me, like, 30 minutes, so I watched Ninja Turtles or Babar or something, and afterwards, they told me to write a summary of what I had just seen. So, writing has just been a part of my life for a while and my upbringing was definitely influential. My parents might not have totally realized that, but it definitely was.
Also, growing up, even now, the people around me are definitely huge influences for the work that I do. I think our experiences as individuals are only our experiences, but to be able to share that around is important. Also, my world travels. Traveling around the world, hearing different stories, seeing different people [when I’m] doing poetry is very influential in my work.

Are there any particular poets you consider your favourite?

Yeah, I mean, my favourite poets are my best friends. Overseas, I definitely enjoy the work of Warsan Shire; she lives in London. She’s really, really fantastic. Here in Canada, the list can go on forever. I really enjoy the work of Titilope Sonuga from Edmonton, and Brandon Wint out of Ottawa. These people are very close to me and it just so happens that they are also fantastic poets. Open Secret… I mean there’s so many. It’s hard for me to even pick.

Why should people care about spoken word poetry?

I think people already care about spoken word. If we think about the big influences in the history of human beings, many of them have been transmitted through the word. If we talk about Muhammad, Jesus, peace be upon them, the prophets spoke and people listened. As a result, many of our laws are based on things that they said, many of the ways that we conduct ourselves.
Non-religiously, we look at Obama, and a person like Obama, I believe, won the election as the President of the United States because of how he spoke – the creative way and power in and with which he spoke. We can take anyone from Mahatma Gandhi [to] Martin Luther King to Malcolm X; I mean, all these individuals used the power of the word to change the world. I think it’s something we all realize subconsciously, but I don’t think it’s something we actualize through our actions.
So, when we’re speaking to one another, we don’t realize the power of affect we have on one another. I do think that spoken word poetry realizes the power of words and really attempts to use it to express something, articulate something and to heal. I think it’s just a matter of time before many more people realize the power of their own voices and the value of their own spirit through words and communication.

What advice would you give to a new poet?

I believe we’re all born poets. I believe that poetry is not something that you decide to become; I think it’s something you realize you already are. The only advice that I would give is to be open and aware, to listen as much as you can. Listen with your eyes, with all your senses.
I feel like we live in a world where society, the educational system and powers that claim to be have told us how to think, have told us right and wrong, have told us how we should see the world, and poetry is beyond that.
Poetry attempts for you to find your own truth and believe that that it is the truth. So, removing ourselves from the metaphorical box that society puts us in is the best way to be able to explore those feelings and emotions that are in the grey areas of life.

About Yumna Leghari 50 Articles
I am currently co-editor along with the fabulous Zara Syed. I'm a Peterborough hobbit, and often find myself writing too much poetry and struggling to be a proper adult. Just kidding, there is no such thing as too much poetry. I spent two years as a reporter before being lucky enough to become co-editor of Arthur. I love journalism of all sorts, but generally focus on music journalism and politics. As a History and English major, I tend to over-analyze everything. Luckily, the journalism world is the one place where that is accepted-one would hope. You can probably find me tucked away in a corner of Peterborough somewhere, scribbling in a notebook frantically over my fourth cup of coffee.