During my two years in Peterborough, I have been lucky enough to meet an amazing community of poets within the downtown spoken word core, as well as page poets making appearances at local open mics. A poet I have had the pleasure to encounter goes by the name of Catherine Bethsheba Alal. On stage, and to her friends, she is known as Beth Lexah.
We first crossed paths at a Black History Month spoken word event, and later became members of the Peterborough Poetry Collective, almost simultaneously.
Beth is a third year student at Trent University, majoring in business with a minor in economics. Beth is a part-time poet, part-time chef. She first arrived in Canada to study in Waterloo, Ontario in the year 2010, from Nairobi, Kenya.
Beth has been writing since she was 14 years old. She published her debut poetry collection, titled Spilt Milk in June 2013. Her book was officially launched at Chapters on Nov. 27.
Beth and I met up downtown to discuss poetry, family and the publishing experience over scrumptious cupcakes, tea and coconut pie at Dancing Blueberries. Humble, yet internalizing the strength Beth says she adopted from her mother, her poetry is a force to be reckoned with. Her words carry torrents of expression through simplicity and abstract allusions.
Read on for some insight into Beth’s work and her debut title, Spilt Milk.
How does it feel to be 22 and already published?
So, you’ve always been writing. When did you discover Spoken Word, specifically?
When I arrived in Peterborough, a friend showed me a video on YouTube. It was a piece by Alysia Harris, called That Girl. I was seriously amazed. I watched her and I was thinking about how I shy I was, and like, “I can’t do that.” Because I’ve always been a page poet, never having performed. It was such a different way of writing even. More direct. So my friend and I kept making plans on going, but kept putting it off. Then Black History Month came around, and we ended up going. Everyone performed, and you performed actually! You were great. Everyone I saw perform was exactly how it seemed on the performances I had seen on YouTube. So, all my friends started pushing me to join the poetry collective and to slam, because they believed I was good. So yeah, it kind of just happened.
You mentioned you are a shy person. Has slam made you more extroverted?
Very. I have to deal with all these people I’m performing in front of. It gets you out of your shell and gets you comfortable. You kind of have to.
So, previously only writing page poetry, do you feel like you belong in the spoken word scene or do you exist in both?
I can make my page poetry sound like spoken word, but when I was writing my book that was not the intention. I think that spoken word has changed my writing. I write more spoken word then I do page poetry.
What do you think the value of spoken word is?
It’s communication; the most important thing. It makes everything so simple. People can just say what they think, and the way things are. Everyone channels their communication in a different way.
Do you have certain inspirations?
Maya Angelou. I love Maya Angelou. I have two of her books, and every time I write a poem I think, “I want to write like her.” When I think that though, I realize everyone is different. People like the way you write because it’s different.
How has moving to Canada, and Peterborough in general influenced you in terms of writing?
It has been amazing and life changing. I write based on experience and the things I go through. I believe the older I get, the better I’m going to become at writing. I can’t even think of what I will write next year or the next year. But yeah, Peterborough has been amazing. I think it’s me more so though, as I mature. I actually notice that my work is personal and based on personal experiences.
Would you say this is a coping mechanism since it’s such a personal experience?
Definitely. Oh my god, I don’t know what I would do without writing. I’m actually a shy person and I can’t just open up to anyone. But when I write it down it’s like I’m talking to someone and creating my own therapy in a way. Especially having moved here, and you don’t know people so well.
How did your family react when you told them you were getting published?
Oh, they were so happy! My sister was screaming on the phone. I never told anyone I was publishing the book. Not even my mom. I wrote a poem a day and a lot of things were happening in my life at that particular times. So many changes that I was writing about. Nobody knew. I remember my best friend would ask me to come out, and I would tell her that I was working on a project, and she’d be like, “What project? You’re not working on anything.”
So I never told anyone until I submitted it and it was out of my hands. I was avoiding any kind of discouragement and I was doing it for myself. It was one of those selfish things; I was doing it for me. I also didn’t want exterior opinions to influence my writing process. My brother and I have never been that close, and he was the first person to buy my book. He isn’t into poetry, I’ve never heard the word poetry come out of his mouth. He bought it and read the whole thing.
Have you ever written in Swahili?
No! I can write the language but I haven’t written poetry in it. It’s so hard to rhyme in Swahili. There are so many Swahili songs and I am amazed at how they rhyme and write because there is so much slam. I grew up speaking English in Kenya and at home; it’s the first language and Swahili is second.
Where does the title Spilt Milk come from?
I don’t like titles that say everything. I named the book after I wrote everything and was just about to submit it to my publishers. I was like, “Oh yeah, I need a title.” I noticed the book was focusing on loss, sadness and then strength again. Also, vulnerability, and then finding strength in that vulnerability. So, that saying, “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” Came to mind. So yeah, it’s Spilt Milk. It’s gone, but let’s get over it.
You had your debut at Chapters. What was that like?
It was in November 2013. My poetry family came. My friends came. It was amazing, and people who were walking into Chapters were very curious about what was going on. All of my books sold out that night. I had a girl tell me that my book helped her get through some tough times. I was so surprised!
Tell me about the publication process.
So, I got published twice in the World Poetry Movement and once in the Poetry Institute of Canada. I thought about publishing my own book, but I always thought about how I was too busy with school. I would always make up excuses. It was during the summer, so I had no excuse. I had nothing to blame not doing it on. So, the World Poetry Movement connected me with a publisher. I won a medal for Editors Choice award. The poems ‘When I become a Woman’ and “Loud Silence’ are two of the poems that were submitted that are now in the book. This was back in 2012. On Aug. 31, when I decided I was going to do it, they gave me three months to write it.
Was the editing process scary at all?
It’s more scary because it’s poetry. You’re making your work different. Sometimes it might not make sense, this purposeful ambiguity to confuse people. I was afraid they would edit those intentional things without thinking I wrote it that way. So there was a lot of back and forth clarification where they would ask if I meant writing my poems the way I did. It’s very different than editing a novel, which is essentially sentence structure and grammar.
What advice would you give to aspiring poets who want to go into spoken word or write page poetry?
A small lake can sink a great ship. Most poets think, “it’s just my thoughts and words. I don’t think anyone will care.” When I was writing my book I had my doubts, thinking I needed more poems because my book is fairly short. My advice to any poet is that you never know how beautiful your mind is. Don’t doubt yourself. Whatever you have, show it to the world. Poetry always has different meanings. I know what my poems mean, but someone else can interpret it in a totally different way.
Do you have any intentions of publishing more poetry?
Definitely. I should have another one in the near future. I think my next book will be more focused and narrowed on a specific idea or concept.