Inali Barger (he/they) is a spoken word artist, educator, activist, and the current artistic director of the London Poetry Slam. He has coached individuals and teams of poets to help them breathe into their own truths, locate their own experiences, and edit (self/others/the world, through words). Inali addresses intersectionality through the context of addiction, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, physical illness, queerness, research and advocacy on behalf of himself and others, and his nearly 12 years of dedication to the London Poetry Slam and Canadian spoken word community. He has competed nationally five times and was the Canadian Underground Indies champ in 2017. He has performed, offered workshops, and spoken on panels at international and national conferences, universities, high schools, public schools, libraries, drop-in centres, living rooms and in conversations with strangers.
Raissa Simone spoke with Inali about poetry, language, and storytelling on September 27th, 2020, via Skype.
Explain what you do in one sentence, Inali.
I use poetry and metaphors to build connections in language, and essentially, use it as knowledge translation.
I am interested in this idea of 'knowledge translation.' Will you tell me more about that?
It's like building a bridge or building a language between two people or two concepts. In trying to explain something to someone, you would use an analogy. If say, you're opening a mason jar and you're struggling, or if you've watched someone else struggle you can relate. It's a common concept and many people can relate to it. One time, I was trying to explain systems change, especially for youth in systems… How it's very important to make sure that you are pressing the right way, so that you're moving in the right direction for change. If you're moving in the wrong direction or tightening the lid, you have to acknowledge that you're tightening the lid and stop and change... all of this while being very aware of the contents inside the jar. Because if you try to smash it on the ground in frustration then you've made a big mess, damaged your pickles, and you've hurt the people inside the system. People are still using that system even though it's broken and stuck. It's really important to be aware of the direction you're moving in, to swallow your ego if you're going in the wrong direction, and to work together, aware of the contents inside.
Poetry can do that. That's a metaphor, that's just explaining something. By putting it in the form of poetry, you make it more concise and you make it more interesting to look at.
When did you first become involved in spoken word poetry?
I think I was fourteen. I was staying at a respite home in Owen Sound. One of the staff there was organizing a poetry festival called Words Aloud. He saw that I wrote poetry and said, "You're gonna say this out loud." I was reluctant, but he persisted and I performed… but was completely incomprehensible [laughs]. He coached me a bit on performance, then stubbornly insisted that I perform at the open mic he was MCing, featuring Shane Koyzan, Amanda Hibbard, David Silverberg, and others. I wasn't aware of how big these performers were in the scene at the time. I got up and my paper was shaking in my hand. I was absolutely horrified… and that was my first experience.
When did your involvement in the London Poetry Slam begin? How has it fit into your journey as a poet?
I actually spent the first year or two not paying attention to anyone else's poetry. I was really self-involved. At that time, no one really edited my work and I'm much more aware of [the value of editing] now. I made my first poetry team with the London Poetry Slam when I was nineteen or twenty, and we went to Saskatoon. It was amazing. I met all of these personal heroes who didn't know me and that was incredible. It completely changed who I was as a poet and without the poetry scene, I don't think I would have had that. Around a year after that, I got a job as a poet-in-residence at Mindyourmind.ca which is primarily a website for creating mental health resources by youth for youth. I got to be a "9 to 5" poet. It was weird [laughs]. It's where I found language for [poetry as knowledge translation]. It was where I figured out what my role was. I ended up interviewing the staff and figuring out what their "superpowers" were. I would explain it like, "This person has x-ray vision," meaning they're able to look through a situation and see the bare bones of it. Or, "this person can fly, but they only have one wing, so they find the wing of another person and fly with them." I began using knowledge translation to explain somebody's strengths.
I read so much technical crap [laughs]. I synthesized a 100-page document into 14 pages of information, then sat down with a team of youth and made zines out of it. We turned this horrible, technical jargon that was full of important information into zines that were much more appealing to look at. I really found my stride at this residency by using poetry to make information and ideas more accessible. I enjoyed building language between people.
You mentioned that you first went to the national festival (formerly called the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, now called SpeakNorth) with the London Poetry Slam team. Will you tell me more about how this annual gathering impacted your work?
Seeing the issues that were either dealt with or not dealt with, and the passion about keeping each other safe, and learning where as a community we were failing was huge.
It was also interesting to experience a national festival from different perspectives. I've gone as someone on a team and I've gone as someone there for work and professional development, in my work with MindYourMind. I went as part of my job training and that meant that I wasn't focused on the competition. I had more time to go to different events and to take breaths in between. I had to be more aware of my surroundings which meant knowing that I was hanging out in bars for a whole week when I was trying to be sober (because most of the performance venues were at bars). That was really hard.
I've been there as a coach. Which was different, not there trying to memorize, re-memorize, and perfect pieces that I was going to perform, instead there trying to support a group of people and prioritize their mental health… making sure that they sleep, eat proper meals, and take vitamins. I wanted them to go to events, but also wanted to give room for them to take a morning or day off.
Tell me about your writing process. When you sit down to write, what does that look like for you?
I have a few different writing processes, a few different styles. Sometimes, I think of it like quilting; you make patches and you put them all together. I'll realize that there are a lot of patches and if there's enough you check in and say, "Is there enough to make a blanket here?" Then it's a matter of figuring out how things fit properly or what makes it look good.
Then there are poems that come out all at once. With those, I let it all come out and edit it after.
Sometimes it's coming across something that I need to explain. It's important that it's explained. With that, it's less about how pretty something looks and more about whether I get the message across. There's a poem I'm still working on about when I was at a party that a family friend was hosting and my dad was sitting beside me. A person I didn't know well was sitting with my dad and I, and they said, "Oh, your dad must be your hero." It was so awkward because I thought, "No," but it's something everyone assumes you would say "yes" to. I didn't want to lie in front of my dad because he'd know I'd be lying, but I also didn't want to sound like an asshole [laughs]. It's an awkward social situation. At the time, I moved on with the conversation. But, I re-visited that [in poetry] because I needed to. It needed the nuance, it needed the space. Because my dad isn't my hero, but I've watched him be a hero to other people. Growing up, he taught me how to be my own hero, so I didn't need to be rescued all the time. He didn't need to be my hero. He's somebody's hero. He doesn't need to be mine for me to love him and look up to him. I started to write about that because that was something that needed explaining and I felt was important. I think it's a nuance that people could appreciate and might be looking for language for. That's something that I appreciate in other people's poetry, these instances when someone finds language for something that I've been trying to explain.
Your work has a real storytelling quality. Do you see yourself as a storyteller?
I think it does tell a kind of story. The title 'storyteller' has a lot of different meanings in a lot of different cultures, so I'm careful with that. I tell a certain kind of stories. It's intentional because when you're a teller your audience will trust you because they've agreed to be there, they're invested in the experience. They will follow you wherever you take them. It's your responsibility to take them somewhere good and make sure you don't leave them somewhere bad. If you take them through something that's scary, you leave them back at the good again... or, you give them the tools to get back out again. I try to be aware of how I'm taking people places, where I'm taking them, why I'm taking them there, why is it important—not just why is it important to me, but why is it important that they go there. It can't just be about me, otherwise, why do I need an audience [laughs]? I think that intention is very important, and I am aware of it… it's something that I work on.
In your poem, "Point Stick Questions," you write, "There is more than one flavour of speech." Will you tell me about how your understanding of knowledge translation influences how you think poetically?
When I talk about different languages, I'm often not referring to the literal different languages. I'm talking about different frames of references that people have which change the meaning of what they're saying. If say, you look at acronyms for things, 'ED' could stand for 'eating disorder,' 'emergency department,' 'executive director,' 'erectile dysfunction,' there's so many things ED could stand for. Depending on who is in the room, they will interpret it differently and it will mean what they make it mean. Ideally, you'd try to speak in a language that as many people as possible understand, or at least the people you're directing the message to. If someone tries to explain something to me using a golf metaphor, I'm not going to know what they're talking about because I know nothing about golf. I may even shut down completely because I don't want to talk about it. But, if they use music to explain something, I'm probably going to open up to the idea even more because even if I don't want to talk about what they're trying to explain, I want to talk about music. 'Golf' would be a language, 'Music' could be a language. People's experiences influence how many languages they can understand and how many they can speak fluently.
I think the ability to build a language with another person is underappreciated. If I'm trying to explain something to you, taking the time to figure out what you're going to understand and finding and trying to speak in that language—it is a lot of work. Clear communication can be a lot of work sometimes.
How do social justice issues feature in your writing?
I tend to be more general because I am trying to be as accessible as possible. I don't tend to put in many details, just enough detail to make it mine and to make it true. I talk about being trans. I have a poem called "Lost Boys" which was also a coming out poem for me. It’s about the idea of people not seeing trans people as being "real." It also recognizes other identities that aren't considered "real." I'm talking [in the poem] about being
trans, but, using the concept of expending so much time and energy to convince people that not only am I real, but that this whole group of people are real.
I talk about my experiences with trauma sometimes. I have a poem called, "Cradle Language." It talks about lip reading but is also about reading people and being hypervigilant. My history with PTSD or C-PTSD means that I am hyper-vigilant and am constantly looking for warning signs. My constant vigilance in lip reading and having to pay attention to be sure what's going on… isn't just from being hard of hearing, it's the trauma also. So being able to talk about both of these things at once and explain how hard it is to lip read while also explaining how exhausting it is to be hyper-aware all the time… uses multiple languages, like I said before. Odds are, an audience member is going to understand at least one.
Is there anything you've come to dislike about working as a poet?
Absolutely! Though I've honestly spent more time working as an organizer than a poet these past few years. I still do the occasional workshop or feature.
As a poet, you basically have to be your own agent. You need to have the business skills, the public relations skills, the media skills—you have to do the whole thing. I'm a poet. That's not my skill set. It's a lot more work than you're paid for. Because you're not paid to be your own agent. You're not paid to do that extra work, you're paid for the work you do on stage or in that workshop. There's no salary that goes along with it. Unless you apply for grants and get those. Even then, you need to have the grant-writing skillset. That makes it really hard for people to survive in this work. And it's highly undervalued work. When I explain how knowledge translation can help in mediation or education, people say, "Oh, that's really cool, that's important," and I think, "Yes. But it's not paid very well!" A lot of the jobs that I would like, I pretty much have to create.
Which poets inspire you?
Many people [laughs] Jillian Christmas, Lishai Peel, Rabbit Richards, Magpie Ulysses, Zaccheus Jackson, rest his soul. So many more. I was kind of raised by the national [poetry] community. I look up to many people for different reasons. Sometimes it's their art, sometimes it's the community-building they've done. Sometimes it's just… who they are as a person. I could go on. Tanya Evanson, D'bi Young Anitafrika… so many.
Do you have any personal rituals or personal centering practices that you engage in before bringing your work onto the stage?
Absolutely. The poet Fannon Holland does a whole workshop about how the first breath you take on stage is the beginning of your piece. For me, if I know I'm going to perform that day I make sure that I eat well and as early as my body will let me. I don't like to eat closer to when I perform. I prefer to feature because then I can set the tone myself. A lot of scenes will snap or clap or make sounds to show their appreciation, and I get distracted so easily, so I get people to rub their hands instead. I make my needs known.
I tend to take my time [when I perform]. I try to redirect any nerves I'm feeling into joy or excitement or something that will translate positively to my audience. I try to be very aware of where I'm going and where I'm trying to take people. That means being aware of the poem I'll be doing and taking note of where the audience is at—so, if there was just a poem that was really intense, either choosing to do a different poem to give people or taking a big pause to reset. How people react to me affects me—they're reacting to what I'm saying, and I get to choose what I say. I try to slow down, take my time, and be as intentional as possible. When I'm on stage, I'm in charge. I could tell the audience to do something and they probably will. If I tell them to sing they will try. I try to be as intentional and kind as I can be.
Where do you see your poetry moving in the future?
Now that I'm shifting roles locally, I'm going to have more time to write, so that's exciting. I'm hoping to shift to writing short stories and fiction, as well as poetry. There's some stories that I think need to be told on the page. I think I would like to do more workshops. I'd like to do a workshop series at some point. I love teaching. I love teaching communication skills, specifically. I think people benefit from these and the impact would be larger than just for myself. That's where I want to go right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You can contact Inali Barger on Facebook and Instagram (@inalibarger).