Yes (they/them) is a poet and a pollinator. They live in the inbetween these days, travelling what they call a country in their trailer with their love and enough animals to fill up a tiny zoo. They are a Cuban migrant, brujx, and plant loving bitch. They’re genderqueer and afraid of the dark. Yes is one of the founders of the Voices of Today youth poetry festival. Now retired (aged out), they were the festival’s co-director for many years. They were also the national poetry slam champion in 2014 and the underground individual (undies) champion in 2019. For many years, they were a dedicated community activist and organizer, member of groups like No One Is Illegal Toronto and the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, and were arrested for their alleged presence at 1492 Land Back Lane in Six Nations. They have since shifted focus to learning about plant medicines and are currently in a Community Healer long term mentorship program run by @moonhousenw, where they’re learning to use energy healing to recover their spirit and hopefully, soon, to help others heal too. They cross stitch, fuck with tarot, and don’t fuck with colonial governments or occupations. Yes is an anarchist and a healer-in-training, and they firmly believe that we would all benefit from some daily lemon balm.
How did you begin your journey into spoken word poetry?
Well, they kind of teach poetry in grade school, vaguely. I was in a gifted class, so we did weird bullshit all the time. We did poetry in the sixth grade or something, I just didn’t stop writing poems after that because… well, I was sad and it gave me an outlet. And people were like, “This is good!” In high school, I started writing poems again and I saw that people put poems on YouTube, so, I just started putting my poems on YouTube. Then I went out for dinner one time with this guy in Toronto. We were eating and I was loudly talking about my YouTube poetry videos because it’s a date and you have to show off. (Laughs) And the person sitting next to me ended up being Charlie Petch (a Toronto-based poet) and he was like, “You write poems?” And I was like, “Yeah, man!” And he was like, “You should come to this poetry thing. It’s super weird, it’s like a truth or dare event, but with poems. You could win some money.” So, I went and I came in second place. I was in the twelfth grade. So I just kept going. Poetry slams really validated me at a time when I needed it really bad. When I stopped being cute and little, people started being like, “Hey, your poems… they’re just okay.” So I had to get better at writing, which was uncomfortable. Couldn’t get away with just being cute and having feelings. (Laughs) Being cute is still a lot of it, to be fair. But yeah, the writing has changed for me. I don’t really slam so much anymore. But, I guess I just have a ‘forever’ relationship with poetry.
I noticed you go by ‘Yes the Poet’ as your performance name. How did that name come about?
So actually, I just go by Yes. It’s kind of a fun cautionary tale. The name @Yes was already taken on Instagram and Twitter, so I had to be @YesThePoet. Then every time I booked a gig, because I’m so heavily Instagram and Facebook-based in the way I book and promote stuff, people would automatically book me as Yes the Poet. The name was actually a gift from a poetry team I was on. They gave it to me because, for one, my name is Estefania and people don’t like five syllable names. And I refuse most nicknames because they’re really Anglo and lazy. So, everybody was really desperate to give me a nickname especially at this stage in my life. And I guess I’m pretty funny? So they just started saying, “Yes!” after my jokes. And then they were like, “Holy shit, we should call you Yes!” I didn’t tell other people to call me Yes at first, it just kind of picked up. After a while, I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll be Yes.” It’s pretty empowering actually and it feels really fun when crowds of people yell “Yes!” at me. I don’t think anybody thought that deep when they were like, “We’ll call you Yes!” But, here we are, all these years later.
Was that the first time you were on a poetry team?
I was only ever on that one, the Toronto Poetry Slam team. In 2014 we won nationals. Then I just didn’t want to do it again.
What was the experience like to have made you feel that way?
It was really hard. Some people don’t try that hard at poetry slams and some people try super hard. You can usually tell the difference. It’s pretty easy to have it as a side hobby, but this was about a year of making the team my main thing. We were writing and meeting and talking all the time, rehearsing all the time. We had gigs and we were fundraising and just all this other shit on the side. It was really, really hard. But, it was really satisfying to see what we were able to do, I didn’t know that I was capable of doing that. I didn’t think I could perform in that way, I didn’t know I had it in me. But I was also really tired because we worked so hard and then we did it and… that was it. It was done. It happened but people are just gonna have to take my word for it!
I personally have benefited from your poetry mentorship work when you coached the Montreal slam poetry team. I’m curious if you find more fulfillment in the work of guiding other poets.
It’s definitely more fulfilling for me. Especially in the last few years, I really shifted in how I viewed myself. I kind of grew up on stage. So, everybody got to see me be 18, up to 27 years old now, so that’s nine years. Except for the last year I guess—I haven’t really been performing. My poetry’s very personal and all of it has been really public. I didn’t even know why anymore. When I started writing in high school, I wrote this poem that was so bad. It was about suicide and I put it on YouTube. Even though it was so bad, so many people said, “Hey, just watching this poem tonight helped me not kill myself, so thank you.” And I was like, Oh, fuck: We can change people’s lives just by talking about our lives, and not even that well! So then what could a good poem do? I chased that for a really long time. Then I started losing the connection to why I was even a poet. It was a job after a while—I think that just comes with capitalism. It’s hard to really engage in meaningful relationships with things when you have bills to pay. I also shifted my focus internally to healing myself and what that looked like—putting most of my focus on my healing journey instead of my artistic journey. Through that, I found that I came back to poetry in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I wanted to be able to help other people come to poetry through this lens. Realizing that, yeah, we can save other people, but we haven’t saved ourselves yet. We have to save ourselves. We’re all drowning right now, we’re running out of air. I just want people to feel like we can have a moment of just being a human being and being connected to ourselves. And to move forward from that place and look at how we can change the world and help each other and be free through this artform and whatever artforms we find ourselves called to. Mentorship is really special to me. It’s really challenging. Sometimes it’s hard to be the person that sits there and is like, “Get free. I don’t care if your poems are good right now. Are you good though?” And fuck...no. Most people are not good.
I do remember that when I was on the Montreal poetry team and you were coaching, you really centralized health and well-being in guiding us as poets.
It has to be holistic. There’s no point in being the world’s best fucking poet if you write yourself to death by 25. It’s so easy to forsake your whole body and the world and your connections to dive deep into something, but do we even need that kind of art anymore? I feel like what we need these days is connection, and so badly. We need art that breathes connection and is born from connection. We need to re-center and refocus on ourselves in this world. We’re not just one guy writing poems in a room. We are everybody and we’re part of a web. It’s all a part of us getting free. And if you’re not getting free on your art, then why are you even doing it? Why subjugate yourself further?
When you are coaching and mentoring poets, what other kinds of things do you ask them to focus on and explore?
It’s very person-dependent. I like to look at where people are on their journeys and what kind of help they need. I’m still learning how much to push people. I get a handful of people who have reached out to me for help and I offer help and guidance. It’s not always poetry. It’s sometimes other things. And we talk and they receive it and I wait for them to come back. If they don’t come back, I respect that everyone has their own path and timing. Lately, I’ve just been put there to show up one day for people and hope that I plant a seed, so that, hopefully, they can come back to themselves and find some peace. But, it really depends on what somebody’s trying to do and what their goals are, what they want out of being an artist. Some people want to be professional poets and do that for a living. I have some advice to offer, but for the most part I’ve never been the person that wants to make money, so I have a hard time making money… because I don’t care. (Laughs). Did we make somebody’s day? Is life a little bit better because of what we did? Is the pain more manageable and more bearable for all of us collectively because we came together? Cool, then you don’t have to pay me. Except that I have bills apparently, so now I have a full-time job. (Laughs). Instead of making art my job like I tried to do for a long time.
I want to ask you about some of your poems that I really love. You have a poem called “A Very Different Ode to Joy.” You celebrate both struggle and resilience a lot in that piece. To me, that’s what made it so powerful. I was wondering if you would tell me about your writing process and how you take these painful feelings and bring them to places of strength in your writing?
That piece came from a lot of reflection. I was on the tail end of one of the hardest chunks of time that I’ve ever had in my life, just because physically I didn’t know what was going on with my body. And I didn’t know what to do with the frustration of that. The people in my life were really tired of hearing me complain or were scared themselves. I guess that’s when I started trying to write about it, but it was hard to write about it without sounding like I hated everybody and everything. So, I had to sit with it again for a while and think about what I was doing. That summer was also truly about finding and chasing joy for the first time in my life. So, I was like, “How do I talk about this?”...while, for the first time in my life, trying to be joyful. And simultaneously, the most physically debilitating and confusing stuff that I’ve ever experienced was happening to me. I’d been mentally ill my whole life, but now I was physically sick. I still don’t even know what happened—I got better so that’s all doctors really care about. It was just about, I guess, trying to find a way to share that—that tension that I was experiencing with other people. How am I trying to ‘joy’ so hard, the hardest I’ve ever tried to joy while my body is giving up on me? Shouldn’t my body be like, “Fuck yes! We are powerful and empowered!” But no, that was not what was happening. But that’s not the point—the point is that I was trying to have joy. So, I had to shift what was happening in me so that I could shift what I was talking about, and realize that, this thing I’m invested in, this thing that I believe in is my own happiness. And it doesn’t really matter if I got kicked out and live in a car now because I’m happy, goddammit, I’m happy and you can’t stop me! (Laughs).
I love that! I love that you have that determination in your poems. You have another poem called “This Rage is an Ocean.” I’ve noticed in your poetry that you give so much room for BIPOC feelings and voices, especially to feel anger and sadness or any kind of so-called ‘negative’ feeling. When I’ve heard that work, it offers up possibility and gives permission for me and other BIPOC to accept that I could feel that openly, too. So, I’m curious if you feel that when you perform, you open up space for BIPOC folks to say, “I also have these feelings and that’s allowed”?
I hope so. Early on, I caught on that at the very least, my writing and my poems create a space for people who feel the things that I feel to look at it in different ways, look at it through my lens. Even just doing that is really cathartic for people. And the type of stuff that I try to focus on and write about... I don’t have any white grief. My grief is all very complicated and nuanced and… blood! I hope to model for people that it’s okay that our feelings are this big. My feelings are fucking huge. When I wrote that piece, that was the poem that I wrote after the poem that was about how I couldn’t write poems because I was so mad. I was mad, so, so mad, and I knew it was because of how much grief I was carrying that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do the grief part. And then I did the poem about how mad I was in a room of 10 people at this tiny show. My close friend Nasra was there, and when they heard the poem, they cried their face off. And that’s when I knew that I had done something, but I had gone too far. Because it was a four- or five-minute poem about how everything was terrible. And I was like, “This is cathartic but not necessarily healthy.” You know, I needed to look at what I just did to my friend who loves me and feels the same way that I do and is having a really hard time crying in this bar right now. And so I tried to come back to my anger in a different way and look at it through poetry and bury it in a metaphor deep enough that I can start to talk about grief. And hopefully, other people could feel that without necessarily breaking down in the bar! It’s heavy to be literal about the things that are happening to us. I really like metaphors for grief-type stuff so that people have room to feel it but also not feel all of it immediately in that moment. It is hard to talk about police violence and real shit like that in poems without it being actually not fair. It feels not fair to do that to people a lot of the time, which is why I love that poem “The Rage is an Ocean” and other poems I’ve done about difficult things. Whenever I try to be literal, it’s just like… the stuff is literally happening to us, we don’t need to hear about that anymore, it is already everywhere all the time. We are drowning in how violent the world is. But, we do deserve space. And homes. And room to reflect on these things and to feel connected to each other, in that we are all caught up in the same wave. I really hope that I can give space to BIPOC. I do sometimes piss off a lot of white people at shows.
Yeah, when I perform, the show’s not for them and it becomes pretty obvious early on. And it’s okay when it’s not for you. Sometimes things aren’t for you. And you have to sit through them anyway. I did the full course of education here, so don’t tell me that I’ve never had to sit through anything that wasn’t for me! (Laughs).
I was wondering if you would tell me more about activism work that you’ve done. What has that work been like for you, especially fighting against colonialism and fighting against capitalism? I’m curious if poetry or the arts have had a role for you in combatting colonialism and in your activism.
So, I started organizing in my early 20s. It was actually after someone I worked with asked me to do a poem at May Day in Toronto. May Day is a big annual workers’ day on May 1st. It used to be a really big thing in Toronto, but it hasn’t been for the last few years. But, that year, it was huge—there were thousands of people there. I did this poem about immigration detention and things that I had learned working at this law firm that represented people who were in immigration detention. I was asked to join No One Is Illegal Toronto after they heard me do that poem. I’d never done anything legitimate before. I did that for about three or four years: work around immigrant justice and other campaign-based, education-based organizing. Then I got kind of tired of doing that. I was a poet the whole time. Every once in a while I would do poems at events. And I was poetic in meetings, maybe? (Laughs). A lot of it didn’t find its way into my writing. Until I was actually doing political stuff, I tried to put a lot more politics into my writing. But once I was doing political stuff, my writing came back to being about me and the feelings I was feeling about the world. Being political, but not explicitly, not like “This is my poem ‘Abolish The State’!” I took a break and kind of re-centred myself. I guess I’m not much into campaign-based organizing anymore because we were pushing for reforms, and it feels really futile to try to reform the state. We were pushing to not have children in immigration detention centres anymore and to not have people in immigration detention kept in medium- or maximum-security prisons. And the state’s response to that campaign was to build a $6 billion immigration detention centre, so that they would have a place for kids that was separate. So the prison industrial complex grew by $6 billion as a result of our organizing to have fewer prisons! So I’ve been trying to shift my focus onto how I can build power in my communities and organize in different ways so that we can build other things. I just don’t see us making this thing liveable—I should have given up on Canada a long time ago, but it feels like giving up on people. But, it’s not giving up on people. It’s just that Canada is not going to ever be good. And that’s fine, but where do I find my place in that? Last year, when everything shut down, I moved into an encampment in Toronto. There were a lot of encampments seeking support that were getting raided. I lived downtown in a tent for a couple months. But, from a really privileged position; I could still go home and shower if I wanted to. I wasn’t living on the streets by any means. But, I was there just making sandwiches and making sure people had hand sanitizer to take with them and unlocking city bathrooms at night so people could take a shit not in the bush. (Laughs). Why does the city want people to shit in the trees when they could just leave the toilets open? I don’t know! After that I moved into 1492 Land Back Lane in Six Nations for three or four months. They got violently raided and I had friends there, so I showed up, and after I showed up I couldn’t leave. It was one of those things. I had to make myself move to Nova Scotia so that I would leave. Because it’s hard for me to walk away from frontline work. But realistically, I’m a super chronically ill person and very autistic and I need routines, so it’s not healthy for me to live in a place where I’m sleeping in a car and there’s choppers and cops and chaos all day every day. You never know when you’re going to get violently arrested or maybe shot at. It’s just a lot to take on for any one person. I didn’t even really know I was taking it on, I just showed up and I didn’t even know I was capable of that. But doing frontline work definitely felt better than doing long-term campaigns and protests in the street. It felt more meaningful. But it also comes with the risks. Like, my charges were just dismissed two weeks ago.
Congratulations, by the way! That’s great news.
Thanks! I had a warrant and they got me as soon as I came back to Ontario. I was out for coffee. (Laughs). They caught me coming out of the Walmart parking lot! And they were like, “You have a warrant,” and I was like, “What? That doesn’t sound like me! I would never.” (Laughs). Catching charges and beating them in court is super expensive and draining on any organization. Land Back has been lucky that they have been able to fundraise a lot of money for their legal stuff. But it’s still not enough for all of the court cases that are going to result from this.
Are there any online fundraising campaigns for 1492 Land Back Lane legal defenses that folks can contribute to?
Yes, they have a legal defense fund and a general fund. Support for the general fund can be e-transferred to firstname.lastname@example.org and the legal defense fundraiser can be found at http://www.gofundme.com/f/legal-fund-1492-land-back-lane.
I’m really happy that that worked out for you—hopefully all the other folks involved will have a similar outcome, get all charges dismissed and be able to keep doing resistance work.
I’m also in a super privileged position with that as well because I’m not Native and I’m not from the rez, but a lot of the Native folks from the rez have gotten charged a lot more intensely. They’ve also shown up protecting their community because that’s their responsibility. And as a result, they are being given much heavier charges.
I definitely hope that they all have a similar outcome to you and are not further penalized for protecting their land. Can I ask you about activists and poets who you’ve met and who have inspired your work?
I really admire the way that Kai Cheng Thom moves through the world of community care, transformative justice, and organizing, as well as being a poet and a writer. I think her book I Hope We Choose Love is the most palatable and easy introduction to abolition, while also being a pretty advanced take, in terms of abolition and just loving each other and why that matters. Also, Nasra Adem is constantly putting out new projects. They’ve been working with people directly and they just moved to the States, to Philly, which is so far away. But, the magic is still strong with them. I think people should stay on top of what Nasra is doing. The last EP that they put out, Salve (nasra.bandcamp.com/album/s-a-l-v-e) and the music videos they put out and everything they’ve been working on is super exciting. And Rabbit Richards just got this cover on the Vancouver Pride edition (https://vancouverpride.ca/festival-parade/pride-guide/) talking about disability justice in Pride. Because somebody has to fight for the people who are gay but don’t want to get hit with water cannons and can’t walk three blocks or stand! Someone’s gotta do it for us. But yeah, in general, these people are the best.
You know some talented people! I’m curious about your work. What do you see happening for you in the future? Are you going to be jumping back into poetry or doing more coaching or mentoring or keeping up with your activist work?
I just started this one-year community healing program called “Energetic Sovereignty”, with this reiki healer out in the Pacific Northwest. And it’s amazing. I feel so, so lucky to get to work with somebody who is looking at energy healing and alternative healing while also doing the decolonial work of how to engage in meaningful relationships in a colonial context when things are so extracted. When anyone who does a one-hour reiki course can say that they’re a reiki healer now, without knowing anything about Japanese traditions, where these things are rooted from, what they mean, or if they’re even relevant for you to practice. Or if they even work when you do it. So, that’s been really cool and exciting. And I’m starting to work on maybe writing a story. I don’t know if it’s going to be a show or a book. But there is a story that I’m working on, in a universe that I’m building that I’m pretty excited about.
Such exciting stuff! Thanks for chatting with me about all of the important and inspiring work that you’ve been doing, Yes!
You can follow Yes at @yesthepoet on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.