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This wordsmith smacks down

QueeriesMag interviews fierce slam poet Krystle Mullin.

Krystle Mullin is a firecracker, and we’re not talking a Sparkler stick here. She’s a symphony of fire, exploding big and loud to a hypnotic rhythm of words. Mullin is a poet, but she’s doesn’t write the kind of poetry that you read quietly to your lover under a tree, she writes the kind of poetry that you shout out in the middle of a subway platform during rush hour.

This Brampton Ontario native has toured her high energy spoken word performance from coast to coast, taking the mic at events like The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, the Mariposa Folk Festival and Guelph’s beloved Hillside Festival. She was on the Toronto Slam Team for 3 years in a row and went on to win the honour of representing her current hometown (Toronto), then all of Canada, in The Women of the World Slam that happened in Detroit a few years back.

More recently Mullin competed in, and won the Toronto leg of the CBC National Poetry Face-off competition – stunning the crowd with her original, emotive piece, Berlin. She’s even been invited to open up for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

As somebody who has had the thrill of seeing her perform live many times, I can easily say that this poet – she got game. So just before Mullin’s upcoming gig at Hillside, we spoke a bit about her history in slam, her involvement in high school spoken word programs and what its like to perform as one half of her spoken word duo The Cliffs.

Queeriesmag: Ok Krystle, lets start at the beginning. How did you discover spoken word?

Krystle Mullin: I was in Kingston, Ontario at the time. I had been invited to read my poetry at a few events (art openings, book launches etc.) and at one show a woman approached me and asked me if I “slammed”. I told her she’d have to buy me a drink first, she laughed and said, “It’s an art form. Performance poetry, you’ve never heard of it?”- I hadn’t.

This woman was from NYC, where I would later learn (upon googling it) had a booming “slam” scene. I searched slam in Toronto but couldn’t find anything, so I sort of forgot about it. When I moved back to Toronto from Kingston I was flipping through a NOW Magazine and saw an ad listing for a Toronto Poetry Slam. I printed out some poems and made my way to the west end of College St. to give it the old college try.

QM: Did you always know you had what it takes to compete at poetry slams?

Mullin: Funny, I’m not even sure that I actually have what it takes to compete in poetry slams. I have competed in a lot of them, and have even been lucky (and folks, let me tell you it is mostly about luck) to win a few. But I get extremely nervous before having my name called up on stage. I get the shakes and my stomach does upside down jumping jacks.

I do love performing though. I love meeting people and I love making people feel. I have had a few people approach me after shows to say that they could really relate to a particular piece and that they were really happy that I shared it with them. Spoken word is all about sharing and being open. I think that at the end of the day I enjoy performing for that reason.

Krystle Mullin performing Traffic Jam:

QM: You were a member of the Toronto Slam Team for 3 years, how did you become a member? Does one get recruited? Are there try-outs?

Mullin: Yes, there are try-outs. And they take the form of monthly slams in Toronto. In order to compete in the finals you’ve got to qualify – you do that by way of earning enough points (which are earned by competing and scoring in the top 3 in multiple slams) or winning a monthly slam. You’ve got to get through the semi-finals and then you’re able to compete on the big stage and vie for one of four spots on the team. It’s sort of like NCAA Final Four.

QM: Wow, Slam is super competitive. Speaking of which, I’ve had the pleasure (and disadvantage) of playing basket ball against you, and can say beyond a doubt that you are quite a competitive person. What would you say the similarities / differences are between competing in sport and in a slam?

Mullin: The similarities between slam and sport include: Sweating, swearing, judges, nervousness, crowning a winner, warming up, stretching (voice and body), feeling the energy from the crowd and sacrificing your body for the greater good.

Differences include: The love of your competitor. I don’t wear a sports bra when I am on stage performing. Then there is the drinking. I can’t really drink whilst playing sports, but during a poetry slam it’s sort of a given.

QM: What is being on a slam team like?

Mullin: It’s sort of a cross between being on Broadway (because we are ALL divas, even though we pretend we’re not) and being a part of an extremely dysfunctional family. You spend so much time sharing your inner most thoughts and feelings with these people (through your poetry) that they end up knowing you in a way most of your family and friends don’t. These people are privy to your diary, so to speak. Which is why there are fights, there are laughs and there is success.

QM: You mention that Toronto was slower to get into slams, what is the Toronto slam scene like now?

Mullin: Amazing. Booming. Fun. Welcoming.

Black and White picture of Krystle Mullin

Krystle Mullin in action!

QM: As the CBC National Poetry Face-off winner for Toronto you went on to compete with other poets from across Canada, can you speak a bit to what that experience was like?

Mullin: It was so so so exciting and at the same time so, so, so nerve-racking. The CBC commissioned a number of writers from across Canada to write a poem on a particular theme: Flight. We were given around 3 months to write it. Exciting. 2 months and 3 weeks into it I had a poem. Exciting. A poem that I decided wasn’t working. Nerve-racking.

So I spent one week (late nights and early mornings) writing another one. At the 11th hour I printed it out and got on the streetcar to head to Hugh’s Room in Toronto. It was a fantastic night full of great poetry about Flight. You can hear all the winning poems online.

QM: You implemented a program that integrates spoken word workshops into Ontario high schools, what was that program called? How did you get that started up? What does it involve?

Mullin: Two members of the spoken word/folk group The Fugitives, Barbara and Brendan, and another Vancouver poet Magpie Ulysses, have been doing workshops in schools forever. They suggested that Toronto poets get into it. With a little bit of guidance from the Van City Poets and with a little bit of creativity I was able to write a spoken word lesson plan, so to speak. It includes games for students to participate in, writing exercises, performing exercises and a history of slam poetry.

QM: Where does your poetry draw its inspiration?

Mullin: From the days. From the people I meet in those days. From those that I love. And those that I have lost. From people on the streetcar to people who are presidents. Inspiration can come at any time.

For example, Amanda (the other half of The Cliffs) and I were having a beer after rehearsing last night and we overheard some guy say “I’ve got to find a way to get myself to Long Island.” Amanda and I knew right away that that line would work itself into some writing.

QM: Some of your greatest hits include Ten Cow Wife and Traffic Jam. When you perform them live people get really excited and the energy in the room is electric. How does this feel for you on stage, how does that feed back into your performance?

Mullin: It feels awesome. People requesting certain poems or the energy people give out when they hear a poem they like is insurmountable. It feels so great.

I have had a lot of really positive feedback for both those poems and Berlin (the CBC poetry faceoff poem). I’ve had people tell me that they’ve memorized the poems, and that they have lines of the poems up in their rooms. One woman told me that when she heard Berlin on the radio she pulled her car over to the side of the road and started to cry. These are the things that writers or artists of any kind appreciate hearing. When people connect with the art you put out into the world – that’s really all a person can ask for.

QM: You’re performing on the spoken word stage at the Hillside Festival this year. This is not your first time on the stage at Hillside, why is it such a great festival to be a part of? What keeps you coming back?

Mullin: Hillside is amazing. Susan Pitman and her brother Craig have really done such an outstanding job with the Spoken Word stage. They have managed to bridge the gap between music festival and spoken word festival and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful festival full of beautiful people doing really beautiful things to keep this world beautiful. They don’t sell bottled water, for example, and everyone eats off of re-usable dishes. There 4 stages that at any given time have something that you will love, whether it’s music or spoken word.

Picture of The Cliffs

The Cliffs (Krystle Mullin & Amanda Hiebert)

QM: Both you and Amanda Hiebert are performing at Hillside together as The Cliffs. I think many would assume spoken word is a medium for a soloist, but you and Amanda have been performing together for 7 years, can you explain what taking to the stage with Amanda is like?

Mullin: I met Amanda at my very first slam. She was performing against 18 men. And she ended up winning the slam. After the slam she approached me and sort of gave me the ol’ “stick around kid, we need more women in the scene” speech. Cut to a few months later and we were on the Toronto Slam Team together, which is how we started writing & performing together.

Both Amanda and I have come to the conclusion that when we’re on stage together we can offer audiences/classrooms something that we can’t quite offer them when we’re performing solo shows. Namely, the power of 2 voices, 2 minds and 2 energies. Amanda is an actor by trade and has been in a few Hollywood movies so the bottom-line is that I really only perform with her so I can go to fancy parties and do shots of tequila with Marc Ruffalo and Julianne Moore.

QM: What can people expect from your Hillside performance this year?

Mullin: Expect to have fun. Expect to laugh. Expect to be called up on stage to do an interpretive dance to our poetry.

The Cliffs performing at the Words Aloud Festival:

The Cliffs perform this Saturday July 23rd on the Spoken Word Stage of the Hillside Festival in Guelph Ontario.

To find out more about this year’s Hillside Festival click here, or you can buy tickets, or check out the The Cliffs’ performer page.

To find out more about Krystle Mullin check out her Myspace page.


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