Perhaps the answer lies in the construction of her telling offerings or in their delivery. Even she defers to her mother's opinion–“My mum says it's my sincerity, that my words reach the heart and linger long after”–when asked what sets her apart from the rest. But with a third victory under her belt, the 2022 First Citizens National Poetry Slam (FCNPS) winner and spoken word artist Alexandra Stewart has proven that she has a knack for making her messages hit home.
It was at the 10th anniversary of the FCNPS or Grandslam held at the Naparima Bowl on October 9 that Stewart made her memorable moment of topping the field for the third time. She has the distinct honour of being the first person to do so, adding to her previous groundbreaking achievement of being the first to win consecutively, having copped the title in 2019 and 2020. Since 2017, Stewart has placed five times in the event organised by Bocas Lit Fest, making her the most decorated Slam competitor.
For her efforts, she was rewarded with a grand prize of $50,000, currently, the largest purse offered in any poetry slam worldwide. Second-place winner Kevin Soyer received $20,000 and dethroned FCNPS champion Derron Sandy, who came in third, collected $10,000. Soyer shone a light on nepotism in the workplace, while Sandy explored concerns about teachers. President Paula-Mae Weekes was among the judges.
Admittedly dizzy with joy when she heard the results, Stewart told Sunday Guardian she was grateful for the blessing of making history at the Slam for yet another time.
“Writing is a huge part of my life. I constantly invest time, energy and focus into sharpening my skills and mastering the art form. I feel overwhelmingly grateful to Jehovah, my family, and the friends and strangers who continue to cheer me on. The greatest prize is knowing that once again, my poem's message resonated with the audience,” she said.
Part of getting the message through lies in Stewart's ability to change things up. Sometimes the young poet achieves this through mainly content and flow as in her powerful 2019 piece or through the structure of her presentation like her interchanging between the voice-controlled virtual assistant Alexa by Amazon and her own voice in her poem on racism in 2020.
Stewart, third from left, shows off her $50,000 cheque from First Citizens Bank with third-place winner Derron Sandy, second-place winner Kevin
COURTESY CURTIS HENRY
This time around, Steward delivered her winning piece “Anatomy of a Wolf” via the fairytale character Little Red Riding Hood, highlighting the difference between how boys and girls are taught about gender-based violence, and the increasing number of missing women in T&T while the perpetrators hide in plain sight.
“Harmful behaviour (among males) is dismissed with 'boys will be boys', but boys soon become men. When they are excluded from meaningful discussions about gender-based violence, it is easy for cruel thinking and abusive habits to develop.
“My hope is that the poem starts compassionate conversations and that those that are listening pause long enough to consider their place in these issues,” she said.
For the semis, Stewart presented “10 Seconds Before” which she described as a hug and a squeeze for those grappling with thoughts of suicide. Through the piece, she urged anyone thinking of harming themselves to hold on as life gets much better.
The lyrics of her spoken word dance from her lips, carried by a rhythm wrapped in the trials of growing up with a single mother striving to provide for her children, the struggles of a young Afro-Trinidadian woman navigating her way in life, and a consciousness of the problems that pervade the society in which she lives. Her words are fire; her Afro 'do adding to her naturalness on stage.
At Slam, spoken word poets are allowed the barest accessories to colour their performances. Their presentations focused on a single “mic”, it is the vocal and physical energy, charisma and delivery that bring home the pieces. Stewart seems to strike a chord with her audience, including the judges.
A past student of St Joseph's Convent, St Joseph, Stewart's schooling exposed her to the arts, but her writing came naturally. While reading takes her to various worlds and helps her meet many different people, writing allows her to “live a thousand lives,” she said. Despite the heavy subject matter most times, she said she tries to incorporate the good, showing her faith in a better future.
Journeying back to her debut in the Slam, Stewart shared just how she got involved in the expressive, rhythmic poetic art form of the spoken word.
“I was 16 when my mum discovered videos of spoken word poetry on YouTube. I was enraptured; the words were alive and pulsing in a way I’d never seen before. My mother heard about the UWI Open Mic, UWE Speak and challenged me to write something and perform. To that, I replied: why not?
“As a theatre student, I was no stranger to the stage, but there was something deeply personal about sharing a poem; a terrifying nakedness. With shaking knees and a handwritten poem, I stood at the mic for the first time. My friends sat in the audience with bated breath.
“Back then, people threw shoes at your feet if they liked your poem. I was blown away by the large quantity and variety of shoes I received; boots, rubber ding dings, not-so-white sneakers and sparkly sandals. The applause was thunderous and the experience left me exhilarated,” she said.
The 24-year-old worked with the 2 Cents Movement–the original group of artistes who founded the Verses Poetry competition that evolved into the Slam–on school tours and workshops, and still teaches English classes. An MFA in Creative Writing candidate student who focuses on short stories, at present, Stewart has no qualms about trying her hand at arts such as painting, music and jewellery-making.
“I enjoy the process without the pressure of a purpose. Every creative should make room for l'art pour l'art; art for art’s sake,” she said.
And just what keeps her coming back to the Slam?
“I love the heart-pounding excitement, the enthusiastic listeners and the challenge–every year I seek to outperform myself and experiment with new ideas. Sharing the stage with other talented poets, new and old, is both a privilege and a learning experience.”
Stewart also sees the value of the competition as part of “the local spoken word poetry ecosystem.” It identifies issues in society and develops the skills of the artistes themselves, she felt.
“I am glad for the consistent support and investment by First Citizens, Bocas Lit Fest and the audience,” she said.
To upcoming spoken word artists, she advised, “savour your genesis as everyone starts somewhere, seek reward in your work rather than in solely winning titles, exercise the discipline that comes along with being an entrepreneur, and have fun while extending metaphors and serving similes.
“What you plan to say has been said before, but nobody has said it like you will,” she said.
Ever writing, teaching and performing, Stewart plans to conduct free workshops to show appreciation to her supporters, and collaborate with fellow creatives. Also on her bucket list are directing spoken word films and having her own show.