Kirk DeMatas is a Toronto-born poet and the author of two poetry collections, Wordspeak and Conversations with Skeletons. He has performed on television, radio and in various venues across Toronto, and frequently collaborates with fellow artists on music, video, film and dance projects. Kirk took time out from his current project — a third book — to talk to the BWS Blog about his work.
BWS: You often perform your poetry with musical accompaniment, (as you will at BWS on July 9!). Do you still read it unaccompanied? How do you find the approaches compare? What do you find the music brings to the poems? And what are the biggest challenges that come with reading poems to musical accompaniment?
Kirk: I like to mix things up when I read for an audience, so I tend to read a few pieces unaccompanied and then have a few pieces with musical accompaniment. I enjoy the variety and I especially enjoy seeing the reactions in the crowd when I call up Scott Taylor and Jeff Beaudoin of The Blackwater Project. My voice is naturally soft, so when I read my poetry without accompaniment, there is a vulnerability that comes through easily, but when I am accompanied by music, I find that my voice takes on a harder, rougher edge. The music adds another layer of feeling and tone to the pieces. I grew up watching a lot of big entertainers put on full shows with lights, dancers, background singers, and video clips, so I try to incorporate a super-compact version of that showmanship. The biggest challenge for me is timing. I can’t rush ahead or slow down to a crawl when I recite because I have to listen to the music and go with the flow — otherwise all those rehearsals in the studio were for nothing!
BWS: You work in many different media and forms: poetry and music, obviously, but also dance, dramatic arts, film, video and more. How do you pick your projects? And do you find it hard to choose which material goes into which medium? Do you experiment much, or do you always know which form will best fit which idea?
Kirk: The ideas usually pick the medium right from the start. I like to experiment and try new methods to express myself or to express an idea. I enjoy the challenge and rarely, if ever, does a project “fail,” because if I express what I need or want to, and everything turns out as I envisioned, then that is success to me.
BWS: One striking thing about your poetry is its focus on personal identity – “Witness Me” and “I,” for instance, talk about the struggle to know, to have, to protect one’s identity, not to mention one’s right to it. Tell us more about how and why identity figures so prominently in your work.
Kirk: I was raised in a Catholic household and though my parents did not groom me to become a priest, I did consider travelling up the ranks of the Church, even so far as taking my first steps by becoming a Eucharist Minister. However, my true identity had been suffering in silence (in the closet) like so many before. We are all complex individuals and I was frustrated that I was unable to exist openly and completely as a full person. I was frustrated that even though many around me openly expressed their disgust toward “modern-day” racism, some of those same individuals became extremely quiet when the topic of homophobia was brought up. When I finally came out to friends, I felt that sense of euphoria that I had heard my older gay male friends talk about. Not that this feeling of happiness and relief was directly related to whether or not friends accepted me, but moreso, that I was able to verbally express my identity, regardless of the opinions of others. Knowing who I am has given me so much power to not just exist, but to actually create my life. I think it is important that each and every one of us embarks upon a personal journey to discovering or clarifying identity.
BWS: Is there a difference in your poetry between “a” personal identity and “your” personal identity? Would you say your work largely comes from your own personal experience, self-discovery, etc.? If so, do you find it intimidating to put so much of yourself out there?
Kirk: I have written poetry that comments on the experiences of others, as well as social issues, but the bulk of my poetry is still autobiographical. When I was younger, if I was upset about something, sometimes the only way for me to feel better was to exorcise those negative feelings by writing them down. The more I wrote about my feelings, the better I understood myself. So even now, if I feel that urge to get a particular feeling out of my system, I have to comply. It can be intimidating to be naked on the page for others to see, but it can also be liberating. I have always been inspired by artists, singers and musicians who turned to their crafts to express their feelings, because at times, those pieces moved and comforted me. I would feel honoured if even one of my poems was able to connect with another person in a meaningful way.
BWS: And what about the identity you performed for Conversations with Skeletons? What is the image or character you’re portraying on the book cover, and what does it mean?
Kirk: Conversations with Skeletons was probably my most artistically fulfilling, emotionally exhausting, exhilarating, terrifying and cathartic project to date. The bird that is painted over my right eye is the sankofa, a West African symbol that states that before one can move forward successfully in the present and the future, one must look back to the past, to learn and make peace with it. I looked at 30 experiences that I considered self-defining or life-defining for me and I wrote each piece imagining that I was still in the moment. This was my catharsis. I travelled to the darkest places I could imagine in the hope that I would learn and make peace, and then come out at the other end of the tunnel and walk right into the light. Ironically, that is exactly what happened. I wrote this for my nephews so that when they grow older and experience the pain of heartbreak or other life lessons, they can look at me and see that I made it and find this same strength within themselves. If this book helps my nephews, my own future kids or anyone else to recognize their self-worth and power to take control of life, then my job is done.