Sunday Newsday chatted with Sylvester about his journey into spoken word during an interview last week.
The 23 year-old, originally from Cap-de-Ville, Point Fortin, and former student of St Benedict’s College, La Romaine, grew up reading a lot because of his English teacher mother.
“I had to read a lot. Primary School days was a lot of reading.
No video games. Was books, books, books,” he explained.
At age 18 he started writing on his own though he was “not sure where was heading”. In 2013 he heard spoken word poetry on radio as part of the Free Speech Project and was inspired. A student of University of Southern Caribbean (USC) he performed spoken word in 2014 at “USC Speak”. The piece was called “Donnie-B (judging a book by its cover)”. It was about him a male looking at a female and how she is dressed and judging based on perception but not through her eyes.
On performing Sylvester said sometimes you do not get the reception you expect and you may get nervous and forget lines.
“It is always a challenge. Writing is the easy the part of it,” he said, noting that writing is also difficult.
His first performance, however, was the “smoothest” he ever had as he had written it the previous year, had “every line down pat” and practice a lot. It was a short, two and a half minute poem, but it took him seven minutes as he had to wait on crowd responses to die down.
“Apparently I am good at this,” he recalled thinking.
He had not expected such a response and going forward he was encouraged to join spoken word organisation The 2 Cents Movement, the creators of the poetry slam.
In 2015 he auditioned for First Citizens National Poetry Slam. He was trying it out and was shocked when he made it to the semi-finals.
“I just auditioned to say I auditioned,” he explained, Sylvester lamented, however, that for the semi-finals he “did not rise to the occasion”. He recalled that he wrote a piece which he did not feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to perform or write. He said the piece, “I am ignorant” was giving lot of trouble to perfect and even up to the day of semis he was taking off lines and putting in. He also forget some lines on the day.
After that experience he began thinking about what to do to better his writing and himself. He recalled at the cocktail party for finalist he spoke to some of judges, soaked up all the constructive criticism and “began writing to suit since then”.
He signed up for the 2016 edition of the slam and once again made it past the preliminaries and into the semifinals. And it was at the semis that he created social media waves with a poem in tribute of Desha.
The inspiration came in 2015 when he did not make it past the semis.
He was watching the TV6 news and thinking about preparing for next year.
“That idea just hit me. You know if I write a poem on Desha Rambhajan that would be great,” he recalled.
So he jotted down the idea and a few lines, building a foundation.
He held back on the ode until the semifinals.
“I had poem waiting and just delivered,” he said.
He explained that he knew how some of the responses would be going in to the performance and anticipated reactions of the crowd.
He recalled it was a good experience and everything he planned and prepared “turned out exactly as I hoped”.
He did not expect, however, how the performance would “blow up after”. He recalled then following day 2 Cents Founder Jean Claude-Cournand messaged and asked for the poem. Then “everyone” started sharing it and the next morning he was being interviewed on TV6 Morning Edition and on the news that night. During the morning show Rambhajan called and told him she liked the poem.
“Everything happened so fast”,” he said.
Sylvester recalled that the exposure added a lot of pressure on him going into the finals. For the finals he had two poems but was not sure which one to go with it. He decided to merge the two because one of poems “the starting did not have a good effect” but it had a good ending and second was vice versa.
He also had some sessions at 2 Cents where other poets bounced ideas off one other and they would practice pieces in front of each other and give constructive criticism.
Sylvester said the rehearsals helped him a lot going into the finals.
For the poem he was inspired by a campaign called “books over guns” which included the 2 Cents Movement. His poem has a similar idea of choosing books over death and he was waiting for the right poem to put it in and “Books Over Death”, about overcoming a gangster mentality, was born.
At the finals, held on May 1 at Globe Cinema, Port-of-Spain, Sylvester performed at number six of the 13 spoken word poets, all seeking to dethrone defending champ Akile Wallace. It was judged by Wendell Manwarren, Nailah Imoja, Laurence Breiner, Nicholas Sosa and chief judge, Paul Keens-Douglas.
“It was really an intoxicating experience.
All the poets performed at a high level from start to finish,” he recalled.
Sylvester said they never knew who was going to win as everyone was so good and appreciated each other’s pieces.
“I have never been in an atmosphere like that in my life,” he added.
For his performance he recalled that he executed it well though there were some minor mispronunciations, and rearranging of words and lines he had to do on the spot.
“All in all I executed it as I wanted it,” he said.
When he reviewed the video he was not satisfied but said that you will never have a perfect performance.
Sylvester took home the $20,000 top prize and when it was announced that he won he was not expecting it. He recalled being overjoyed and “overcome with emotion”.
“I really couldn’t speak anything,” he said.
In the crowd were family, friends, co-workers and members of the public who had been supporting him from since the semi-finals and the Desha poem. He recalled his mother, Sumaria Alice-Lucas Sylvester, was overjoyed and had been praying a lot for him. His father, Anthony Sylvester, “always believed in me”. He told him that he was just getting himself ready for blessings.
“He tell me I have a long way to go still but glad I getting myself in order,” he said.
As champion he will be automatically entered in the finals of the slam for 2017 and Sylvester said that may work to his advantage. He has not begun working on his 2017 poem yet but has been working on some new poems as he has a break from school. He also has a lot of gigs next few months.
Asked whether he would do a poetry collection in the future Sylvester said in a few years as he “still a baby like this” and learning new things every day.
“Taking it one step at a time,” he added. Asked who he would like to thank he thanked the Almighty God “for getting me there” and pointed out there had been a lot of prayers and faith and obedience.
He encouraged people to have faith and trust in the Lord.
“Doing something is better than doing nothing,” he added.