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Q & A with Brendan McLeod

Brendan McLeod is a Canadian writer, spoken word artist, and musician. He is also the founder of The Fugitives, a folk group signed to Light Organ Records, that tours internationally and have been nominated for multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a Western Canadian Music Award. He is a former Canadian SLAM poetry champion and World SLAM runner-up. He’s taught spoken word at Langara College, and is an active youth educator with a variety of organizations, including: Wordplay, Prologue, and the Vancouver Biennale.  He was the 2012 Poet of Honor at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and the 2015 Poet of Honour at the Victoria Spoken Word Festival.

He performs his most recent work, Brain, an award-winning monologue on consciousness, friendship, and mental illness which maps his own experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder, on November 17th 2016 at the Chan Centre’s Telus Studio Theatre as part of the Beyond Words series.

Here, Brendan tells us a bit about how Brain came to be, his work with youth, and performing poetry at a bachelor party in a basement.


How did you become interested in poetry and performance? When did you discover that this is what you wanted to do?

Brendan McLeod: I always wanted to be a writer, though that’s taken multiple forms. I first got into spoken word just by passing a cafe while it was happening — some guy in a weird hat going off on a microphone. I walked in and listened and was enthralled and wondered if I could do it. So a few weeks later I went to a SLAM poetry event and tried my hand. What I loved about it off the jump was how quickly you could see if something worked. If an audience member thought something was funny they’d laugh and if they thought it was sad they’d emote and if they didn’t like you they’d scowl. So I really appreciated the instant feedback. It streamlined my editing process.


Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind Brain?

BM: I think I wanted to explore mental health in a direct, honest, and upbeat way.  I am in favour of any initiative that brings mental health to the forefront, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of issue that benefits from hashtag accounts. If we want to get real as a society about dealing with mental health we have to get more holistic about the way we discuss it. So we have to get comfortable hearing the personal, uncomfortable, gross, devious, hilarious ways it takes hold of people, accustom ourselves to separating those manifestations from the people themselves, and thereby recognize it as a legit illness. I wanted this show to present an opportunity for that.


What has been the most rewarding part about your work with young people?

BM: The lack of cynicism. The typical hit against teenagers is they don’t care about the world and they’re snarly and zoned out. That’s not been my experience working with youth. Quite the opposite. They seem to care about the world far more than adults. Which makes sense because they have to live in it for longer.


What’s your ultimate piece of advice for youth you work with?

BM: I think it’s contextually dependent on what they are looking for. Mainly, I just try to listen. And then I tell them, in terms of art, to write everyday. Which is really all you need.


What role have the arts played in navigating your own experience with mental health?

BM: I don’t know. I don’t even know most of the time what part of me is mentally ill and what part is just tired or grumpy or lazy. OCD is insiduous. It always infects my personality and behaviour in different ways. It’s a constant battle, but also a constant opportunity to learn about myself. The best I can do is try not to shrink from that.


In addition to your work as a writer and spoken word artist, you are also a musician with The Fugitives. What does music mean to you?

BM: Like most people, it’s where I go to express profound sadness and/or joy. Writing is very linear to me. It’s mostly argumentation, even if it’s poetry. Music is a bit more nebulous. If I don’t have the words for an emotion, sometimes I find I have a melody for it.


You have performed extensively across Canada and internationally. Do you have a particularly memorable moment?

BM: I once performed poetry for a stag. In a basement. And I was a surprise for the groom. I remember that gig pretty well.


Tue Oct 18, 2016