Aside from being a beautifully warm and generous human being, Jillian Christmas is an accomplished and insanely talented poet, arts organizer and arts educator. She grew up in Markham, Ontario, studied fashion design at school and worked at a fiber optics company in Toronto before pursuing poetry in Vancouver. It’s been six years since Jillian discovered slam poetry and began to nurture her desire to experiment with spoken word.
Now, Jillian performs her poetry on the west coast and around the world. She captivates those fortunate enough to hear her words solo, with her touring partner, Chelsea Johnson, and with her all female band, Late Night Ruckus. Somehow, she finds time to teach poetry workshops in high-schools and universities, mentors youth around Vancouver and is the artistic director for Verses Festival of Words.
Jillian has a natural warmth and openness that makes your day brighter. Dressed in one of her countless polka dot dresses, wearing eyeliner as lipstick to frame her beautifully sincere smile, Jillian writes from her perch on Vancouver’s east side and she isn’t afraid to speak her truth—even if it hurts.
When did you know poetry would be your creative outlet?
Honestly, as early as I identified myself as being anything. I started writing in grade 5 and had some teachers who encouraged my writing—even though I was stowing it away and not letting many people see it. But I knew poetry would be a part of my life and that I wanted to be a poet.
What was your first performance like?
It was terrifying! The first really big slam I did was the Toronto Poetry Slam and I had no idea what to expect because I was used to reading short poems in a tiny café in Kensington Market. There were about 120 people there. I was wearing tall red clunky heels—they were really cute—but they were loud. The stage was wooden and hollow so when I got up there and the nervousness took over, my legs just started vibrating and tapping out like a Morse code—a little SOS on the stage! But I got through the poem, they cheered, and it was a lovely feeling. It had me hooked.
Has it gotten easier?
You learn the benefits of that fear. The nervousness is still there but now I’m grateful for that. It’s a wonderful energy to transport me back into the place where I was when I wrote the poem and to access all of the emotions around it. I’ve learned to use the nervousness.
Jillian won the Vancouver Grand Poetry-Slam Championship in 2012 and 2014. This impressive belt hangs in her living room, a delightful reminder of her accomplishments!
How did you know poetry could be a career rather than a hobby?
There’s the idea that it’s a lovely hobby but not a realistic career goal. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to make my living being a poet. The most important thing to me was having the time to do the things I wanted to do artistically. I got to a point when I recognized I wasn’t going to be happy working a 9-5 job and using my spare time to pursue poetry. I needed more of a focus on it. I kept dreaming of the west coast and it just made sense to combine those two goals. When I arrived in Vancouver, I started doing as many gigs as I could. I got involved with Wordplay, an in-school poetry program run by Vancouver Poetry House, and started collaborating with as many like-minded artists as I could.
What’s your favourite part about being a spoken word poet?
I have lots! But I’m most inspired by my work with youth. If you give young poets the opportunity, they will show you that they have this incredible ability to access honest responses to what’s going on around them, without a lot of filter. Give them a platform to speak their stories and they’ll blow your mind with their fresh ideas. Feeling like I’m providing an opportunity for youth to experience spoken word —that’s really fulfilling.
What was something you struggled with?
In some scenes, I struggled with finding a space for my voice. A lot of poetry that comes out of the slam can be stylized with an almost aggressive delivery. I didn’t feel that it left a lot of room for softer voices. I wanted to take part in carving out a space for that. The initial challenge was being confident enough to acknowledge that this was my form and to not try to fit into any kind of template. It’s important to embrace your own voice, to be unique and genuine. I know that finding a space to do that is a challenge for a lot of marginalized people. I want to continue organizing poetry events and ensure that I make room for those voices. I have that opportunity as artistic director of Verses Festival of Words which is celebrating it’s five year anniversary! The line-up is full of incredible, strong stories that may have been marginalized in some way—but will be taking centre stage at our festival!
How does feminism influence your work?
It’s impossible for it not to, in the same way that my experiences as a black, queer woman will inevitably act as a lens through which all of my work flows. In the past I had a tendency to deliver a lot of friendly stories, perhaps the product of a culture that asks us to be polite and quiet. I started observing some gaps in my writing and the most important of those was talking about my experiences as a black, queer woman as well as my experiences with mental health issues.
How has it been attempting to carve your mark in the world as black queer feminist?
When I was growing up in Markham, there weren’t many people around that looked like me or were sharing the same experience that I was. There may have been similar experiences happening but I felt isolated from the experience of blackness, which I’ve embraced more in my adulthood. I definitely felt ‘othered’ a lot. In elementary school, I remember people staring at what I was eating for lunch, analyzing my appearance and my slight accent which I had picked up from my Caribbean parents. So I had some shame around my identity growing up. When I came to Vancouver, I was introduced to a lot of incredible artists, people of colour who were joined together creating beautiful work about their experiences. These relationships helped me to start celebrating the parts of myself that made me uniquely black and undeniably feminist. It is wonderful to find a community in that, and have space to share those stories that aren’t friendly and can’t be said with a smile.
Jillian performing Black Feminist with her touring partner, Chelsea Johnson, at the Vancouver Poetry Slam last year.
What are you most proud of?
Recently, I’ve been making a conscious effort to embrace a side of myself that in the past I was convinced, inwardly or from external sources, was more of a flaw than a highlight of my personally—that I have a tendency to be really steeped in my emotional self. It can be really difficult. As a woman and survivor managing depression, in most spaces, there is the danger of being discredited for overt emotionality. I did buy into it for a time, thinking it was a weakness. But in recent years, I’ve really tried to embrace it as a fundamental part of my experience and what I have to offer to the world. As a poet, it’s a great resource that allows me to be phenomenally human, to connect with people in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t allow myself access to those emotions. I’m proud of stepping into what I think is my most true self and really celebrating those parts, rather than diminishing them.
Verses Festival of Words runs from April 22nd to May 3rd and takes place at various venues around Vancouver. The line-up is fantastic—take a look by clicking on the image below!
Jillian is also representing Vancouver at the Women of the World Poetry Slam, which takes place in New Mexico in just over a week. We wish her all the luck in the world—even though she doesn’t need it!