Slam poet is breathing through the words and delivering inspiration to a whole generation
Buddy Wakefield is coming to Victoria.
For anyone who’s never heard of him, the signs posted in nearly every coffee shop around the city don’t help much: “Buddy Wakefield is appearing live at the Victoria Event Centre on March 18.” That’s all it says, along with a few important blurbs: “Buddy F*!@#^g Wakefield.” –Ani DiFranco, “Buddy Wakefield.” –Saul Williams, “Buddy Wakefield…” –Mos Def.
It doesn’t tell you Wakefield is the two-time Individual World Poetry Slam Champion featured on NPR, the BBC and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, or that he has shared the stage with nearly every notable performance poet in the world, or that he has been signed to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records.
And it certainly doesn’t tell you that when you hear Wakefield perform, the air trips out of your lungs like that time your best friend sucker-punched you hard in the arm, like when you found out your mom had cancer, like when you fell into your first kiss.
The whole world stops; sucks in air for a moment.
But the poster doesn’t tell you that, or that Victoria is just one of the many stops on his spoken-word world tour this year. And he won’t tell you these things either — even when you ask him. He’ll shift past the humdrum questions everyone doles out about “how do you find your creativity?” and “how did your craft evolve?” What he might tell you about, though, is air.
This past January, Wakefield was asked to give a TEDx Talk on that very subject.
“Everybody, take a deep breath through your nose and into your whole body,” he told the crowd in Utah. “Good. Do it again. OK, now y’all go ahead and continue to do that — forever. You’re gonna need it.”
The only thing Wakefield says he really wants to share with the world is called Vipassana — a Pali word that means to see clearly, “to observe reality as it is, not as you would like it to be,” and it’s a tool that Wakefield has used to transform his own journey.
A friendly reminder: breathe
“I have spent so much of this life eagerly adopting ways to heal all the things that I thought were wrong with me, when all I really needed was a technique like Vipassana. A grounded starting point,” Wakefield says. “Clearly, I have not yet reached enlightenment beyond a few fleeting moments, but I’m trying, and I keep showing up, and I found something here I want you to have — it ain’t much, it’s just the eternal answer.”
Still, he knows not everyone will be a convert.
“For those who may fear change and unusual foreign names, please take note that Vipassana is a technique, not a terrorist,” Wakefield says during his talk. “Vipassana is work; a self-observation operation where mindfulness of breath leads to clearly observing the sensations that make up our personal biology. It’s a practical, reasonable tool that must be experienced, not just rationalized.”
The solution can seem simple, but those who have seen Wakefield perform know that air and breath is everything to the Washington-based, spoken-word magician. Now, he totes his message proudly: “Don’t you dare let something as subjective as a potentially cliché word like ‘meditation’ rip you off from sustainable joy — you’re better than that.”
“The idea is to stop holding on with your neck so tight, to let your head climb back down through your throat and into your body, so it can see just how good you look when you’re not compared to anything,” he says. “Pretend — inside your skin — you’ve got a friend who’s willing to give you everything you ever wanted in exchange for all you’ve ever been. Because you do.”
The first time I’m introduced to Wakefield, a friend on Facebook forwards me a help-wanted ad that the poet has posted for a project needing an expert in chickens, poetry and proofing. The combination makes me laugh: I grew up raising chickens, took poetry as a major in university and have been copyediting my journalistic eyes off since graduation. Instead of sending any kind of CV, I shoot him an email saying how “charmed” I am by the specifics, and how he must have tailor-made the position for me. He agrees.
Maybe I wouldn’t have been so casual had I known what a big deal he is. Maybe it’s better I didn’t have a clue — then.
In the spring of 2001, Wakefield left his position as executive assistant at a biomedical firm in Gig Harbor, Wash., got rid of everything he owned, “moved to the small town of Honda Civic and set out to live for a living.” By 2003, he was touring poetry venues across North America and the world was getting its first taste of the man who would develop the “troubadour movement” of slam poetry. Since then, Wakefield has published his work in dozens of anthologies internationally, and his heart can be found nestled inside his own books through Write Bloody Publishing — including Henhouse, a play on Penthouse for chickens.
But while Wakefield also has three full-length, spoken-word albums to his name (the most recent of which, Live at the Typer Cannon Grand, was released in 2009), performing was never a new concept to the 38-year-old. He’s been a busker in Amsterdam, a lumberjack in Norway, a street vendor in Spain, a team leader in Singapore, a re-delivery boy, a candy maker, a street sweeper, a bartender, a maid, a construction worker, a bull rider and a triathlete. And he has the fan base to prove it. Wakefield has been hailed “the modern poetry slam role model,” and it’s a sentiment that is carried by members of Victoria’s slam community.
“It is a true honour to go from watching someone like Buddy Wakefield on YouTube to getting to open for him this time,” says Jeremy Loveday, who will perform along with Matthew Christopher Davidson (MCD) as Roadside Dogs. This will be the second time Loveday has had a chance to share the stage with Wakefield, and says it was a “huge moment” in his career when the poet was last in town in 2011.
Loveday, who is the director of youth outreach for the Victoria Poetry Project and the mentor for Victoria’s youth poet laureate, acknowledges that his own style has drawn inspiration from Wakefield, though he says no matter how many times he performs, nerves are still a relevant part of the process.
“I always have to be in a certain state of nervousness in order to perform well. If my stomach isn’t turning in knots, just a little, I won’t have the energy I need to share what I can,” Loveday says. “But something tells me that won’t be a problem at all for this performance.”
If breathing through nerves is a reality for Wakefield, he could fool any audience out of thinking so.
“I have heard, that if you pull a bent breath through the second hole of a harmonica, tuned to the key of Georgia, while a train moves by on the tail end of dusk, there is a good chance we will finally know what it means to rest,” he says. “We, we have not yet rested.” M
See Buddy Wakefield perform Mon., March 18 at the Victoria Event Centre (1415 Broad). Doors 7:30pm, show 8pm. Tickets $15/$12 students advance, $18/$14 students at the door, available at Solstice Café or by calling 250-220-1686. Learn more about the poet at buddywakefield.com.