Stepping onto the stage as a performer of any discipline for the first time can be nerve shattering. Reciting honest spoken word can be even more daunting. You’re opening your heart and emotions up to a room full of strangers, and in a lot of cases baring your soul.
“It’s the easiest part, being that vulnerable,” explains Felicia Olusanya, aka Felispeaks. “I think that if I was ever to get on stage and not be raw or honest or open it would be very obvious to everybody that I’m pretending… And I’m bad at pretending. So the only alternative is that when I’m up there on stage it’s to be as open and honest as possible. Why am I sharing my thoughts if I can’t share my personality… They come linked together.
“It’s funny, whenever I’m on stage and I’m really vulnerable and I’m revealing parts of myself and sometimes telling secrets, whenever I get off stage I’m kind of like, ‘Did I really say that?’ and I still feel like they don’t know me. Because I opened a box to Section A of my life and you’re free to view, but I still get to walk off stage with the rest of me intact.”
Feli’s popularity has been rising in tandem with the resurgence in demand for spoken word in Ireland. Poetry is in this country’s blood. Pubs and streets are named after laureates of old and the echoes of their work can still be heard in every corner of the arts here. But there has been a tangible shift in recent years, with a wider audience having a thirst for the spoken word. Feli believes it’s a sense of inquisitiveness that’s drawing people in.
“When something feeds into your curiosity it levels into a trend. Everybody else wants to know what makes it special and why all of their friends are going to it.”
For the Nigeria-born, Longford-raised, Maynooth native, being a poet happened almost by accident.
“I started writing pretty young, at about 11 or 12 and at first I started writing in diary format. I didn’t realise I was writing poetry for a really long time. I first got into performance in college. I found it easy to transition into the spoken word world, because after the competitions in college I just kept going, finding little spoken word spots. I think my first big exposure after the intervarsities was Bello Bar. I was just hooked ever since.”
Over the past few years this small basement venue underneath a local’s favourite pub called The Lower Deck has become a magnet for not only poets, but for forward thinking artists of all disciplines. One crew that made this spot their temporary home was Word Up Collective, a group of writers, poets, rappers and musicians. It was through Word Up that Feli would truly find her feet. A place where she “could shine as a spoken word artist amongst all different kinds of people”, a place where “everybody’s talent was important”.
“I was thrown into the deep end, I wasn’t expecting it. I went to support a few friends, who were kicking it, they had a rehearsal space in Bello Bar. There was going to be a gig on later that evening so I was just sitting in. A friend of mine said to Annette (Udell) who runs Word Up Collective, ‘Oh! She writes poetry!” and Annette turned to me and said, ‘Ok, you’re performing tonight’. I was really shocked and didn’t have any poems on me, so I literally had to write a poem on the spot with an hour to go. I performed it that evening… And Annette was in the bathroom when I performed that poem… I was like, ‘For fuck sake’. But she told me to come back next week. So I got a taste that day and I was ready the following week. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a rush like that before.”
While Bello has a certain slick-for-a-dive-bar polish to it, not every hub for this new wave of poetry is quite as aesthetically appealing. But for Feli, it’s the flaws where true character lies.
“The International Bar is another place. I remember the first time I walked in there I was like, ‘Everyone here is a weirdo… I love it’. I remember going into this dingy-looking basement, all the chairs were on top of each other, there was a funny-looking bar… I loved it. But I like that. The imperfections of Dublin city itself reflects on the citizens and it’s so enjoyable to watch and see people with all their cracks that resemble the city. Even when you’re spitting poetry and somebody messes up, the cracks are part of the performance.”
Another passion Felispeaks has is her quest for social justice, something that feed directly into her creative work. As well as speaking about love and life, her poems about the issues young people face often get the most rapturous applause at her performances.
She received a standing ovation at St. Patrick’s Day in 2016, leaving mouths ajar with her carefully constructed pieces. She performed at a Repeal The 8th Amendment benefit in the famous Olympia Theatre, and at radical theatre group This Is Pop Baby’s Riot at Vicar Street, Dublin Fringe Festival’s Requiem For Truth.
So, why does she feel it’s important as an artist to be vocal about positive social change?
“The importance of an artist is to reflect the time that they’re living in. I’d be doing a disservice to myself as well as the community I’m in to not speak about issues that are happening and that affect me as a person. I would be wasting my talent, because a lot of my words would end up being superfluous and have no meaning or substance. To mark myself in history as part of Dublin I do need to speak about important issues. They’re so heavy on my heart as well.”
But it’s not wholly selfish. There’s a catharsis in exploring these concepts.
“When I perform a subject or an issue that has been bothering me or is in the news and I release that on stage I feel like I’ve done something right. Then I can put my pen down and start all over again.
“Sometimes it’s not even about me when I’m performing. The subject might be important but it might not touch me in the slightest, but I realise that somebody needs this and somebody needs to hear it. It’s so warming after I get off the stage and somebody is like, ‘I needed that, thank you so much’.”