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Holly Painter

Holly Painter

Holly's poetry adventures began in 2011 when she first competed on stage at a local poetry slam. Since that first nervous performance, she has become a three-time Grand Slam Champion and Director of the London Poetry Slam, the National Director of Spoken Word Canada, and represented London at four national spoken word festivals. Taking her love of poetry into schools and the community, Holly has spoken to over 50,000 students at 60+ schools across Ontario and worked with over 50 community organizations.

Using poetry to share the messages of "speak your truth" and "show the love", Holly engages and inspires people searching for their own voice. Holly's personal stories shed light on her past struggles to be herself and remain strong in the face of adversity, and she shares those experiences through poetry to encourage and empower others. Holly speaks on topics such as diversity and inclusion, mental health, bullying and violence prevention, and art as a powerful advocacy tool.

What inspires you to write?

Initially what inspired me to write was a need to speak on things I hadn’t shared before, primarily some difficulty I had faced around coming out and my parents’ divorce. I discovered spoken word and slam at a time that I had a lot to say and didn’t know how exactly to begin saying it, and poetry really helped with that. Over time, I moved from solely looking inward for inspiration and begin to write on the world around me, things I wanted to see changed, advocating for different causes. I think we have incredible power with what we say, both to ourselves and others, and I realized I could make a difference through spoken word.

You mentioned that you were very nervous to get involved in the Slam Poetry scene. How did you overcome your fear?

By finally just doing it! The power and inspiration of watching other people get up on stage every month at the slam pushed me to try, and the incredible respect and support of the audience made me feel comfortable, albeit still nervous, the first time around. I think there is a difference between truly not wanting to do something, and being nervous but still compelled towards something. Recognizing when there is a push inside you to try something even if it makes you a bit scared helps you realize overcoming your nerves will be worth it. And like most things, the nerves of public speaking eventually went away as I did it more and more.

How has sharing your story changed you?

The biggest change is just the fact that I started speaking on things that I had always kept inside, primarily about being gay. The slam is a place where people’s identities and stories are respected and I knew it was safe to be myself there. Beyond that, as I started performing more and more, and sharing more stories of my experiences, I realized that we have an incredible power to help others if we are willing to be vulnerable ourselves. Poetry is the way I can speak not only on things that have been difficult for me, but on the light on the other side. As I have grown, my work has grown, and it’s interesting to see the poems I have written and shared over the years and how far I have come, as an artist and a person.

Who are your biggest influences?

Poetry-wise I’ve been fortunate enough to meet spoken word artists from across the country, see what they are writing about and doing in their communities, and get inspiration from the national community. Poets like Canadian Shane Koyczan and Andrea Gibson from the States remain inspiration from the beginning of my poetry journey. But I think my partner is one of my biggest influences outside the poetry world because she helps ease my self-doubt while also pushing me when I’m making excuses or taking the easy road. I think the best people you can surround yourself with are those who support you unconditionally but also will speak honestly if they think you can do better.

You are a really busy person. What do you do to take care of yourself? What are your go to coping mechanisms?

The biggest thing for me is having down time. Although I’m a public speaker, and pretty active in the community, I’m actually a huge introvert and get very drained when spending a lot of time around other people. So I have to be aware of my schedule, not overbook myself, and know when I have some down time at night or on the weekends to recharge. Recently I have also been trying to sit down for 10 minutes in the morning and make a note of my day, making sure there’s balance between work, to-dos, relationships, down-time, and fun, and scheduling one or two specific little things to accomplish each day instead of being overloaded with everything and not knowing where to start (and therefore procrastinating).

What was your most challenging moment and how did you make it through?

My biggest challenge moments have been when I’ve struggled personally with tough life experiences. Coming out, dealing with a major depressive episode, tough break ups, and losing a woman I knew to domestic violence have all impacted me greatly, but have all made me much stronger as a person overall. Making it through involved surrounding myself with a variety of supports, including friends and family, community support at the slam, having a therapist, at one point taking medication, and of course the creative outlet in writing. Every person will have different supports they need and have access to depending on their situation, but I have been very fortunate to get help in a variety of ways in the different difficult situations I have faced.

What would you say to a youth who is struggling?

That’s a really big question because every individual’s journey is so different, but I try to encourage youth to look at support in three sections:

1. What they can do for themselves in terms of healthy activities that they know make them feel better or help take their mind off things (from colouring, puzzles, or reading, to playing sports/doing yoga, playing an instrument, or volunteering)

2. What people they have immediately around them who are supportive and they can connect to regularly (this might have to be figured out as you go, but can include family, friends, teachers/coaches/mentors, etc)

3. What is available in the broader community, including counselling/support groups, drop-in mental health support hours, text/phone crisis lines, web resources, etc. It can be hard to know exactly what is available all the time and how you can access each service, but this leads to my main advice for anyone which is to look at these three elements when things are good (and encourage others to do so as well), and create a list of all your supports. That way, when things aren’t as easy, the list is already there and you don’t have to spend additional energy remembering who said you could talk to them or searching for community resource information and phone numbers.

Are there any go to mantras that you say to yourself when life feels overwhelming?

My favourite lately with my partner is ‘We’ll figure it out’. It sounds rather simple, but whether with a partner, your family, a group of friends, etc., knowing that whatever happens, whatever challenges you’re faced with, that there are people who will work together with you to move forward, is powerful. It may take a long time, there may be ups and downs along the way, but day by day, hour by hour even, together, you’ll figure it out, and come out stronger on the other side.

What is your proudest moment?

One of my proudest moments was performing poetry at an assembly at my old high school on my 31st birthday. It was incredible to be back in a space where I had never truly been myself and then get up on stage speaking on the very things I had kept secret. It was also after a really tough breakup, and it was so fulfilling to know that I had a passion that could never be taken away from me, something that brings me so much joy and support. Some of my former teachers were there as well, and it was so incredible to share my passion and have the crowd sing happy birthday on top of it all! It was also the only assembly to date that I have been able to organize having youth perform alongside me, speaking to their peers about what is important to them through poetry, which was so incredible.

What’s next for you?

In 2018 I am working on a new project called ‘Little Things’ (I haven’t told anyone that yet!) that will involve new poems, videos, and a chapbook, all with focus on collaboration and community. I have been very blessed to have a lot of interest in and support for my work so far, but with that has come a lot of self-consciousness and worry that I won’t be able to live up to what I’ve already done. This new project will be a movement into the next chapter of my life, both literally and creatively, and I hope to not only share the final products with people, but the journey along the way as well. The goal is to collaborate with some cool local artists, write what’s true to me, create experiences in my community that go beyond poetry, and just enjoy the process and try to forget about my own and others’ expectations.

Any words to live by?

“Speak Your Truth” & “Show the Love”, mottos from the London Poetry Slam that I incorporated into my work... be true to yourself, but also go out of your way to be kind, respectful, and empathetic of others along the way.

Photo by Jenny Jay of The Double Jay Collective