Alexa, who is the 2020 First Citizens National Poetry Slam winner?
Alexandra Stewart may still be asking her virtual AI assistant that question this morning, after her history-making repeat win at what proved a keenly contested final.
The Poetry Slam, traditionally one of the most anticipated showcases of the recently concluded NGC Bocas Literary Festival, was broadcast live on TV6 and livestreamed on www.tv6tnt.com on Sunday evening. The tenth edition of Bocas Lit Fest was staged virtually on Facebook and YouTube, last weekend, due to ongoing restrictions of the Covid-19 global pandemic.
“I am speechless, wow, wow,” a shocked Stewart told Morning Edition host Fazeer Mohammed yesterday morning, after the results were announced live on TV6.
“I know you’re supposed to have witty things to say as a poet, but I just feel so thrilled. I’m so grateful to have been able to be here and to say a piece that was important to me and important to the people that heard it. I think when you go into a competition so focused on just delivering your poem you don’t even have a chance to think about the results. Now the results are out and I’m…” Stewart continued before trailing off into an overwhelmed sigh.
A racist vs a robot
Stewart’s thought-provoking, witty conversation between herself and the Android AI Alexa about the hot-button topic of racism won her the competition’s $50,000 first prize. She asked: “Alexa, what is the difference between a racist and a robot?”
“Robots are programmed. Alexa that’s a similarity. Racists are programmed to see superiority in their reflection. To think their actions are nothing to reflect on. To sit, stone still, in stasis and listen to a playlist of the same old script. Till they slip, lips unzip and they spit, words sicker than a Covid cough,” Stewart scoffed, no doubt receiving thousands of virtual snaps in the process.
Focusing on the recent instances of police killings of allegedly unarmed men both here in T&T and abroad she turned to Alexa for more answers.
“Do they only desire to seem rewired when the shots they fired get them fired?” she postulated.
Stewart questioned the humanity in referring to humans as cockroaches. Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith has in the past promised to squash the criminal element in this country like cockroaches. The daughter of a prominent businessman recently got into hot water for a Facebook post that referred to people of African descent in this country in a similar manner.
“Perhaps it’s that autocorrect will never subject you to the disrespect of being called an insect. That a robot could distinguish between a person and a cockroach while a racist thinks that all brown bodies look like something to crush with a shoe, or a knee, or a neck.
“Alexa, can you imagine a world without skin. Would we finally see that we are the same within? That we arrived on different vessels but inside our blood is carried by the same vessels,” Stewart said.
Exploring personal pain
Comedian Kevin Soyer and Ahmad Abdullah-Muhammad pulled the bandage off and picked at old personal wounds during two moving displays. The two finished second and third respectively ahead of a competitive field of 13 bards that including perennial finalists Red Frederick, Seth Sylvester and Shineque Saunders.
The disabled Soyer explored the moments following his hospitalisation and subsequent diagnosis of the rare spinal disorder transverse myelitis. The affable funny-man was diagnosed with the neurological disorder, which often damages the insulating material covering nerve cell fibres (myelin), in 2013.
Transverse myelitis interrupts the messages that the spinal cord nerves send throughout the body. This can cause pain, muscle weakness, paralysis, sensory problems, or bladder and bowel dysfunction.
“The state I was in was serious when that nurse told me to ‘breathe’. Paralysis pressed its elbows into my chest, cradling its face, waiting for the rest of life to drain from me, but at that’s nurse’s behest, ah breathe. And that’s the first time I remember breathing on purpose and it so many ways I’ve been breathing on purpose ever since,” Soyer said.
The ever optimistic performer called on all those in similar physical and mental anguish to take a second to breathe.
“Maybe you think yuh life over already and you just taking in front. Maybe yuh heard this so many times already in this suicide prevention month, but I just want you to breathe,” Soyer said, his words heavy with deep knowing.
Abdullah-Muhammad unearthed an equally gut-wrenching pain when he spoke of the helpless feeling of being a young boy witnessing his mother’s abuse at the hands of his stepfather.
“She was number one for most things in meh life even the person to hate. I was too, young to remember when my father left. Right when he did she already had four kids, pregnant with one more, all boys. And in a world when we need men to help raised the gifts given, when we wanted to be wrapped in love, she was the only parent present,” Abdullah-Muhammad said through clenched teeth.
Abdullah-Muhammad spoke about the pain of losing two of those siblings to kidney disease. Talk about losing siblings to kidney disease and reaching boiling point with his family’s abuser.
“I was 14 when ah chop up ah man for meh mother and she bawl ‘noooo doh do him that’. I was 16 when she died from complications of a broken heart but on paper it said HIV. I was 16 when she said all I ever do is love that man yuh know. Yuh father. And yuh look just like him,” Abdullah-Muhammad said, his words cutting through the silence.
His final words would have been met with more still tongues and snapping fingers.
“It take meh 17 years, now I’m 33 and today years old telling meh story in meh first therapy session,” he concluded.
First Citizens National Poetry Slam Results
1. Alexandra Stewart
2. Kevin Soyer
3. Ahmad Abdullah-Muhammad