Origin Stories: That Time Andre Fenton Learned the Art of Poetry from YouTube
Just a few days ago, Andre Fenton, a 22-year-old poet and YA author living in Halifax, was chatting with an old friend about their elementary school days. During the conversation, Fenton’s friend reminded him of something he’d almost forgotten: that whenever anyone asked Fenton what he wanted to be when he grew up, his answer was, without fail, “a writer” or “a storyteller.” Fenton was just five years old and his favourite book was a classroom copy of The Frog and the Fly by Leslie Wood.
“When we got our 15 minutes of reading every day, I’d go and grab it,” says Fenton. “The teacher was like, ‘You can’t read that book again.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to read it again.’” And he did.
In junior high, Fenton had to keep a journal and write a new story in it every week. Each story was supposed to be one page long.
“But one weekend, I had a dream where aliens invaded Halifax, so I started writing about that,” he says. “I came back to school with an 80-page, loose leaf-written story.”
He laughs as he thinks about handing in the stack of loose leaf. “The teacher had to read all of them and mark them, and there’s me, the weird kid giving her the 80-page notebook with a story about aliens invading Halifax.”
Fenton continued writing but he didn’t discover his love for poetry until Grade 12, when he took an African Literature class. “Usually when we did poetry sections in high school, it was a lot of poetry by people who died hundreds of years ago,” he says. “But I remember the teacher who did African Lit, he just rolled in the TV for all of us. Over the span of two weeks, we watched an entire season of Def Poetry Jam. I remember watching it and thinking, ‘I really want to try that.’”
So he went for it, learning a lot within a very short period of time by watching poets perform on YouTube. About a month later, he was recording a couple of poems at a recording studio, and El Jones showed up. Someone told her to check out Fenton’s poem. She invited him to a poetry slam that same night at Dartmouth High. At the time, he says he didn’t really know what a poetry slam was. But he agreed to go and soon found himself driving over the bridge, editing his poem with Jones on the way.
When he arrived, he discovered that it was actually finals night at the poetry slam and the top five poets would get to represent Halifax at the 2013 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Montreal. Fenton came in third.
But he didn’t start mapping out his future until 2014, after performing with a friend at Youth Can Slam in Ottawa. “I remember this one night, after indulging in a week of poetry, we were lying in this hotel/dorm room. It was high over the city and we were just talking about what we’d like to do and how far we wanted to go with writing, and planning out our future with spoken word but also publishing,” he says. “I think spoken word has been a good stepping stone for me but I do think that writing young-adult fiction is where my real passion lies. I think, moving forward, that’s the route I want to take.”
Fenton says being at that festival helped him arrive at that decision. “I think it was just being around a lot of young artists that we relate to a lot,” he says. “Just making us feel like there are other people out there like us.”
Relatability and representation are important themes in Fenton’s work. Fenton spent a lot of time reading young-adult novels throughout high school. While the life lessons resonated with him and helped him define the person he is today, he also found that they lacked diversity. “From a Black Nova Scotian perspective, our community can be really underrepresented,” Fenton says. “I think one of the reasons I want to focus on diversity in my fiction is to break those barriers and make stories about us more inclusive, to show that you don’t have to be a certain way to fit in a certain category. I think having stories that people can relate to will bring them a long way.”
He’s already well on his way to achieving that goal; he’s recently signed a contract with Formac Publishing for his first YA title, which is about a young biracial man who is struggling with an eating disorder while juggling his own ideas of self-esteem and romantic relationships. “I think part of breaking barriers is talking about stories that don’t really see the light of day very often,” he says. “Sharing stories of hardship and talking about difficult issues will help people who need to hear them—because they’ll know they aren’t alone.”
Although he’s experienced some of the same challenges his main character is facing, for now Fenton is exactly where he wants to be. “It feels weird being the person you wanted to be when you grew up. I wasn’t really a person who wanted to go outside or play sports. I always wanted to go inside and watch Star Wars or Jurassic Park. And I remember even before the story of the alien invasion, I wrote a lot of fan fiction in notebooks. There are stories in you, you know?”