She might seem like just another comedian who has found her way to Toronto, but as her website boasts, Bonez Poley is a multidisciplinary artist, an activist, and a seasoned adventurer who leads a colourful life.
She spoke to Woodstein Media about everything from her wild antics on and off stage fronting thrash bands to her self-deprecating humour. She offered a lot of discerning opinions in between.
“If you are not happy in a job, it’s not worth it,” said Poley. “People like us are resourceful, so there is always a way to get by. Worry does not ever accomplish anything, so it’s much better to be blindly confident. You are going to have way better success that way.”
She was always passionate about music from a young age but was discouraged from being musical as a kid.
“So, I just grew up thinking that I had no musical ability and couldn’t make music,” said Poley. “But I just loved it, and when I found punk, it saved my life.”
It reinforced the ideals that she already had. Ideals adults told her she was crazy for having but finding a whole genre of music that supported her way of thinking was empowering.
“Thank God, someone else out there thinks this, so I fell in love with punk at a young age, and that was my life,” said Poley.
Her lifestyle revolved around going to punk shows, punkfest and hanging out with punks, but it wasn’t until her early 20s that she realized she could do it if she wanted to make music.
“I don’t need someone to tell me that I can, or I’m good,” said Poley. “I was like, you can just learn. I’m going to do that.”
And learn she did, her antics with her first band Cuntscumb became legendary in Canadian punk scenes.
“I regret nothing,” said Poley. “Cuntscumb was as much a performance art piece as it was a band. I’ve always been an artist. I’ve dabbled in a lot of different art forms. I’ve always been very weird, very expressive. I think for me, Cuntscumb, not only was it a great outlet to be as weird as I wanted, but because on some level, I still believed I didn’t have the musical ability, I thought, if I’m going to be in a band it has to be more than just a band. I have to compensate for the fact that I’m not talented by doing all this other stuff.”
That being said, she doesn’t feel she was only an intense performer because she was compensating.
“I wanted to,” said Poley. “I enjoy being that weird. I enjoyed exploring all the different ways we could go with our stage performance. I enjoyed getting a reaction from people, and I’ve always been that way. Even before I was in bands, I just went around and messed with strangers in public. I just enjoy being weird and shaking things up.”
She described getting into comedy as random, not calculated.
Poley was in between bands and missed the thrill of being on stage. Then she watched a friend who was doing stand-up comedy at an amateur night.
“I watched a bunch of the comics and was like, I could probably be funnier than most of these people, so I wrote a set and tried it out,” she said. “The first time I did it, I absolutely loved it. I loved it way more than I expected to, and it was an addiction from there on.”
There are some critical differences between Poley’s stage antics in music and being a comic.
“When you are in a band, there are several people on stage, and there is always lots happening, and when you are doing comedy, it’s like you are naked,” she said. “It’s just you, and that is it.”
That made it more nerve-racking at first, less so now that she’s been doing it for seven years.
“You will still have nights when you just bomb,” said Poley. “There will be nights when things don’t resonate, and you very much have to get used to that feeling. It’s easy to take it personally when you are alone, and you are like, ‘wow, this entire room full of people fucking hate me.’ It’s an intense feeling. You learn not to take it personally when it doesn’t go well, and then you stroke your ego when it does.”
When the subject turned to money as a comedian, she said, “comedy is a weird beast.”
“For the first couple of years, when you do comedy, you make zero money – zero,” said Poley. “Then, after a few years, if you are doing well and working hard, you can expect to start getting some paying gigs. I do, and I was starting to get quite a few before moving to Toronto.”
She was hitting multiple different cities every week, so she thought she would be able to make a living off comedy in Toronto.
“That’s not the case,” said Poley. “There is less money in Toronto for comedy. There are tonnes of gigs here. Tonnes and tonnes and tonnes, it’s so easy to be doing five gigs a week for a few months straight, but a lot of them don’t pay, or the ones that do pay don’t pay very much.”
So, people have told her she has to go out of town to get paid.
“I’m like, that’s what I was doing. I came here because I thought this was the hotspot,” she said. “But at the same time, it is. With comedy, it’s important to practice as often as possible in front of a live audience because, unlike any other art form, you need the audience to improve.”
Poley said music and painting are arts that can be practiced and improved in solitude.
“I’m using both of those examples because I do both of those things, but with comedy, you lose your chops so quickly if you are not in front of a crowd regularly,” she said. “In that regard being in Toronto is still really good for me because I’m getting better, faster now that I’m here.”
It’s not impossible to make money here, but Poley estimated over 1000 comedians in Toronto competing for those paid gigs. Like most comedians who need to make money, she has started acting.
“It’s still related,” she said. “The two skillsets help strengthen each other, and it’s better than having a fucking real job.”
When asked if people might recognize her in movies or TV shows, she said, “Nothing major.” Then she paused, adding the word, “yet.”
“Emphasis on the word yet,” said Poley. “I am currently working on a top-secret project, but I think it will be pretty exciting.”
Since she was a kid, she questioned the norm.
“I’ve always felt compelled to fight against injustice where I see it and stand up for anyone oppressed,” said Poley. “I’ve organized tonnes of different protests and petitions. I even co-organized a full-on occupation of wetlands that were being developed, and they were ecologically significant. All wetlands are ecologically significant, but these, in particular, were home to many endangered species.”
That was Thundering Waters in Niagara Falls. She was heavily involved for several years, attending city and regional council meetings, emailing all the councillors, organizing petitions, demonstrations in front of city hall, and events educating the public about what was happening.
“The culminating thing was that we organized this occupation because they would develop them, and we succeeded,” said Poley. “Those wetlands are still there. That one felt good. There have been a lot of times when you are fighting for things where it doesn’t feel like you are achieving a lot, and it can be draining, and sometimes you just feel like you are doing it for nothing, but then you have ones like that, and you are – ok somethings happening.”
Even when activism seems unsuccessful, she said it is still worth doing.
“Another big one for me is just fighting racism,” said Poley. “There are more and more racist groups popping up all over the place, so it’s vital to show up anytime as the counter-demonstration to let them know there are many of us here who aren’t going to let them fuck around.”
She said activism is also mutual aid.
“I give my time freely to people who needed it,” said Poley. “Whether that be through organizations like Food Not Bombs, who I was involved with for years or running a house venue for ten years and losing money on it the whole time as it became more or less a homeless drop-in centre.”
Mutual aid is a concept she feels needs to be emphasized as much as possible.
“We are all raised to be so individualistic and dog-eat-dog in our society,” said Poley. “If people feel isolated, they are easier to exploit, and the more we help each other, the less we need this bullshit system. I’m also fighting to destroy the system, but, in the meantime, I can at least work towards building the world that I want to have and then if the system ever does crumble, we’ve already got a framework set up.”
When running house venues in St. Catherines, she assembled a team of people to turn a large portion of the property into a community garden.
“It was all food, and we all shared it, and any surplus we had, we would either use for Food Not Bombs or donate it,” said Poley. “That garden was just epic. Then we lost that house. Teaching other people about gardening is important because we have to partake in capitalism to eat and survive, but if you can grow your food and learn to save your seeds and replant them every year, you become free. That’s one of the most empowering things you can do and revolutionary, really.”
When asked what she meant when she called herself a “seasoned adventurer,” Poley said her life has been “batshit crazy compared to the average person’s.”
She dropped out of high school and hitchhiked across the continent. She has train hopped and been homeless more than once but has also done the more typical adventuring like canoe trips, mountain hikes, cross country ski excursions and cycling trips.
“Just adventures, you know how you sometimes just go outside and wander around and look for cool shit to climb,” said Poley. “I’ve also partied harder than anyone can imagine. Again, I’m just such a weirdo, so all those antics that came out on stage with Cuntscumb came from a genuine place. I like to have fun. I like to be weird. I like to be in interesting situations. I just don’t understand people who complain about being bored.”
One of the Poley legends whispered down the punk rock grapevine happened when Pisser got a new drummer, and his first show was the guitarist’s birthday.
“We played a killer show, and I was so amped up on adrenaline from playing it,” she said.
Poley can’t say why, but she had a glass coffee table at her place.
“It would have been something I just found at the side of the road,” she said. “It’s not like I buy any of that stuff.”
She wanted to show the new drummer how Pisser can “fucking party.”
“I ripped my shirt off, then ran at him, jumped off his lap, did a flying air guitar, and fell through the glass-plated table topless, so there was no protection between my skin and the shards,” said Poley.
The frame stayed relatively intact, so she was stuck sitting in a pile of blood and broken glass. The room went silent.
“I burst out laughing, and everyone else burst out laughing,” said Poley. “We were all laughing for about two minutes straight, and then I was like – you’ve got to pry me out of here and see how bad it is. It was brutal, and I’ve got scars all over my back. I don’t know if you can count that as an adventure, but you see what I mean?”
Performing is something she describes as an addiction.
“I need to be on a stage in front of a room full of people and have them all listening to what I am saying,” she said.
Poley joked that once she gets to a certain level of fame, she can encourage others to steal.
“Once I’m at a point where I’m not going to get arrested for it,” she said. “I would never steal from an independently owned business, but from a major corporation, because they are evil and I’m poor, and a large reason that I’m poor is that they are evil, so if it is their fault that I’m poor then it is there fault I can’t fucking afford to pay, isn’t it.”
In the moment of melancholy thought that followed the jokes, Poley said she does think the root of all our problems is capitalism.
“When I was trying to summarize my activism, many things that I’m fighting are a result of capitalism,” she said. “I guess not all of them. I don’t know. Would there still be racism without capitalism? Probably not as much because it does breed this dog-eat-dog mentality, this individualistic mentality, and I think if everyone was working together. You know what, I think there would be less racism without capitalism. Definitely less environmental destruction and fewer people starving in poverty.”
The train of thought arrived at a YouTube video recommendation, which could act as a gateway drug to Poley’s stand-up comedy.
“I have a seven-minute-long thing about how you shouldn’t take your minimum wage job seriously because minimum wage equals minimum effort, and I very much feel that to my core. Don’t give the corporations anything more than the bare fucking minimum and if you can give them less, do that.”
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