DESPAIRING ABOUT LANGUAGE was easy enough before COVID-19, but the pandemic has made it easier still. Words, from nasty dog whistles to outright racist and sexist slurs, are used as weapons. Face-to-face conversations have dwindled because of social distancing, but also due to multiplying societal rifts. Listening feels like an endangered skill about to be lost to political polarization. Silence remains the introvert’s utopia, as so many drown in the noise of corporate-compelled communication, courtesy of Zoom. Outside our homes, our voices are muffled by masks, which also make reading emotions difficult. Indoors, computer screens constrain our most expansive gestures. The future of touch, that often neglected but essential language accessory, is unpredictable.
To meet spoken word poet Jae Nichelle is to be reminded what a privilege such despair is. We first came together in April 2020, at a symposium on antifascist — and, by necessity, antiracist — language. On the first day, Jae said nothing. She listened. When, on the second day, she spoke up about caring for the speakers, with poise and pauses and precision, not listening to her was impossible. She brought and shared the rare gift of rapt attention, total and voluntary.
Jae sat at a distance from the camera, her voice clear and her gestures succinct, deliberate, and compact. Somehow, there was always space for them. To me, her presence recalled the Afro-German poet May Ayim’s classic reading, in front of a camera in the still-desolate Berlin circa 1990, of “borderless and brazen,” a poem that discards and transcends her countrypeople’s expectations about Blackness. In the video, Ayim embodies the poem’s spirited irreverence, and her every gesture feels like an invitation and a modest but firm embrace of those who sympathize. We don’t often think of poetry as handiwork, in the most literal sense, yet it is. Jae Nichelle’s art illustrates how powerful this handiwork can be.
I spoke to Jae about her work and this political moment via the inescapable Zoom and email. Our conversations have been abridged.
YULIYA KOMSKA: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to poetry, and was it spoken word from the start?
JAE NICHELLE: I’d been writing poetry since I was a kid. I started in little notebooks, with short poems, which I mostly kept private and shared only with close friends and family. I had no real thought that anybody else would listen. Coming to read them out loud was strange, because I was really shy, but I loved to perform with prepared lines, at school events and such. Even though I’m not much of a talker really. One day in elementary school, the assignment was to memorize and recite a poem of our choice from a Shel Silverstein book, and I chose a poem — which I still remember — and I memorized it, and we got to act it out. My teacher thought I embodied it. I was so excited that I had found a way to combine poetry and a kind of performance. But I didn’t really know anything about spoken word poetry until I got to high school, where a friend brought me along to a meeting of a slam poetry club. I shared my poems, and the woman in charge, Mrs. McAdoo, whom I credit with everything I’ve done so far, convinced me to join. I had never thought about sharing my own words like that before. I’d always believed that, when you perform something, it would be written by someone else, so I had to think about it first.
Were you immediately encouraged to speak about your experience as a Black person, or did that take time?
Since much of spoken word is inherently personal, I’d say any poem I write, no matter the subject, is already focused through the lens of all my identities. I do remember that one of my first works from high school was a response to a classmate telling me that I don’t “act Black.” So, that poem was explicitly about Blackness. But even if the poem is about mental health or pottery or something, you can’t separate it from who I am as the speaker, which is a Black woman. The way I discuss Blackness has definitely evolved as I’ve grown as a person and writer, but as long as I’ve been Black, all of my poems are about my very specific Black experience.
Can you recall what your first performance for a bigger audience felt like?
That was in high school, freshman year. I was so nervous that I almost did not do it. But I ended up sharing a poem called “She Ugly,” which is an outline of multiple experiences of me being bullied and feeling a lack of self-worth. Afterward, people clapped and snapped as they do, but many also came up to say that they related. I felt so validated and less alone because they listened to me, and because I could say things that I would never otherwise tell anyone at all. I usually keep it bottled up; I am not the type to go around and say, “Oh, here are my problems, here’s what I’m thinking and what I’m dealing with.” I felt a rush, I didn’t think that it would ever happen.
Not being heard or listened to. How important has this been for your growth as a poet?
Extremely! I’ve always been a very quiet person. In group settings, I’m constantly talked over or ignored, sometimes because no one even heard me speak. My speech gets even quieter (and disfluent) when I’m nervous, so even when someone hears me, they often don’t take me seriously. When I’m on stage, I feel empowered by the fact that it’s my time to share and be heard by an attentive audience. The more signals I get that people are listening while I perform, the more confident I feel.
This seems essential given how much trust is at stake, how confessional your poetry can be — take “She Ugly.” We often associate trust with anonymity, confidentiality. It’s almost the opposite in your art. We could chalk this up to the culture of sharing on social media, the notion that revealing yourself is something very modern. Or we could say that it’s quite traditional, because making oneself vulnerable in exchange for being listened to has long been part of oral storytelling. What is your take on this?
I think things were a bit different for me at the time of “She Ugly,” because it was still almost anonymous. I didn’t plan to share the poem online or publish it anywhere or do it for people I knew. While it still required vulnerability, I was sharing something so personal to me with complete strangers. I share that memory only with the people who were there, and then I can go about my life as before. It’s kind of like posting on social media when you have a very small following, right? You post because you want to tell someone, but you also don’t want to tell anyone, really. So, you post it to the void with no expectation that anything will come of it. That’s what my first few performances felt like, shouting into the void.
Like “She Ugly,” many of your poems speak about the experience of inhabiting a queer Black woman’s body as a challenge to racists, homophobes, sexists. Do you feel that, in spoken word poetry, the body is especially unavoidable — it is right there, after all?
I do. As you just said, whenever I perform, people automatically see me. Which is a bit different than if they were reading a book. They are not only listening to the words but watching what my body is doing and making covert judgments about my appearance. So, I feel like, “Let’s just address it, then.”
“My Lips” opens with a litany of racist and sexist verbal assaults that come from many quarters. But it flips quickly, and the most assaulted body part, the lips, is vested with a kind of superpower. “I did not choose to be a poet / I woke up one day hearing God say, ‘I gave you those lips for a reason’,” the poem goes, “‘The bigger the lips, the more mountains they will move’.” Is this a metaphor, or more?
I think it goes back to the body and performance. As I mention in that poem, people have given me grief for the way my lips look for my entire life. Yet still, no matter how I feel about them, my lips physically help me articulate my words, express myself, and perform. So, they beg to be seen as the source of power that they are. I think my writing allows me to reclaim my body for myself and free it of the language that others have imposed on it.
And then there’s “Afro So Big,” which is as profound as it is imaginative.
It really began with me thinking of just how I want an Afro so big that it does X, Y, Z. And then I thought, oh, that’s a cool thing to say. And so, I wrote a bunch of notes. An Afro so big that you need to part it with a really big comb, that it just drags on the floor, and all these random things. And when I was looking at that on the page, I thought, what would tie this together instead of being a bunch of random things, you know? Why do I feel like I need this large Afro? What would it do, what would it say, and what is it really about? So, I was able to figure out where this was coming from: so many people look down on natural hair. And that’s when I realized that I wanted to have my hair be something that I could feel at home in, not feel ashamed of my natural hair growing out of my head and minding its business. And then I thought, well, wow, now that my Afro is a home, what’s going to be in it? That’s where it takes a serious turn, because I’ve started thinking about home and what it would be like. My mom could relax, finally, and my brother would be safe. That’s how it became a story.
Your performances seem like embodied events where presence — gestures, voice modulation — matters as much as words do. How do you prepare?
It starts with knowing that I’m writing a poem that I intend to share. I prepare it almost like you would prepare to perform a monologue, deliberately looking at how the words that I’ve written will sound when I say them, making sure that the lines flow to highlight my message. I’ll start off by recording my voice, then play it back and think, “If I was just hearing this from another person, what would I think?” When I feel like that’s ready, I run it by a small group of friends. I’ll consider the gestures. In conversation, I often talk with my hands, but it’s usually meaningless. On stage I really try to make intentional gestures, pausing to make sure people can hear my message and I’m not just rambling on. This comes from having done theater and being on slam poetry teams. The cadence, the gestures, all of it comes together to be really meaningful, and so if there’s a part that ramps up, where I will be energized, that’s when I’ll get faster and more intense, because I want the audience to feel that this is where things get heavy.
In a recent conversation, poet Marilyn Nelson has compared her art to a shield. “The poem is something you create, but it’s also something that becomes your protection from the pain and ugliness that you have to see,” she said. What is poetry in general — and your poetry, in particular — to you?
Poetry is an exploration to me, generally. I used to think that poetry was the answer to everything, and that to be a poet you had to also have those answers. But now I’m realizing that poetry asks the questions we need to be asking. It starts the conversations we’re often afraid to have. It allows you to feel. I think that’s the most important part. In so many aspects of life we are told we should not feel, only think. And that feelings are not “rational.” But we must do both to truly engage with the world. We must.
My poetry makes me feel connected to something larger than myself. I feel like I’m in conversation with thinkers I admire, Audre Lorde, June Jordan … as well as with people, past and future, whose names I’ll never know. I feel like I am an active participant in life — thinking and feeling and acting on those thoughts and feelings.
Would you say, at this political moment, that there’s something a Black spoken word poet does differently than a Black poet who mostly writes for print?
I don’t think so, honestly. And as a person who does both, I can say these crafts often can’t be separated. The print poem that gets published in some journal can have just as much impact as the spoken word poem shared on YouTube. Sometimes they are the same poem. And if they reach different audiences with the same message, then it’s even better. Sometimes people assume that spoken word reaches people who don’t necessarily read poetry. And it can. But I would hesitate to underestimate people and the fluidity of poets by drawing hard lines between the two.
You’ve made me aware of how commercialized spoken word poetry is becoming, specifically as a Black art. There are ads for the Olympic Games, Volkswagen, Kohler sinks … This might belong in the bigger conversation about the relationship between Black talent and capitalism. What are your thoughts on this, and would you write and perform a poem for a commercial?
I think you risk inauthenticity with commercialization of any art form. So much of spoken word is about storytelling, relation, and real, personal moments. So, commercialization, in a way, strips the art from the artist. It’s a co-opting of a personal form of expression to convince people to buy something. At the same time, spoken word artists get so little recognition and opportunity that it can be cool to see an artist expand their platform. But that means little if the artist doesn’t get to share a message that matters to them. If a brand that I already use reaches out to me, I would probably consider it, because we all have bills to pay, but I’d want to do a commercial that represents my values or a cause that I stand for.
Your poems are personal in a political way. Have movements like Black Lives Matter changed your art and, if so, how?
Already my existence as a Black woman is inherently political. That’s something that Black feminist thinkers have repeated for a while. If anything, I think bearing witness to the BLM movement and the structural violence against Black people has made me better able to tie my personal experiences with racism to a larger structure.
For example, one of the lines in my poem “Friends with Benefits” is: “What happens to a Black girl who is too anxious to ever feel like magic?” Sometimes non-Black people will quote this and remove the word “Black.” But you can’t do that. The line interrogates the phrase “Black girl magic,” which has a very specific connotation that Black women must have magical powers to survive in this world or to be worthy of love. It is in fact a different type of violence when people try to erase me from my own work.
There is so much noise right now. How do you cut it out to focus on what’s meaningful?
That’s the question of the hour! Sometimes I can’t say I’m sure of what’s meaningful. In March, April, and May, I could hardly write anything. I felt like I needed to do more listening than talking at that moment. Now, I’m feeling like I have so many questions. When my mind feels cluttered, I tend to retreat into silence. I ignore my phone and free-write or even just meditate until I feel like I’ve found my voice again.