Page v. Stage Poetry: Asserting Myself as a Young Black Artist

by Kiki Nicole

I’m a poet.

It’s difficult for me not to add an “I guess” at the end of that statement. That sort of confidence in my ability and respect in my craft comes later, with much hard work and dedication on my part. It is difficult to assert myself as a poet when poetry, as an art, has commonly been seen as a cop-out for any writer who isn’t a cis white male. I am often invalidating my own work with what I’ve heard of other poets I admire. That I am writing and publishing only diary entries with line breaks, that the documentation of my existence has no literary merit.

I’ve been immersed in creative writing since first grade. I would often write fantasy short stories and turned to poetry when I was seven years old. It has always been such a solitary thing. I wrote the most when I had the least friends. When I had nowhere to go but to school everyday and then back home again. I started submitting my pieces when I spent most of my days staying silent in a Loser Girl fog in high school and my evenings holed up in my room, making zines or online chapbooks.

I am a Quiet person and poetry was always the softest thing that ever wanted me back. Writing, reading, and when the time comes for it, submitting to magazines and journals can be entirely isolating, which I appreciate, but only sometimes. There is a power in the autonomy of these acts but it comes across as so small no one else ever feels it.

Spoken word was introduced to me very early on in the form of Def Poetry Jam episodes my mother would binge watch with me around. Here was a stage full of (mostly) Black, brown, and Queer artists owning their words and taking up space in a way I had denied myself. In tenth grade, I joined a community youth theatre group where I was encouraged to create performance poetry in lieu of a script every year for our annual original musical and more for extra performance opportunities that were given to us. In eleventh grade, I did my first group piece on the pitfalls of the public education system. 

I didn’t go to my first poetry slam until the summer after my first semester in college, but now it has become a part of my weekly routine. Every other Sunday or so, I frequent the poetry slam, occasionally perform, and spread out the other quieter tasks of being a poet such as writing, revising, and submitting, throughout the other days in the week.

Slam is teaching me that my own story matters but it seems to matter the most to other people when I put my own voice to my words. On one hand, this has been a lesson in self-respect. I feel most powerful when a stage has been cleared just for my tiny body and tiny voice to command. But even behind a microphone, I feel the isolation. When I was in school, I hardly spoke. Speeches were the worst for me if I couldn’t read off of a pre-written document I had prepared myself. I do not like raising my voice.

I do not like competition. When I slam, I do it to get reactions to my work in a more immediate way than submitting poems to editors. When I slam, I do it to taste how the poem feels on my tongue for the first time. I don’t memorize my pieces because I am afraid to look at the audience and have to perform as a louder version of myself.  I wish slam wasn’t the only way to easily get your work heard as a young and underprivileged individual, but for that reason I’m glad it exists.

I can shift through my discomfort with being completely vulnerable on a stage because of the community slam provides. For the first time in a long time, I have friends again. I have a huge support group. Recently, I have been invited to do more features and sets for the non-slam community and have found I feel discomfort trying to engage with the page poet community as well. In both settings, I am usually the only Black poet, which always feel terribly discomforting. But I am asked to do readings with page poets who seem to treat their work with the same amount of Quiet I used to. I feel their timidity  and know that I need to stop treating my poems that way.  

When I am at a poetry slam, I learn to engage with my work the way I am trying to engage with myself. With acceptance and belief that I hold so much power within me. That power does not have to be loud or commanding or full of itself. Furthermore, that power does not deserve to be hidden. I do not deserve to be hidden, whether in between stanzas or forever in the audience instead of the stage. 

 I do not know whether I classify as a page poet or performance poet, but I am a poet. For so long, I have been taught not to assert myself but here I am. It may look soft, the portrait of a young Negro poet stiff legged in front of a microphone, reading from behind the glint of my iPhone.

  It may look quiet, but it is me.

  And that is its own kind of poetry.

Kiki Nicole is the Director of Operations for Where Are You Press. They primarily oversee orders and manage/write for our social media accounts. Originally from the East Coast, they now reside in Portland, OR. They are a poet at kikinicolepoetry.tumblr.com and their debut poetry zine, sullen girl, is available for sale as an ebook through Where Are You Press. 


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