“Poetry is Living”: Slamming With Nikkita Oliver

Featured image courtesy of Michael “Renaissance” Moynihan

The torrent of praise was as overwhelming as it was effusive: “brilliant,” “life-affirming,” “mesmerizing.” After the Emerald ran Nikkita Oliver’s poem in the Sunday Stew two weeks ago several readers wanted to know more about the poet who, “laid out life so raw, yet so beautifully.”

The poet, spoken word artist, organizer, pugilist, teacher, and law student was generous enough to take time from her preparation for next Sunday’s Seattle Poetry Slam: Grand Slam– where she will be competing to represent our city at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, CA – to speak about poetry, activism and her love of the South End, or as she would succinctly sum it up: life.

What first inspired you to write poetry?

Nikkita Oliver: Honestly, I did not start out writing poetry. I started just simply journaling. Slowly my free writes started to sound like poetry. I began using line breaks, metaphor, rhythm and rhyme, etc. I didn’t even realize I writing poetry.

Once I came to see what I was doing I started reading more, experimenting with form, participating in writing groups, reading at open mics, and slamming. I call myself a practiced creative. Over time I learned to tap into my creative energy as a way of processing my emotions, thoughts, the world, etc.

Your poetry is lauded for being tremendously evocative in the way it so richly captures an emotion. What do you attest to that ability?

Oliver: Honesty and truth telling that always starts with first digging in with my self. If I am unwilling to be honest how can I say something truthful to the audience or reader. I cannot. So I start with addressing things within myself. Sometimes this means calling myself out.

I don’t like to use complex metaphor and I don’t write to impress. I’m not trying to hide anything from the reader or audience. At the end of the day I am writing to illuminate something in a story. Most frequently I start writing because something is nagging at me. The initial writing process, for me, is often an uncovering or digging to find the heart of the matter.

I also love telling a story and walking through an experience. People often talk about the world being change through personal connection. Oral traditions and storytelling make this possible on a large scale.

How much does the South Seattle influence your work?

Oliver: I moved to Seattle in 2004. By 2005 I had moved to the south end. I had always kept a journal with poetry and accounts of my day, but it was the youth who inspired me to start sharing my poetry.

Many of my students were a part of writing circles and Youth Speaks Seattle (YSS). When we would go to open mics as events I was so incredibly inspired by their bravery and honesty with their self and the audience.

It is a student who I must credit for me getting into poetry slam. In my classroom I tell my students “I will never ask you to do something that I am no first willing to do.” I was helping a few students prepare for a YSS slam. In the process one of the youth called me out and said, “Ms. Nikkita you have never slammed. How can you ask us to do this?” That Tuesday I went to the Seattle Poetry Slam where I won a slot in the Women of the World Seattle Poetry Slam Finals and went on to win as the 2013 rep for Seattle to the National Women of the World Competition.

Without the inspiration and prodding from my students I would have never started sharing my poetry.

In regards to the south end as a place, it is the story. There is so much happening in our neighborhood that goes unseen and untold. So many folks grinding day in and out for a better life. So many students doing what it takes to make it work. There are so many folks from so many different places. Our common bond is this place we share and are making home we strive to do more than survive. We want to thrive and together we will. Who better to tell it than us. We can tell and write our own narrative in a way media never will.

You’re somewhat of a modern day renaissance woman (boxer, poet, organizer, law student) what is it that drives you to pursue so many endeavors?

Oliver: I want the world to be better, but that change starts with myself. It is the desire to be better everyday that drives me to try knew things and work hard. Every night and every morning I tell myself “be good” and “be better than you were yesterday.”

I am also a creative. I love learning new things and putting a spin on them. There is so much in the world to learn and experience. Why limit yourself!?!

Much of your work is very politically charged. We seem to be in a resurgent period of artist engaging and driving civic movements. What responsibility do you feel today’s artist have in that regard?

I feel that anyone who has a platform to create change (which is everyone) has a responsibility to be on the right side of history. My platform often comes in an artistic form and that is where I speak and try to move hearts from.

I also think that artists are always at the forefront of social movements. Artists, philosophers and poets are intertwined identities. They help preserve culture and record, they help communities dig deep and remember, they aid in with matters of the heart and getting to the heart of the matte in a way that (even it offends) sticks with the person experiencing the art. This has a major impact on people and moves them in ways they often do not see till after their thinking and heart has been changed.

Artists also push the boundaries of what is imaginable into the unimaginable. I think what is hard about social change is may people cannot imagine anything or anyplace different. Artists help us do this. They help us see what is, what needs to be, and what can be. This is a powerful tool for social change.

You’re a decorated spoken word artist. Writing poetry read by people you may never see is one thing, but getting on stage and laying your emotions bare is another. How do you muster up the courage?

Every time I get to bless a mic I am humbled and honored. I have struggled my entire life to believe in myself. I have struggled to believe that there is anything valuable about me (let alone that I have anything valuable to say).

What I have learned though is that everyone is looking for someone/others to be honest about their thoughts, their beliefs, their wants, their needs, their vulnerabilities and insecurities, their hurts, etc. This lets us know that we are not alone.

I muster the courage because I know that there is someone in the room who feels alone–just like me–and for a moment in time we can both know that we are not.

Also, sharing poems is often healing. I know that at times the charged and/or vulnerable nature of my work can make folks uncomfortable, but discomfort is not a bad thing. Discomfort often pushes us towards growth.

You’re extremely disciplined in your approach to writing poetry, where does that stem from?

The desire to “be good” and “be better everyday.” To get better you gotta discipline yourself to learn, to explore, to discover, to look at your strengths and your weaknesses.

I also just really love it. Many people say “poetry saved their life.” I say “Poetry did not save my life. Poetry helped me see my life so that I could save it my self by living more. Without living there is no poetry to write. POETRY IS LIVING.”

Do you have any advice for young people who have been inspired by your work and want to try their hand at poetry?

WRITE. WRITE. WRITE. Everyday. Even if it is just a few lines or a page.

READ. READ. READ. and then write some more.

But most importantly write. Getting into writing circles. Share your work with folks you trust to give you advice and critique.

And live. Poetry is living.

Honestly, people have said my poetry is not poetry because I just write about real life. To this I smile and say “Exactly, poetry is living.”

Live your life, write, read, and try new things.