"My poetry is meant to be heard and not read."
An interview with the Black educator, facilitator, writer and (out)spoken word artist.
If you enjoy this interview, please share. It helps me do more things like this and also supports Nicole’s work. -JRS
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in the summer of 2015.
Did you write at all before that?
I've always loved to write; I've never really had a writing practice. I wrote a poem for my granddad's funeral. But to call myself a “poet,” to start writing in that way: 2015.
I started writing and performing at the same time, which, I mean everyone has their own unique practice, but often they will write and write and eventually make their way to the stage. I was just like, yeah, I’m going to try this thing and perform right away.
You don’t have a practice, so you’re not sitting down every day and doing a page or two. It’s more like inspiration, in the moment.
You feel something, and then you write the poem. You put it on paper.
Google Docs. On my phone. I do a lot of my writing as I’m commuting. On the metro, between busses, whatever. When I first started writing poetry, I didn’t have any training or anything, so I thought, I’m a poet; I need a notebook. And I think there is something really powerful about pen and paper, whatever that is.
But now we have these technologies that never existed before. And I love Google Docs. I have a document called “Thoughts and Notes”, I’ll put everything in there.
Kind of a catch-all.
Yes. It could be something that becomes a status, or a line in a future poem, or maybe a few lines of a poem that’s not finished yet. It won’t get its own Google Doc until it’s a poem.
When it comes to editing, I don’t have a practice of going back to pieces and refining them. Either the thing happens quickly, and I spit it out quickly, and then I’m done, or it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and it’s formulated in my head.
You also perform your poetry, as you mentioned. When you’re writing, is that a part of what you’re doing, I mean, do you sound it out, read it aloud?
Yeah, sometimes I’ll have to. I always say that most of my poetry is made to be heard and not read. Some pieces, if you just read them, it’s not the same.
What’s that like, performing in front of an audience? Do you feel the crowd respond?
Yeah, you feel it. I would say my favourite moment when I perform is going back to silence, those moments of silence when I can hear a pin drop. That’s what makes my heart just kind of explode.
I think about my poetry in many ways as an invitation. It’s like, here is a thing that I have to share; feel all the things that you want to feel, including nothing. And that’s OK, because that is your experience.
There is something powerful in writing poetry about really intense stuff and then performing it in a way where people are able to hear it and engage with it differently.
How did the book project come about?
I performed in a show called “The Self Love Cabaret” in February of 2016 that was curated by Kama La Mackerel, a really incredible artist. The publisher, Metonymy Press, tabled at the event. I performed the poem, and said that I would love to turn this into a children’s book while I was on stage.
My friend Devon, who was a colleague at the time, was really good friends with the people at the publishing company. They introduced me after the reading and said, “You need to publish her book”—even though [Metonymy] had never done children’s books and had not expressed interest in publishing children’s books.
Anyway, that was the introduction, and later they reached out to me. Which still feels pretty unreal. I’m not well versed in the publishing scene, but I do know that’s not the way it works, typically.
Have you always been a reader? Did you always love books?
Yeah, always. Bookworm. My parents used to be like, “Shanice, turn out the light. Put the book down.”
I remember those days, and it’s fascinating now—maybe you’ve noticed this too—when you use social media heavily, it affects your attention span.
Oh my god, I can't read, it's so bad. Even just for work. I had to look at these academic articles for this thing. And I was thinking, my brain doesn’t know how to process this anymore if it’s not a Facebook post or a blog or something.
Speaking of social media, your presence is pretty prolific: You're doing your own work—art and activism—and then fundraising for people who need help. How long have you been using social media?
It must be close to fifteen years. There’s definitely been an evolution, when I think about my Facebook in 2014 versus today, for example. I find it so interesting to read what I was thinking on this day, however many years ago. And the moments when I laugh at myself or I cringe and I'm like, why the fuck? I have a lot of compassion for my past selves.
But I think about young people today, and their entire lives are like rooted in their social media—which also means every single moment of their life is being documented and therefore also surveilled and scrutinized.
I think about that intense pressure that kids feel. I feel that pressure as an adult. One of my pieces is called “(Mi)stakes on the Internet”, it’s about being scared, or anxious. I can only imagine what that kind of experience is like for a young person who's really just starting to figure out who they are.
Given what's going on in the world now, I have a lot of sympathy for young people.
Oh, yeah. Not only are they growing up with surveillance because of social media, but they are literally growing up and watching the world burn around them in high definition, with the ability to pause and rewind and repeat.
I feel some of my most transformative work for me has been when I'm working with young people. And I mean, I'm also young, but younger than me. Working with youth and teens and kids who are so brilliant.
When you're working with younger people, in what capacity is that? Is that a part of your job at McGill University?
No, I work at McGill as an Equity Education Advisor and do a lot of work on anti-oppression and anti-racism. So I don't get to work with youth, mostly with faculty and staff. But before this job, I got to do a lot of community work and youth-based work.
Could you tell me a little more about that experience?
In the summer of 2012, I found out about Head & Hands, which founded the Sense Project, a peer-based sex ed program. I applied and ended up facilitating sex ed workshops in high schools and youth spaces.
The experience was very transformative for me. I learned how to facilitate. But it was also through that space that I really started to learn about oppression. It was in the context of sex ed, but it opened up the doors. I started thinking about things like race and gender and class. So I’m always excited to talk about how sex ed is actually a really powerful medium or platform for talking about big things, you know?
Can you flesh that out a little more? Were there specific things?
In terms of specific things, a lot of it had to do with sexuality and gender. Heteronormativity, the idea of being heterosexual or straight not only presented as the norm, but what is normal. Similarly, cisnormativity, the idea of being cisgender as the norm. For the first time, learning that trans folks exist—what does it mean, that I can be in my early twenties and learn about people who exist around me for the first time? It’s both fascinating and devastating.
I was surrounded by people who were telling me about their lives and experiences. I often think about how people don’t always get that opportunity. For example, if you’re just learning a thing from a Facebook post, it’s not really easy to feel connected to it. You don’t feel that thing that happens when you are in a relationship with someone and they’re telling you their story. There’s a lot of power to that.
And at the same time, I don't want to devalue the online spaces. I think we often do this thing as well, as in “IRL”, in real life. Online space is real life. It's like thinking about, you know, say, folks who are disabled, who are able to be in community and have connection to people because of the Internet. And so when we present the idea of the Internet not being a real space, we totally invalidate people who are able to essentially exist or navigate in those ways online, for all different reasons.
In dealing with people in online spaces, I notice different levels of awareness, education. Some people are trolls, of course, but in other cases, I feel it’s coming from a place of pure ignorance—i.e. the person actually does not know what they are talking about. In that situation, I think about how I can open a door, or shut it. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. I mean, even that idea of addressing something is way easier said than done. It’s good timing with the holidays coming up, because we joke a lot about the uncle at the holiday dinner. Personal and family relationships can be really hard and challenging, and I mean, it’s different of course, your uncle at the table and a stranger on Facebook.
I think there has to be intention around it—as you framed it, can a door be opened here? But if not, sometimes, that is also the work, to be like, This is not where I can spend my energy. And that doesn’t mean the person isn’t worthy or deserving of knowledge or whatever we want to call it. But it’s okay to be like, I’m not the person who can do that right now, or ever. Again, this type of learning is long-term and messy and complicated.
But, on the other hand, I often think about how the demand is on folks who are often marginalized to do the work, whether it's compassion or patience or love, forgiveness, et cetera. And those who are doing the harm are, say, “being educated.” I also think it's a complicated thing. Who is an expert? Who is the teacher, who is not? But there doesn't always seem to be that same demand for patience and openness and willingness and reciprocity on both people.
How should people handle interactions like that online?
One thing I think about is positionality, or the context from which you’re speaking. If there's a thing or an issue or a debate around sexuality, I think about how my positionality as a straight person has an impact on how I'm able to engage and what the risk will be. My risk is actually quite low, like relatively low. I'm not the one who's going to be directly harmed as a straight person. I hold a lot of power in that kind of context or space.
I think what happens often, especially in the online context, is that, in our efforts to support those who are being harmed, those of us who are a part of the dominant group or the group that's doing the oppressing can quickly, for lack of a better word, fuck shit up just by doing that thing of being angry on the Internet. We'll do the thing where, you'll be like, “Idiot!” and then just leave.
Then, it's often the folks who are not straight, like queer folks, who have to kind of pick up and hold that mess and then do that work. And then we look at that and we say, be kinder. Yeah. And so it's really thinking about like, how are we engaging with each other? And then again, who where does the responsibility lie?
There's no easy answer. I think we need way more compassion. And I use the word love intentionally, I know that's been co-opted, especially when it comes to justice movements, the psychology of, “Oh, let's just like love the hate away”—which is obviously not working out for us.
But there is something about love and connection and relationship that can be so transformative that I think that we don't always know how to embody or channel or connect with. And because there's so much trauma and harm, online space just exacerbates that, because we're just in this place and the algorithms make it so that we stay in that place. It’s a messy system.
And the platforms have been engineered to increase engagement as much as possible, and part of that is the conflict in the comment sections.
And I think, again, online culture and social media has made that challenging because things are so instant and quick and accessible, where it’s like you've got to learn it right now. And then the next thing is here right now. And it's just that kind of cyclical process, which is not actually how deep, transformative learning happens.
In some cases, some well-intended people on social media can steal the mic, while there are other people on those platforms who deal with that issue directly and are talking about it, explaining it. I know the issue is complex and I’m not saying, “This is the problem with online activism”, but still.
No, it’s an important issue, whose voices do we hear and prioritize and listen to? In that case, speaking around race and white folks, but even for things like sexuality or gender, what is my role as a straight person or cis person?
I think that there's a tension and a balance around passing the mic. There’s a quote from Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, she says, “You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless, you just need to pass the mic.” I mean, we can unpack that idea of “voiceless” and how everyone has a voice and that some people are actually silenced, but just that idea that nothing you/we are saying is new. And so it’s like, how does that happen?
And then I think about how, in a more dangerous way, people are rewarded and compensated for appropriation of labour or of that experience of oppression. I think a lot about race in particular, how a lot of white folks have made serious money doing work around anti-racism. Tim Wise, or Robin DiAngelo, who wrote White Fragility. What does it mean for a white person, who is benefitting daily from the system of racism, to be making money on that same system, even though they are doing the work of challenging it in particular ways?
But there's something, I think, tricky about that. The work that I do is around equity and inclusion and diversity. And those things are becoming cool. It's not super cool, but it's becoming a trend.
And so people are, as we do with trends, capitalizing on that and are now being rewarded. That looks like everything from, for example, those people who have books and massive speaking engagements where they're making thousands and thousands of dollars. I'm talking about anti-racist theory. But then also things like people who are applying for grants and research opportunities and funding and are getting to kind of co-opt not only the language, but the experience of oppression. Again, intent versus impact is the thing that we can talk about because you could have really good intent. But what does it mean when people's experiences of harm and violence are for sale? And when they're not able to share those stories?
Where can people find your work online?