To Overcome Shouting into the Void

Yuliya Komska interviews Jae Nichelle about poetry and the experience of inhabiting a queer Black woman's body.

To Overcome Shouting into the Void: A Conversation with Jae Nichelle

Yuliya Komska interviews Jae Nichelle.

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 readingin 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 in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Read the interview here: