Meet Oakland's First Poet Laureate: Dr. Ayodele 'WordSlanger' Nzinga
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
The city of Oakland, Calif., decided it needed its own poet laureate, but just any master wordsmith wasn't going to be enough. The city's cultural affairs division was looking for an artist who was on the ground working with the people when it started its search in April.
AYODELE NZINGA: We are here in the doorway amongst the jackhammers and cranes as the ground shrinks, as the sky...
PFEIFFER: Last month, Oakland found its poet laureate. You're listening to one of her works now. She goes by the nickname WordSlanger. She did more than write about Oakland. She's a part of Oakland's history.
NZINGA: From and to the 16th Street train station, always and always building in the narrows.
PFEIFFER: From NPR member station KALW, David Exume has more.
NZINGA: My name is Dr. Ayodele "WordSlanger" Nzinga.
DAVID EXUME, BYLINE: As poet laureate, Dr. Nzinga will, among other things, write a poem that commemorates the whole city. But as you've just heard, it won't be her first on the place she calls home.
NZINGA: I have spent a lot of time talking about Oakland. This is a place where people came to be free when they left the South with nothing, freed into nothing, leaving with nothing.
EXUME: Dr. Nzinga wears a lot of hats, writing plays and essays, teaching. Writing is her way of examining her city and the world.
NZINGA: There's something comforting about words. I don't think that anything can happen or be real without words.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NZINGA: I am the poet most willing to share your illusions of what poetry is, has been, will be, can do.
EXUME: Oakland's cultural affairs division created the poet laureate position with the hope of bringing more poetry to the people. They were looking for an artist who was deeply integrated in Oakland's community, who could help Oaklanders understand the city and each other. For Dr. Nzinga, this understanding starts with a little tough love.
NZINGA: I've been known to rattle a cage or two, to say what people think but don't say in polite company. So it feels right that Oakland, with its history of connection to the Black Arts Movement, which supported the Black Power movement, pushing the envelope, that I could be its poet laureate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPOSITION BOOKS")
NZINGA: (Singing) Mama, this clip's for you. Mama, this clip's for you (ph).
EXUME: Dr. Nzinga is a multidisciplinary artist. She's a musician, and this is one of her songs. It's called "Composition Books."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPOSITION BOOKS")
NZINGA: I gave my baby's composition books, and they turned them into rhyme books. And I learned that they had rhythm in their heads.
EXUME: The new poet laureate is a big believer in the collaborative power of poetry.
NZINGA: Poetry is a universal language. What happens, perhaps, if young Asian children and young Black children write poetry together, and they get to perhaps share their experiences of what violence looks like in their community? I don't think that there are any limits on how you can expand the inclusion of art, poetry, literature.
EXUME: Dr. Nzinga says she believes words and poetry can be a means of self-discovery. She knows this because writing helped her find her identity and her place in the world.
NZINGA: I discovered the canon of Negritude and the Harlem Renaissance really early, and it felt like a home to me.
EXUME: The theme of belonging was important to the selection committee's criteria for finding the winner. But it's a complicated one for Dr. Nzinga because the city she calls home has also been the one that's pushed her people out.
NZINGA: I don't think we've ever had a resting place since they took us off the ships. The story of gentrification is a story of being a placeholder until the space is more convenient to someone who has the resources to use it. How do I feel so emotional about this this morning? I am fighting back literally tears. I think that in this moment, we don't all understand how beautiful and important the struggle song of Oakland is to liberation around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER IN AMERIKKKA")
NZINGA: (Singing) It's been winter in America for such a long time. Hope is strangling, and we keep slip, slip, slipping on bloody concrete, killing one another for a chance to eat.
I'm the people's poet. I'm going to tell the story the way the story go. So if that story continues to be our struggle to stay here, then that means I have to uplift the history, tell that story and make it not be invisible as we go.
EXUME: As poet laureate, Dr. Ayodele "WordSlanger" Nzinga will deliver four readings at city-owned locations throughout Oakland, and she'll kick off her two-year term with an inaugural address in September. For NPR, I'm David Exume in Oakland.
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