Lindork’s Lists – Q&A #29: Nisha Patel
Note: this is the public version of my email newsletter Q&A that gets sent to paid subscriber inboxes first every other Sunday. You can get these Q&As in your inbox first by becoming a paid subscriber.
Originally published to newsletter subscribers on May 15, 2022
The twenty-ninth person I’m profiling in my newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
Award-winning, disabled, queer spoken word author and artist:
Getting to know Nisha Patel:
Nisha Patel is an amazing, award-winning, disabled, queer, spoken word author and artist, who I started following when she was the City of Edmonton’s 8th Poet Laureate a few years ago. As Nisha explains below, part of her job as poet laureate was to write and present poems to the City on the lives we live here, or important themes and issues and during her tenure, she performed many poems on white supremacy and racism, colonialism, revolution, and a love for the Edmonton arts scene. Her poems were so moving—and so important. You can see some of her spoken word videos here including her open letter to Jason Kenney. Nisha, I think, is also a fashion icon lol.
It’s not easy making a living as an artist (as Nisha puts it, being an artist in not only being an artist in a capitalist system but a queer, disabled artist at that. I love learning about Nisha, her experiences, her work—and can relate with her love of bubble tea, Pokemon and Kpop.
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Nisha Patel:
Can you describe the work you do and how long you have been doing it? How did you get into writing/poetry?
I’ve been a poet for nearly eight years now. At an event promoting mental health awareness, I saw my first live spoken word poetry performance by Ahmed Knowmadic, a beloved Somali poet in Edmonton. Moved to tears, the memory of an artist speaking to their intense anxiety lingered for months, gaining depth, until I was bolstered to write my first (sort of) spoken word poem in 2014. I say ‘sort of’ because I had given up writing poems ten years earlier as a teenager after being told I couldn’t make a living as an artist. I went to business school and studied politics, fell in love with public speaking, but I always longed to make art. Poetry was my hobby for a few years but after an episode of bipolar depression I quit my job in politics and turned to the only thing that made me feel like I had purpose: poetry. I took that starting year as a ‘full-time artist’ to write my first poetry book in 2018, and worked in poetry-related jobs when performing and touring didn’t pay all my bills. That book, several drafts later, became Coconut, which came out in 2021.
Can you articulate why you do what you do, what do you love about poet/artist/writer?
I think some people search their whole lives for a moment that tells them YES, points them in the direction they should be headed, and fulfils them while doing so.
I share stories because my purpose is to feel and make others feel a little less alone. I create art that has resonance to me and hope that others feel that, if not through technique, then through dedication to craft.
My writing brought me the love of my life. But writing also took me to a dusty basement in Berlin in 2017, where a room full of strangers gave me my first standing ovation and my first encore. I want to take from that moment the most powerful realization I’ve ever had: that stories are the truest form of connection I can offer.
You were Edmonton’s 8th Poet Laureate, and a Regional Writer in Residence in Strathcona and St. Albert, can you share for those who don’t know, what do those titles entail? What did your day to day look like? What services did you offer or what role did you play (I know as the poet laureate you delivered different poems to city council on important issues—can you explain that for those who don’t know?)
The Poet Laureate is a one-time position granted to an artist who acts as a literary ambassador in this city promoting and creating poetic art.
Part of your job as poet laureate is to write and present poems to the City on the lives we live here, or important themes and issues. During my tenure I was happy to perform poems on white supremacy and racism, colonialism, revolution, and a love for the Edmonton arts scene. I faced backlash for using my position to speak up but I don’t regret it because I also had much more support from the public.
In a role as a writer in residence, writers will be given the time to dedicate themselves to their craft and projects while often providing programs and workshops, as well as one on one mentoring, to patrons.
The idea is that a writer is “in residence” at a location like a library and people can come drop by and get feedback from them. I did my program regionally in the metro Edmonton area and worked online, hosting monthly workshops, open mic sessions, one on one manuscript feedback, and school visits.
You’re a Canadian Slam Champion, and recently competed in Rio De Janeiro, can you talk about that experience?
Yes! It is a bit complicated so bear with me. When I started writing poetry as a 20-something I wanted to perform and the easiest way to do that with supportive audiences was to attend poetry slams and compete. It turns out I loved competition and ended up attending four team national slam championships, with my best finish as a runner up, and two Canadian Individual Poetry Slam (national) championships.
It took me until my (then) last national slam to finally come first in 2019. Because of this, I qualified to attend the World Cup of Poetry Slam in Paris but it was cancelled that next year because of COVID. Fortuitously, I was invited to re-qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Belgium to represent Canada if I did well enough at a pan-Americas slam in Rio last fall. I ended high enough to make the cut and I’m preparing for the 2022 World Championship now.
Rio is a beautiful and diverse city with gorgeous beaches and weather. It was so stressful to travel during the pandemic but when I got there to compete I remembered who I was: a performer.
So I performed. And it was magical.
You share a lot about being a queer artist with a disability. You’ve also posted about writers setting work boundaries, ensuring people get paid for their work, why are these topics important for you to highlight?
Being a disabled writer who is not at this point formally educated in art has required me to create my own metrics of success. This means working in a body that is differently productive and in flux; my normal is not the same as yours or my partner’s, it all varies by the hour. It also means if you’re disabled that even traditional artistic paths are not always on the table.
The reality is that most artists in the world don’t achieve fame but instead work at the community level, so creating art in that settings is what matters. To do that under capitalism means valuing your own work, valuing each other, and ensuring there is sustainable success for you.
And if you can’t survive off your art that’s not a requirement. You’re still an artist deserving artist payment. Living the life that keeps you safe and fulfilled is what matters.
Can you share a specific memorable moment or ‘successes’ in your career / life?
I really thought 2017 was going to be my final chapter. Hospitalized and depressed, I was at risk of harm. I had a hard look at my life and decided that a career in government wasn’t for me anymore even though I’d been working towards it since I was sixteen. So I did decided to create a life that maximized the time I spent happy, and that was the time I was performing. I ended up performing in cities in Europe but a year later did a special show at a bar in Seoul, South Korea, that showed me what I was doing was right and that I was also lucky to be good at it, too.
Can you share a specific challenging moment, obstacles or failure in your career / life? And perhaps what you learned from it or how you overcame it?
I’ve been very lucky to have had lots of hard work pay off and a heap of luck. But the biggest threat to my own art is financial instability and my own fear of failure that can lead to me feeling pathetic and jealous. It’s a really ugly place to be in debt because it affects everything: your health, your time, your art. I spent years recovering and when I did my art transformed. People need to be stable and secure and deserve to not have to create under duress and the myth of the mandatory starving artist can kill us.
Can you share advice for others who might be interested in becoming a writer, a poet, or an artist?
Trying to pursue writing full-time for the sole goal of claiming that you are a full-time writer, is meaningless.
What’s most important in being a writer is that you write.
And no one gets to tell you you’re less of a writer for making a living somewhere else, or more of a writer for doing more writing than other folks do. Under capitalism, many of us do the things that allow us to keep going, even if they don’t always allow us to keep writing.
And that’s ok.
Can you talk about how people can support your work, the services you currently offer, and also just any thoughts around supporting the work of IBPOC artists in general? (Note for you + readers: I was recently informed that in Canada it’s important to put Indigenous first / centering discussions around Indigenous communities first, particularly when referencing people of colour so that’s why the question says IBPOC rather than BIPOC).
You can support my work best by amplifying the things I put out and offer, even if you can’t support financially. The best way to stay connected is through social media. I offer a variety of creative services, like poetry commissions and writing mentorship, but I have a business degree in economics, and worked in politics for several years. Right now, I am mostly interested in talking about disability justice, and how folks can dream of a better world together.
You should also keep IBPOC artists in your mind, or in a saved list, of artists you can recommend for events, gigs, and opportunities.
Most of my work comes in from referral by someone who’s seen me or heard me speak, so it’s crucial that when you see an artist you like, you remember to recommend them to others.
I know you did a virtual book tour to celebrate your new book, can you talk about releasing a book during a pandemic and challenges or opportunities that involved?
I was once told by a former poet laureate that you were supposed to, or expected to, promote your book for free. In the gig economy this is unsustainable considering that the amount of books being published has increased, but the amount of media play for all books is generally the same in traditional media. This means that all of my projects, including my book, have to find new ways of reaching audiences. And since we were all mostly online, I was able to access spaces that have geographically been unsustainable to travel to because of such low speaking and gig fees.
In many ways, I was actually able to earn part of my living off of touring as an artist without the added cost and fatigue of travelling across Canada. The challenge was getting people to consistently be engaged in the face of such a big onslaught of online content. But the opportunity was that, for me, as a disabled poet, I was able to do almost four times as many shows and that was reflected in how well my book was received. Doing online shows requires more legwork to promote, often with less audience per event. But the ability to do more events means that overall, more people were able to meet my book out in the world.
Can you tell me about your hobbies! What do you do for fun?
I love finding good food to eat, playing Pokémon, and reading trashy YA novels. I’m also hoping to attend my 30th Kpop concert this year, and my dream would be to see Seventeen again, with my fiancée.
As an aside, I absolutely love your style—your fashion, the bright colours, your hair, if you’d like to share anything about your style here please feel free!
I recently learned about influencer debt, and I think I want to be very conscious of trying to pursue a style that looks good on Instagram as well as fitting into unphotographed day-to-day life. Arguably the latter is more important. Now I focus on outfits that make me feel good, and excited about getting up for the day, while still being aware that I’m trying to build a more sustainable and healthy relationship to fashion.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work professionally, personally, or anything that I’ve missed that you’d like mentioned as part of this profile on you?
Being an artist in a gig economy means that there is a lot of uncertainty in your life. But it also means that the opportunities for spontaneity and joy are deep and numerous if you’re willing to live with uncertainty.
A lot of my ongoing work is a reflection of my capacity as well as my most provocative interests, but I don’t think I’ll ever do enough of any one type of artistic project.
So, right now I’m working on music to go with my spoken word, I’m working on film and video and photography, as well as fiction and poetry. And one day I’d like to showcase all of it as a cohesive body of work, just as I am cohesive artist.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix?
Heartstopper, because it’s gay.
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
Ocean Vuong’s latest book: Time is a Mother, it will leave anyone breathless. Even if you’re not a fan of poetry.
What is one of your favourite local restaurants or stores you’d recommend?
Teapsy Lab bubble tea, and their sweet chili fries. My favourite drink is a reduced sugar Milky Mango.
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
Edmonton has really great food and festivals, but mostly it’s the feeling of possibility that I enjoy. There’s a little bit of everything that you could want without the loneliness and isolation of living in a big city.
My favourite place, Whyte Avenue, has at least five different bubble tea shops and several places for hand-pulled noodles, for instance. What more could you want?
Thanks Nisha, for sharing your story!
You can connect with Nisha on:
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