Surviving the Mic: Nikki Patin Speaks Poetry To Power Through Radical Art Activism

Few artists have had the lasting individual impact as spoken word artist and activist Nikki Patin. With roots in poetry, Patin (pronounced Pa-tan) has conducted performances and workshops all over the world that confront issues of race, gender, queerness, and body image. Additionally, Patin is a certified rape crisis counselor and former employee of the award wining organization, Rape Victim Advocates. It’s no surprise, then, that Patin has become a dedicated healing force within our local community.

In the past two years, dozens of women in Chicago and the National Poetry Slam community have come forward to speak out about violence, abuse, and rape they’ve faced at the hands of prominent poets. Unfortunately, many organizations have not supported survivors. Some have even continued to allow repeat sexual predators at their events.

Partially a response to the revictimization of survivors of sexual violence, Patin founded Survivng the Mic as a space dedicated to poets who have survived trauma, particularly sexual violence and domestic abuse. Surviving the Mic includes an open mic, which is open to all experiences of trauma, as well as a closed workshop series.

The workshop series is for women-identified poets of African descent who are also sexual assault survivors. Through a discussion-driven format, the innovative space provides a necessary platform for black survivors, who must confront both racism and sexism when coping with sexual assault. While survivors of sexual assault of any race face insurmountable obstacles toward justice, black women in particular are more likely to be abused by law enforcement than protected.

In local and national poetry slam, many women have withdrawn as a result of its inhospitable climate. But Patin has provided a vibrant and necessary space that has not only helped survivors to heal, but to thrive in a supportive community.

Surviving the Mic is only one of the many ways in which Patin has used her art as an innovative tool of empowerment for the past twenty years of her career. Through performance art, design, and music, Patin’s overall aesthetic is one that has challenged cultural norms of race, sexual identity, and body image, making the marginalized more visible.

I am humbled to have been able to interview Nikki Patin for my residency with Chicago Literati. Hers is one of most crucial voices in Chicago. I believe that her due recognition has been neglected—perhaps in part because she is such a threat to traditional power structures that favor the white, male, cisgendered poets. Consider this interview to be officially symbolic of her place among the best in Chicago.

You mentioned to me that you started writing poetry almost as soon as you learned to write. That really resonated with me, because poetry has been compulsory and therapeutic for my whole life as well (and how lucky are we to share this art). But also, I know a lot of people share in that experience as a young person, but don’t keep writing into adulthood. So I’m curious: what about poetry was attractive to you at such a young age, and how were you able to keep with it into adulthood?

The first book of poetry I ever read was an anthology of poetry for Black children called “Listen, Children,” based off the title of a Lucille Clifton poem. That book ignited my imagination with works by people like Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Ms. Clifton, of course. That book showed me what was possible with words and specifically, what was possible for words for Black people. The words literally wiggled on the page with so much snap and vigor. That writing was alive and it was exciting to me. From that moment on in my 7 year-old life, I had a deep love for poetry and started reading it and writing it as often as I could. In the 6th grade, I was allowed to skip school and go to a writing workshop every Friday for the entire school year. Writing became what I did. I think I identified as a writer before I identified as anything else: before I was Black, female, fat, queer, survivor. I was always a writer first and, when I discovered spoken word, I discovered a new way to be a writer. I discovered more rhythm, more complex rhyme schemes, more forms, better ways to use image and metaphor, more snap, more vigor, more fire! More, more, more! At that point, I figured out a way to dig deeper into myself through words, figured out how to tell my own truth and to not apologize for it. After that, I couldn’t not write, couldn’t not perform. I was hooked.

Although artistically your word has expanded, you’ve more or less been around Chicago slam poetry since the mid-90s. I also know that slam poetry—everywhere—is not always the most hospitable place for women, people of color, LGBTQ poets, and people of size. Ironically, although many poets are drawn to slam poetry in the first place because they feel their voices are marginalized or underrepresented, they often feel more accepted in other communities.

What about slam—as both a competitive art form and a community—makes it so difficult for inclusivity to be consistently practiced? Do you think that this is changing for the better?

Well, slam is a game. It’s a game that is a marketing tool to get people to sit down and listen to poems. People forget that, though, and get hooked on the competition and that power that comes from being one of the winners. As with any power games in the United States, the same rules that govern the power games of our culture, govern slam. Audiences have an easier time swallowing work by white, straight men and thin, pretty women, just like they have an easier time swallowing politics or the news or music from folks with those identities. Now, that’s not to say that folks don’t or can’t break through. Patricia Smith and Sonya Renee Taylor have slayed the slam genre in ways that no one else has. However, the folks that tend to succeed in slam, but don’t know or don’t want to crossover, are still involved with it, still running it and they’re not giving up their spots. And we all were born and raised in this country, wherein racism, sexism and homophobia are what many of us were steeped in while we came of age. I think slam is changing for the better and I think that there have always been people within it who have pushed for and practiced inclusivity. But, as with anything else, those who gain power and run shit are usually assholes and usually looking to keep folks out. Slam is no different.

One of the ways your work has been the most meaningful for me—not just as an artist, but an organizer as well—is the work you’ve done for survivors of sexual assault through Surviving the Mic, which is both a workshop series and an open mic. Why did you start this organization, and what can we expect from it in the future?

I started Surviving the Mic because of the fallout at NPS last summer and reports of rape from some pretty well-known male poets. Really, it was the lack of response from the community that got me riled up. I mean, this is poetry, right? Where we’re all sensitive and talking about feelings and our lives and who we are? How the hell do you run a national competition for POETS and just refuse to support, acknowledge or protect survivors of sexual violence? How do you manage events or host shows and feel cool with known predators in your space, especially when you know that their presence silences people and keeps them from attending? How do you rest in an artistic community that is becoming homogenous in tone and craft because no one wants to hear from women who don’t just want to be entertaining eye candy? I’m never one to leave my own liberation or freedom in the hands of other people. Just like I became obsessed with spoken word because I never saw or heard people like me on stage, I started Surviving the Mic because that was space I craved and didn’t see created anywhere. Folks do “Take Back the Night” events in April every year, but sexual violence is so prevalent that I feel like the survivors of it need room to talk about it year-round. When I thought about it more deeply, I also realized that many of us are surviving not just rape or sexual violence, but domestic violence, drug addiction, terminal illnesses of friends and family, divorce, broken homes, you name it. And these kinds of issues are the ones that people hear about at open mics and look at the person speaking to these experiences like there’s something wrong with them. Seriously, though, that is what poetry is for. It allows us to speak about the ugliest, hardest, most painful parts of our lives in ways that are beautiful and liberating. I wanted to create a safe space for people and honor what is hard or painful for them to say.

In addition to the work you’ve done with survivors of sexual assault, you also do a lot of work in the battle for body acceptance, particularly when it comes to self-esteem. It is unfortunate that the worth of women is often measured by how attractive they are. How have you responded to beauty standards within your work as both an artist and activist?

Well, I used to perform a burlesque piece entitled “The Most Beautiful Boogieman,” where I stripped, riffed on a cover of a song by Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) by the same name and performed spoken word…all at the same time. I spent a lot of time confronting people’s discomfort with my fat body in my early work. That work also looked at how race intersected with size, sexuality and gender. In many ways, my response was physical: running in place while performing, showing my naked body. I did things to make the audience uncomfortable with their own discomfort in an effort to get them to examine the heart of that discomfort. Why is a bigger woman so threatening? Why a bigger Black woman? Why a bigger, Black woman who talks about sex and not just with men? Statistically, I make less money, have access to less equitable healthcare, have little representation in government or big business, a higher chance of contracting HIV, getting raped and losing my child, due to high infant mortality rates. I hold very little power in this country and in this world. So why is everyone so intimidated and uncomfortable? Or, if they’re not, why are they only comfortable when I’m the sassy Black woman, serving attitude and threatening to kick everyone’s ass? I felt confined to a really narrow space as an artist and as a human. I did whatever I could to kick my way out of it.

What advice would you give to an artist who wanted to change the world?

Start with where you are and where you live. I don’t try to change the world. I try to change myself and my circumstances. Surviving the Mic is small…maybe 20 people show up every month. But folks walk out feeling better. They feel affirmed, heard, cared for, respected. 20 people out of billion isn’t very many, but it’s enough for me. It’s more than nobody. It’s better than doing nothing. You start there. You can’t predict what kind of ripple effect you might have. So, it’s better to do what you believe in and not worry about your reach. Worry about getting it right and making it good for who’s down to show up. The rest of it will take care of itself.

In addition to being a poet, performance artist, musician, designer, and activist-phew!-you’re getting an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Stonecoast (one of the very best low residency programs!). What do you hope to accomplish by getting an MFA? I’m particularly interested in why you chose CNF over any of the other genres you work in.

I want to finish my memoir. I don’t care if it gets published. I just want to finish it. The MFA was attractive to me because of its focus on, well, writing. All those other things that you listed can get mighty distracting, so I needed to be in a program that could help me focus. I also dropped out of my BA program when I was 21 to, as I told my mother on the phone back then, “be a poet.” So, I don’t actually have a degree. When Stonecoast accepted me, I saw it as a way to fast-track the education I walked away from 15 years ago. It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I chose CNF because I love the art of the essay. I love its possibilities and its blend of storytelling and poetic truth-telling. Stonecoast also allows me to take poetry workshops, so I actually get to do both, which sealed the deal for me. I also think that spoken word is the perfect blend of poetry and CNF, which I plan to explore on some scholarly/academic ish next semester.

So, we’ve come to the end of the interview. Thanks for hanging in there. I know I asked some tough questions, but it was all out of love. How can readers get more involved in what you’ve talked about today?

Come to Surviving the Mic! Listen to my music at http://www.phatgrrrlrevolution.com and read my work at http://www.nikkipatin.com. Showing up, listening and reading are the best ways to get involved. Everybody needs a witness. I know I do.

The next Survivng the Mic will take place at 8pm next Thursday, June 19th. Located at Vintage Underground Boutique, 1507 N. Milwaukee, the open mic and performance is open to survivors and allies. Read Nikki Patin’s orginial poem, “forgotten,” by clicking here.

KiwiAussie150 - 034NIKKI PATIN has been writing for over two decades. She has taught hundreds of workshops on performance poetry, body image, sexual assault prevention and LGBT issues. Patin has performed, taught and spoken at elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities such as the University of Chicago, Adler School of Psychology, Northwestern University, Nancy B. Jefferson High School (located within the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center), University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison and many others. Patin was featured on the fourth season of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, was voted one of 30 under 30 most influential LGBTQ people in Chicago by Windy City Times and took the gold medal in the 2006 Gay Games International LGBT poetry slam. Patin was voted “Best Standout Performer” in the Dunedin Fringe Festival while headlining a tour of her one-woman show, “The Phat Grrrl Revolution” throughout New Zealand and Australia. She has released several chapbooks, a full-length collection of writing and design, two EPs and a full-length album entitled “Bedroom Empire.” Patin designs and maintains two websites,www.nikkipatin.com and http://www.phatgrrrlrevolution.com. She is the creator of Surviving the Mic, an organization dedicated to creating safe space for the creation and telling of stories of survivors of all kinds of trauma, with a special focus on Black- and female-identified survivors of sexual and domestic violence who also identify as performing writers. Nikki Patin is an MFA candidate in Creative Non-Fiction at Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine and the Director of Training and Cultural Programs at Black Women’s Blueprint. She lives in Chicago, IL with her son, Tobias.

headshot2STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit. She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013. This article is part of her June residency for Chicago Literati. Read more about her project here

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