It is with honor that we present this interview with poet, Nikki Skies! A key voice within the L.A. spoken word scene of the 90s, Nikki has maintained her sense of self and art to become a highly respected poet and thought purveyor. Whether she’s discussing her connection to the community or reflecting on her life and journey, Nikki’s poetry bubbles just at the surface. We hope that you will be equally as intrigued and moved by this beautiful spirit!
What impact has your involvement with the spoken word community had on you?
After grad school, I moved to Los Angeles and pretty much grew my art in that city for 10+ years. It was an incredible time to experiment with your voice and learn your personal writing style. Being part of the artistic family that re-launched the L.A. poetry scene in the late 1990s taught me my placement in the “village of didactics” as I like to call it.
I learned what I was good at bringing to the table or what was received well when I brought it. I accepted the tone of my message and the depth of my breath. For years I was insecure about how my deep my voice was but during those formative years as a performance poet, it began to make sense. The messages I received to turn into poems and prose matched my voice. I rarely received erotic or comedic poems to create so I was never part of the “in crowd of popular poets.” My material was reflective of what I read and studied and I was considered “deep” and “revolutionary.” Now some 18 years later, I’m seen as reflective, consistent and a trailblazer for female poets.
In the village of didactics I’ve been a fire starter, a flame watcher and I’ve almost worked my way up to being a roux maker. Like anything else, you get what you give. I create dialogues about my community not monologues about myself, so I eat well.
How long have you been writing and when did you decide to start performing?
I recently had a book signing in Atlanta and my mother was there to verify she put me in theatre at the age of five. She was a singer throughout her high school years and in the drama club as well so that passed down to me. So I’ve been performing in productions since I was five years old. I composed my first poetry book in the 3rd grade and cut out pictures from my Holly Hobby coloring book (yea…I just dated myself) as my illustrations.
Throughout high school I only performed, but once I got to college I picked my pen back up and started writing. That is when I discovered the artists from the Black Arts Movement and realized I could make a home for myself in this art form.
We know that you are a published author as well as an established performer. Do you write for the stage or for the page? Was it always that way?
As I mentioned earlier, I began to write again once I went to college. I competed in theatre competitions with other colleges and I couldn’t find material age appropriate for me or pieces that were not overly saturated such as Angelou’s “Still I Rise” or Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” so I wrote. Both monologues and performance poetry pieces. Once I began to consider myself as a writer, I studied the greats before me and my comrades around me and discovered there was a technique to writing for the page that was different from performance poetry. Writing for the page requires one to study word rhythms and various styles so the reader can interpret their own experience. After years of studying June Jordan or Gwendolyn Brooks just to name a few, I don’t have the patience to read a poetry book full of 3-4 page long poems. If you’ve ever read a Sonia Sanchez or Lucille Clifton book, they can get to the poetic point in 5-7 lines! So to answer the question, I write both.
Which of your compositions is your favorite and why?
I don’t have a favorite composition, but I do like any poem that has resonated with people and created conversations. Some of those would be “One Day White Woman,” “At the River,” “Like Moses” and most recently a poem I wrote entitled, “Say Her Name”. The latter poem was inspired for the social movement, #SayHerName, that recognizes the countless women that have been murdered by police and do not receive national attention.
Have any of your personal beliefs or opinions shifted over time?
Absolutely! I was advised early in my career to steer clear of artistic groups or teams that could potentially stifle my growth. I’ve been witness to some of my artistic comrades who have been a part of groups and get boxed in to represent a certain brand or message to complete their particular story. Flying solo has allowed me to fall silent and go unnoticed and come back reflecting the times just as I had been before I went into my cocoon to create. Hopefully my art represents my growth with different colors and smells or the same smells with different colors.
How personal is your poetry?
My poetry is very personal. It is storytelling with meter. They are stories of my community, our children, our health and our relationships. Being that they are poems, they are camouflaged with metaphor. I wrote a poem about a disagreement I had with a boyfriend once and aligned the poem to an afternoon picnic. People thought the sun and bees served as a romantic setting but it actually was a heated argument with words that stung. So yes, my poetry is personal.
Where are you from originally? Which aspects of your hometown/upbringing have helped to mold you as a person?
I was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo. I’m a midwest gal! Growing up in the midwest, you get the hottest hot and the coldest cold. In the summers you can expect dry and humid heat and in the winters you can expect bitter cold and cold so cold it feels hot! The experiences of flash floods and tornado warnings to snow days has given me vivid stories of fear and comfort from a child’s perspective.
Also, like a lot of African Americans, my family made the migration from the south, Arkansas and Mississippi, to the midwest–making my mother and her siblings 1st generation city folks. With that, my family remained close knit with someone living on every block of 43rd Street for a seven block radius. I come from fishermen and hunters, my great aunt sewed my prom dress, that same great aunt grew the food she ate and my grandmother maintained the most perfect line of peonies under her clothes line that served as a fabric scent to her towels and sheets when they were in bloom.
I don’t remember racial tension because for the most part the communities were segregated. However, gentrification did begin when I was in high school. Kansas City Police department developed a reputation for brutality like most states and eventually that Midwest state said, “Enough!” From Ferguson to the students at the University of Missouri. I’m proud to be from that Show Me State!
What has been the greatest piece of advice you’ve received thus far (poetry related or other)?
I mentioned one piece of advice earlier in this interview and that was to stay out of groups, cliques, teams, etc. If anything, insist on being an integral scribe in the community but not a scribed piece of work to complete a story in a branded group or team situation. Another great piece of advice came in grad school from my screenplay writing professor, Haile Gerima. He gave a very animated version to a story of a woman giving birth but his ultimate lesson was for a writer to never edit themselves during the creation process as a woman cannot edit the process of child birth. Write about every scream, tear, laughter and conversations you initially hear when working on a project.
What is your ultimate goal—with regards to your career or life in general?
Ultimate goal?… fortunately writing is that career you don’t have to retire from so I pray for continued detachment from results and to receive and create art that is reflective of human experiences.
Do you have any upcoming or current projects that you’d like to mention?
She Chronicles is a literary project that I created to honor the absence of the feminine narrative. And when I say feminine narrative, I am speaking of a progressive conversation or interaction with society not the programmed docile voices we are familiar with. Currently, She Chronicles is preparing to host the 3rd annual celebration of literary works for and about women during the month of March. In addition, She Chronicles will host a women’s writing retreat in June to encourage the completion of writing projects or spark creativity to begin projects. More information can be found on my blog for these events and more.