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News / Clark County News

Black poet, author raises her voice at WSU Vancouver workshop and slam

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 1, 2024, 3:09pm
5 Photos
A copy of poet and author Jae Nichelle&rsquo;s book &ldquo;God Themselves&rdquo; sits on a table Thursday at the Firstenburg Student Commons at Washington State University Vancouver. At the end of her performance, Nichelle gave away a free copy of her book to a student.
A copy of poet and author Jae Nichelle’s book “God Themselves” sits on a table Thursday at the Firstenburg Student Commons at Washington State University Vancouver. At the end of her performance, Nichelle gave away a free copy of her book to a student. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Poet and author Jae Nichelle doesn’t just write her words down on a page. She transforms them into a performance.

On Thursday afternoon, Nichelle, 26, took to the stage to perform for students as part of Washington State University Vancouver’s “Raise Your Voice’’ series. The poetry slam, which was paired with a writing workshop earlier in the day, centered around language reclamation and how to use writing as a tool for healing amid racism.

“What got me into writing was being kind of a very shy, very introverted child. I felt like the notebook was my safe place to go and the only thing that was going to listen to me,” Nichelle said in an interview Wednesday.

“Raise Your Voice” started this year and will run through April. Students at WSU Vancouver will have the chance to participate in a workshop with a professional artist of color from the community, according to student activities adviser Sheila Gray.

Each event will follow a similar format: a workshop, a performance that uplifts the experience of communities of color and a discussion with the artist, where students have the opportunity to ask questions and reflect.

“It’s designed to empower students with the tools, education and cultural awareness to recognize, develop and uplift their voices using various forms of expressive art,” Gray said.

Southern roots

Nichelle was born and raised in Lafayette, La. She moved back and forth between Arkansas and Georgia before landing in Portland in 2022. She now works for publishing company Tin House.

Nichelle opened the slam with a poem called “Friends with Benefits,” a piece about navigating life with social anxiety so intense that it feels like its own person. While some of her work revolved around themes of depression and anxiety, she also shared insight into her experience growing up in the South as a queer Black woman.

Her first book called “The Porch (As Sanctuary)” was released in 2019 and narrates accounts of the porch as a “confessional, a home, a lesson in history and a reckoning.”

“To me, that was a very Southern childhood experience, you know? Staying outside on my grandma’s porch, and all the things that happened while talking to people in the heat. Mosquitoes at your skin all the time. The humidity,” Nichelle said.

Her second book — “God Themselves,” which was released last year — is a full poetry collection about the intersection of her Southern background, sexuality and religion.

“It is quite literally about my experience growing up in the South as a queer Black woman and what that really meant for what I learned about love and life and religion, you know?” she said. “There’s a lot of specific Southern religious culture that I felt like I had to relearn and rethink.”

She has happy poems, too, though. Nichelle joked about it during the slam.

When she released her second book, her editor asked if she could end it on a positive note. At first, she was hesitant, but later agreed that she wanted to share the joyful aspects of her life, too.

Nichelle also performs at open mics around Portland, but for the most part, she loves being at home with her cats.

During the writing workshop, Nichelle said she wanted to focus on reclaiming words that were once used against her. Redefining those words for herself is the core of writing poetry, she said.

“I get my inspiration to write through living,” Nichelle said.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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