Jae Nichelle is a storyteller on the page and the stage. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Porch (As Sanctuary), and her work has appeared in ANMLY, Best New Poets, Muzzle Magazine, The Washington Square Review, The Offing Magazine, and elsewhere. Her spoken word has been featured by Write About Now, Button Poetry, and the Speak Up Poetry Series.
“Ends with a Smile,” an Interview with Jae Nichelle
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Rich Duhamell. Of the process, they said, “Jae Nichelle draws readers and listeners alike into God Themselves with her impressive form and poetic negotiation with religion and community. Her Gawd is a love letter to what community should and could be, and their presence is achingly human throughout her poems. It was an utmost pleasure to see how these poems built upon one another and showed an opening window of the capability of joy through the everyday tragedies of violence and rejection.” In this interview, Jae Nichelle talks about putting together this anthology, staying creative in hard times, and the role of audience in both spoken word and written poetry.
Superstition Review: The motif of hands and their capacity to hurt and heal runs throughout this collection. Could you talk a bit about the prominence of hands in your work, especially as it applies to spoken word?
Jae Nichelle: I love this question because it’s something I only realized I did when I put the entire book together and read it back. I was like “Man, what’s up with me and hands?” I think it came out naturally in this project because of the religious aspect and how prominent hands are in ritual and tradition. We put our hands together to pray and clap, we use our hands to make offerings, and we lay hands on people to lift them up. Simultaneously, those same hands can be used to destroy, to hit, and to withhold. In love, we give our hands to each other. We use our hands to help each other. I use my hands to write. In performance poetry, I gesture with my hands and the audience may snap or shake their hands in praise. I can only assume they show up so much in this work because hands are so prominent in my life. In my memories, I remember hands a lot. Their positioning tells me something about the relationship between people or objects.
SR: The title comes into play with the many iterations of god, from expected capital G God, to a myriad of little g gods, to Gawd with their afro. The latter two appear in more human-like capacities, suffering from the same obsolescence and hard times as us, and capital G God is accompanied by a dread and shame throughout the poems. Many of your poems are call and response with one another; how would you say Gawd and little g gods answer the loom of capital G God?
JN: What a great question! When I started writing this book, I created the character of Gawd as a near antithesis to the traditional capital G God I was exposed to growing up. Gawd is genderqueer, approachable, understanding, and interacts directly with the world. Gawd exists almost in defiance to God here, to say look how different things could be. As the project expanded, little gods kept popping up in my work as I became inspired by different mythologies. It seems fair to me that Gawd, community-oriented and auntie-like in my mind, wouldn’t work alone. It’s possible that Gawd and the little gs exist in a parallel universe to God; one that the speaker is wrestling with accessing. But I love the wording of this question because, as I think about it, I think Gawd and the little g gods are the answer to the loom of capital G God.
SR: The playfulness of your forms is so captivating, with the group chat that always has answers lagging behind new topics and the sudoku puzzle that makes the brain work for a sweet little love message. What was the process of presenting these poems like this?
JN: Well thank you. As I frequently say whenever I perform or read somewhere, I love a little audience participation. And I love a good word game. So, for poems like “Complete the Sudoku” or one of the many poems with footnotes, cross-outs, or broken up words, I wanted to invite the reader to play with me. Or to create meaning with me and feel like an active participant in the process.
And I’m so glad you brought up “Third Litany,” the group chat poem. There’s a line in a poem that appears after that one in the book that goes “I say define church—not the group chat where my friends shout grievances and lay virtual hands?” (from “When the Last Time You Went to Church?”) I was looking for a way to express that sentiment in this piece, inspired by an actual group chat I had with three other friends. I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than with an actual text thread, and I love the chaotic nature of these types of chats where conversations are rarely, if ever, wrapped up neatly.
SR: In “I Am Angry, & I Will Not Go Back to Work,” you refuse to obfuscate the reality for Black lives with metaphors, to create distance by making grief pretty—“I have nothing beautiful / to say.” Can you talk a bit about this poem and how you turned the metaphor of a garden into the real image with inescapable implications, how you balanced not sugar coating but still remaining poetic?
JN: In 2020, I found myself in a frustrating place of helplessness. I felt like disaster was happening all around me and there was nothing I could do. I volunteered and I protested, and nothing felt like enough. I didn’t think writing would feel like enough, and so I resisted for a long time. There are no words I can put up against brutality, racism, and injustice that haven’t been said before. I became angry. I wrote this poem only because I needed a place for my frustration to live and I wrote it in one sitting. I immediately interrupted myself from trying to write something lovely or removed because that’s what the journalists and reporters had been doing—using language that created distance from reality. People weren’t being honest or clear. There was genuinely no need for metaphor to express what I wanted to say. The flowers were gone.
SR: You feature Ntozake Shange at the start of this collection, and Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton both inspire a poem. How would you say that your work is in conversation with theirs through God Themselves?
JN: Ah, my three loves. I think what I admire about these writers is how real, heartfelt, and genuine their work feels. I have been changed by the work of Shange, Morrison, and Clifton because they are Black women who challenge white supremacist “tradition” unapologetically. Additionally, they reinvent what literature can be and look like. They tell stories. They play with voice and form. I am interested in following their lead in my work, which is why I couldn’t help but be inspired by them in God Themselves.
SR: The final poem of the collection lifts spirits: “I know love because I have turned the page / of this borrowed book to find a stain…& I am holding something someone / would not even let go of to eat.” Here, there is room made for joy, glasses moved to accommodate a smile. Could you talk about what made you end with this poem?
JN: Haha, yes, since it’s a sort of funny story. When I felt like the manuscript was complete, I actually ended the book on “Psalm 161,” which is about the end of the world. When I was working toward publication, my editor said she wasn’t confident that it was the real ending of the book, that the book actually feels like it prioritizes moments of joy and rebuilding. At first, I thought “ehhhhh I don’t know, despair kind of resonates with me right now.” But as I thought about it more, I realized she was right. A lot of the poems are inspired by the seemingly impossible, including moments of joy in the face of oppression and terror. Noncompliance to being put down. It started to feel more true to the book to end with a reminder that the people I love continue to defy the odds stacked against us. Even though I wish we didn’t have to. So now, I like that God Themselves ends with a smile.
SR: How does publishing these poems together as your debut compare to the early publications of some of them in literary magazines?
JN: Even though some of the poems in the book are older than “Possession,” I like to think of that poem as the first one that led me on the path to what the book was going to be. As I started publishing poems individually, I still had no idea how they would eventually come together. Putting them in conversation with each other made me want to change a few things and add to them to make them more cohesive. That’s why “What To Do When There’s Nothing You Can Do,” for example, has one more stanza in the book than how it originally appeared online.
SR: You do not speak fondly of Twitter in these works, and for good reason. The motions of tweeting and retweeting when Black pain is hyper-televised and Black joy is still a niche enough movement to be buried are dizzying. How do you combat this disaster fatigue to stay creating and advocating?
JN: Oof isn’t that the question of the hour. I’m hardly sure on a day to day, but I try to engage with and do things that fill me up when I’m getting depleted. I try not to put pressure on myself to always be making something. Sometimes I need a break, and I give myself permission to take one. I try to surround myself with people who do positive things as a reminder that it isn’t all bleak out here. My friends and community are really what keep me going.