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For the last five years, Words, Beats and Life Inc. has held a competition to decide which young person will represent D.C. as the District’s Youth Poet Laureate. The title comes with a book deal, performance tour and workshops with famous poets.
For many poets, of all ages, the craft is much more than an art form. It’s a tool for educating their audiences about trauma or social woes and a means for personal healing.
Kojo sits down with Marjan Naderi, the 2020 D.C. Youth Poet Laureate, to learn about her process — and how she uses poetry to tell stories about her cultural identity.
Produced by Richard Cunningham
- Marjan Naderi 2020 Washington DC Youth Poet Laureate; @maarjanxpoetry
- Joi Brown Vice President of Programming/Artistic Director at the Strathmore Music Center
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll meet local blind athletes, who are conquering their chosen sports. But first for the past five years Words, Beats and Life Incorporated, that's a local arts non-profit has held a competition to choose D.C.'s Youth Poet Laureate. The yearlong position comes with a book deal, a performance tour and other forms of support for growing their work.
KOJO NNAMDIBut for D.C.'s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate poetry is much more than an art form. It's a path to healing and she uses her craft to tell stories about her identity. Joining me now to talk about that craft is Marjan Naderi. She is 2020 Washington D.C. Youth Poet Laureate. Congratulations and thanks for joining us.
MARJAN NADERIYeah. Of course, I'm very excited to be here.
NNAMDIYou were born in Northern Virginia.
NNAMDIAnd your family is from Afghanistan.
NNAMDIWhat role have both of those cultures played in your life?
NADERIWow. So when it comes to reconciling with being from two completely drastic different backgrounds I think that the most important element of understanding who I am is to understand what those identities offer for me. And, you know, like growing up in America I always like fighting with, am I American enough because like the community at school doesn't want to accept me. And then like you go into your Afghan community and they're just like, oh well, do you belong here, because you don't speak perfect Farsi. You know, you're not doing the cultural dances right.
NNAMDIYou're not Afghan enough.
NADERIYeah, exactly. But I think through my work and writing I've been able to really highlight the beautiful elements of both cultures that have become a part of my identity and really accepting embracing what has become a part of me in general. So definitely being in Northern Virginia has brought me such a great wealth of information about America. And it makes me very proud to be American, but also keeping true to the cultural identity that I learned at home.
NNAMDIHow did you get your start in poetry?
NADERIWhenever someone asks me this question I love to -- you know, it's a very difficult answer just because it's difficult to backtrack. When I was younger I hated reading. I hated writing. It wasn't something I was interesting in. But when I was in the eighth grade my teacher (unintelligible) was very adamant on giving me an outlet and that being art. And there was a regional tournament called the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament and she had signed me up under spoken word. And I had no idea what it was. I thought it was like Dr. Seuss on steroids. I was not educated on what it could possibly be.
NADERIBut I saw a video of Mohamed Tall performing and he's a spoken word poet based in Baltimore. And I saw the means of which connection was made through like the very art of spoken word. And I was just so drawn to it because now you're hearing this narrative. And ever since I was very young I've always been drawn to listening to other people and their stories and what wisdom they have to offer the world. And I was very drawn to his story. I was like, this is incredible.
NADERIAnd so then I went through this whole like scavenger hunt of who do I find to be the most inspiring spoken word poets. And they covered a mass means of topics and self-exploration. And I was very invested in. So I wrote my own poem. And I wrote like 50 other poems for the competition. Then I got there and I didn't want read any of them, because they didn't feel authentic. I was trying really hard to make like a cookie cutter picture perfect poem. But then I got there and I was like, yeah, this doesn't feel authentic. So I just read like pieces of my journal. And the judges appreciated it and they wanted me to read it before like the entire tournament at the George Washington Listener Auditorium.
NADERIAnd I was there and the poem itself was about sexual assault. And it was really -- it was difficult to push myself to do it in front of that many people especially knowing like their parents are going to be there, but eventually like I got on stage. And I remember like there was a ring sweat around my headscarf and like my hands were in a fists. And I didn't want to read it. But I did. And I came off the stage and there was like a dozen girls from like that thousand audience that embraced me, and were like, thank you, like you gave a voice to my trauma. I'm like, I appreciate that.
NADERIWe haven't had that conversation in like the Muslim community, because it is very like closed off to that element of speaking. And it's almost like shame. But it was very eye opening and then feeling connected to what I had to say really did keep me motivated to continue writing and sharing.
NNAMDIWell, I understand how you got over your hesitation about participating in the tournament, but why do you think that teacher was so insistent on providing you with an outlet? What did that teacher see in you that you may not as of yet seen in yourself?
NADERIShe was always very pushing of the arts. And I was a student that really wanted to dabble myself into everything. But she did mention like she saw a lot of things going on like quote unquote emotionally with me. And in that community there weren't a lot of resources. And so she really did want to provide like art to be an outlet and the beginning of something for healing and growth as a person. And as I began to discover myself especially in eighth grade, you know, you're trying to figure out who are you, like what boxes do you fit into? What do you check off? She thought it would be a really great way to help build a community of both like Muslim Americans that are your age in the area, but also just finding something that you're heart feels good in and is conducive to healing.
NNAMDIWhy not another form of storytelling, why poetry?
NADERII think that when it comes to spoken poetry, because you're able to immediately build a connection with the audience through like three minutes of being onstage. You know, immediately you have this room of people who now you hold a piece of your story with them. And they carry it on to every setting they go to. And it immediately connects yourself to multiple people. Like one time -- and that in it of itself is just so beautiful to me. And I really enjoy connecting with people. And to feel like I've been a part of someone else's growth and understanding of who they are it means absolutely a lot.
NNAMDIHow do you write? What does your writing process look like?
NADERIOh, my process. Well, I definitely try to keep myself inspired surrounding myself of various forms of art. So whether it's contemporary dance or music or visual arts I love pulling from that and working on interdisciplinary projects. But usually my writing will be like a line that I thought of like mid in the day and then I just wrote it down. And I use it as a prompt and continue writing. And I go back with editing and Split This Rock has been a really awesome organization that has allowed me to find mentors and editing and giving me feedback on what it is to perform and to share your work with others.
NNAMDIWhat is some of the themes that people would find or will find in your poetry?
NADERIYeah. So recently I published a collection of poetry called "Bloodline" as the title of it. And it's basically a run through of lineage and uncovering history and identity and my cultural heritage of being Afghan American coming to America and what that's looked like for me. And also like generational trauma. So that's definitely a really big theme in my writing.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by generational trauma?
NADERII think that my parents coming from like a war stricken country they've experienced a lot, right? And coming -- migrating all the way from Afghanistan to here they may not have had the opportunity to explore like certain traumas that they've like encountered or understand what was going on before them. And so like that itself manifests in the home. You know, like you're carrying on so much weight of seeing people pass away in front of you, your most loved ones going to war. And you bring that here with never having to understand the idea of healing or how you can grow from it.
NNAMDIAnd the fact that that war began before you were born and it's still continuing now. Is the ongoing nature of the war an aspect of the cultural identity that you have to express?
NADERIAbsolutely because, you know, when you tell people like you're Afghan American I think the first thing is like a weird mix of like sympathy, but also fear when they look at you. And it's like, oh, like I'm sorry. Let me just like run the other way. And so often war is associated with Afghanistan, right? But we often neglect like the gems and the art that has come from the country and the beautiful culture that's made its way over to America itself and manifests in our daily lives.
NNAMDIHere's Charity in Washington D.C. Charity, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARITYHey, Marjan. This is Charity calling from Washington D.C., D.C. Scores. I just wanted to call in and tell you that I'm super proud of you. I just wanted to give you a huge shout out and let you know that you are truly and completely appreciated not just only in the poetry community, but here at D.C. Scores and how you serve our kids. And that's it. I just wanted to show some love.
NADERII appreciate that. Thank you so much, Charity. It's lovely hearing your voice.
NNAMDIYou're 18 and you're D.C.'s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate. What does that mean exactly?
NADERIWhat does that mean? Well, being a D.C. Poet Laureate you have obligations of like fulfilling certain works in the community and community service and really branching out into different fields of people, meeting and performances. So it's been awesome of it being a way in which I can connect with more people at like a rapid amount. And, for example, being on the show itself, it's an honor. But, yeah, it's through Words, Beats, and Life and Urban Word in New York City.
NADERIAnd once you're the Regional Youth Poet Laureate you can apply to be the National Poet Laureate, which is really exciting. And it offers a lot of incredible resources. And I have weekly classes with Raquel at Words, Beats, and Life and the mentorship. And the book deal is also really exciting. So it really does help shape what I want to do with my career. And yeah.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned the book deal. Do you believe that poets have a responsibility to share their work or do you sometimes write just for yourself?
NADERII think that when it comes to the idea of wanting to write and then share with other people we often forget that first and foremost writing is for the self, right? And we may find ourselves stuck in a weird like limbo, oh, I'm writing this and my audience will enjoy it. But when we detach ourselves from our work it's no longer an independent narrative. And it stretches out to wanting to serve the community, which isn't a bad thing. But it takes away the element of personal touch. And first and foremost as we do write that is for ourselves.
NADERIAnd as we want to publish our work and connect with more people and have it serve others I think it goes through a process of, what do I want to be shared? And we also forget as artists what we should keep to ourselves and what belongs to us versus what belongs to our community. And so in having that conversation with the self is also really important when wanting to publish. And I've had that like a billion times with myself. And it's been a weird little limbo.
NNAMDIYou've got to decide which of your self-expression you'll share and which of your self-expression you won't. So take us through when you're sharing. What a typical performance looks like for you? How do you prepare?
NADERIYeah. Well, for the past like two and a half years, three years that I've been performing like almost like weekly I get nervous every single time. I don't care if it's one person, if it's a crowd of people, if it's an auditorium. And I'm so grateful that I have that element of nervousness just because it shows that I care still about the work that I'm putting out. So it sits very well with me. Excuse me.
NNAMDIYou found one of the essential elements of poetry reading publically or any kind of public speaking and that is nervousness is a way of form of inspiration, because if you're not nervous sometimes you get lackadaisical or lazy. So being nervous can help a little bit. Does sharing your work -- and read sometime that you're performing you switch between reading and memory?
NNAMDIHow do you do that?
NADERIWell, when I want to get up and perform sometimes -- especially for slam culture you're expected to have a lot of your pieces memorized. And so memorizing the poems are definitely a big part of elevating the experience and being able to just like allow full body movement to be a part of the performance. But also I think it's a completely different element that you tap into when you are reading versus performance.
NADERIAnd I think with reading you have the intention to share your work with people. And it's like now it's like a very raw like piece of who I am and you're seeing me 100 percent raw. Versus performance like you want to cater to the audience and make sure that they're cared for, and they're your main priority before sharing. And so when I switch in between I guess it really just depends on the work that I'm sharing and how I want people to absorb it.
NNAMDIWhen you share in public does that help in your own healing?
NADERIAbsolutely. And I think that people overlook how much of art is self-healing versus like how much does serve for the community. Like even comedians when they're sharing with other people it's a form of therapy. And I love to use the example of Kevin Hart when he does share. Like, you know, you watch this -- and everyone knows who Kevin Hart is of course. Like when you're watching he shares very intimate and personal details and he adds a comedic effect to it. And that not only brings the audience more engaged into like his story and his narrative, but also it's a way of feeling heard by others. And making sure that everyone around you is appreciative of what you're putting out.
NNAMDIKashawn tweeted, "Bravo. Look forward to following and supporting your work, Marjan. Please come out to Ward 2 and meet my neighbors." And here is Wadie in Greenbelt, Maryland. Wadie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WADIEHey, hey, Marjan. What's up? I've been listening to your interview with Kojo Nnamdi. Of course, Kojo Nnamdi, I'm a big fan of you too. And, Marjan, I'm a huge fan of you always. I'm out supporting. You're doing amazing always. Keep up the good work. Yeah.
NNAMDIThank you for calling, Wadie. Who's stories are you telling in your poetry?
NADERII first and foremost will say mine, but I think what's very interesting about artwork is that when you put a piece of yourself on paper you're choosing a certain side of yourself to be shown, right? And when you're entering different spaces you're trying to reconcile in which like what element of my work am I portraying today. And what is manifesting like in my personality in the way I interact with people.
NADERIAnd when writing I make sure that I always keep in mind like my mom always tells me this, like you have the opportunity to share and to read and to write that we didn't have that in Afghanistan. And like my grandma and your entire lineage, you're one of the first generations to learn how to do that. And it's so awesome to see that you're wanting to perfect that language of communication." And so definitely feel like I have responsibility of people back in my lineage, but also the people that are connecting to my work. But first and foremost it is mine and I take responsibility for the work that I do put out before it is attached to anything else.
NNAMDIYou've just already given me a clue, but I have to ask this more specifically. You wrote a book called "Bloodline." What was the inspiration behind this collection? I think we just had a clue.
NADERIWell, I was just like going through a lot of my old poems. And I saw that there was a very repetitive theme of wanting to understand like what my cultural heritage has been. And I was talking to a lot of different people my age especially first generation Muslim Americans. You're here. You feel disconnected from everything, and wanting to understand that part of yourself feels so foreign, because you're not on that land. You don't have your grandmothers, your 50 cousins to talk to about it.
NADERIAnd I shared some of my work. And a lot of my community Afghan Academy in Northern Virginia were extremely supportive of it. And felt very connected to the work and were like, yes, I would love to read this because now I feel like I'm uncovering my own -- like pieces of my own self. And I really appreciate it. And so I had (unintelligible) which is one of my very close friends through Afghan Academy and she really pushed me to put a collection out and to have accessible to people.
NNAMDICan you read one of your poems from "Bloodline" for us? Did you bring it today?
NADERISure. Yeah. I have one memorized.
NNAMDIOoh, because I'm looking for the book.
NADERIYeah. I have it memorized. It's a poem after Mohamed Hassan. It's entitled "Learning My Name." In first grade, I told kids my name was Sarah. Saw the way Sarah lifted the curtain, but never cleared the confusion of my first grade mustache white enough for no one to ask questions. In second grade my teacher did roll call every morning. I'd clench my fists she'd sputter, "John ni-dee-ree" to the broken record of her eyebrows. Now every time my name is said, my bloodline folds scripts of history.
NADERISo it sounds better in the job interview, strips the vowels hidden in my voice unfitting for the western tongue, Mar-John Nadeeree. Oh, so like the plant Marjoram? Like parmesan? Like the Chinese game Marjong? Like the way my first white teacher said it. The way she corrected me in front of the classroom until I learned to strip parts of my identity the way she did. The best lessons she taught me were never in the syllabus. She never taught me what to say rather to bite down my tongue and watch my heritage crumble to pieces beneath my jaw that she'd feed herself.
NADERIShe taught me to white out my name in the Farsi dictionary. Reminded me for a family tree to stop growing you got to rip it from its cultural roots. Tear away from what was once growth. She planted my roots in stolen soil and called it America. Said, you shouldn't know another language here. Besides why do you have to roll the R for? It's the only thing us white people can't do. When you forget where you're from that's when you'll become truly American here. Learn to sing our song now. Forget the bloodline or your blood will be next in line for our red carpet. Roll out your history only to have us stampede. We'll turn the cultural dances into the 8 Step Masquerade. Must I remind you of the 7 Day Battle? Or the six seconds it took to love a language that will never learn your name?
NADERIWhen I cry to my mother's feet about the people who will not accept me she tells me, you have an identity translating to the coral and the depth of heaven's rivers. Your name is Marjan. You grow from the root word maraj flowing freely tells me, when you allow people to powder your name the rest of your identity disintegrates along with it. The flags and people wave at the same things they had forgotten. Your grandfather did not immigrate halfway across the world for you to flatten your name into someone else's mouth.
NADERIWhen they ask your name if you dare feel ashamed seek every fighting fiber hidden in your warrior of a body. Remember they cannot empty the bloodline of a fighter. So reload another stone into the slingshot that is your mouth. Reach out the palms of an engraved heritage and say, Marjan Naderi.
NNAMDIMarjan Naderi reading from her book "Bloodline." The poem was called "Learning My Name." Well, she didn't exactly read it. She has the poem entirely memorized with the slingshot of a mouth that she has. Here is Harris in Northern Virginia. Harris, you're on the air. We all now know why she is the D.C. Youth Poet Laureate. But Harris, go ahead, please.
HARRISHi, Kojo. Hi, Marjan. I just wanted to call and say it's an absolute pleasure having Marjan on your show. Being an Afghan American myself living in Northern Virginia I think it's absolute pleasure. I love the poem you just read "Bloodline" and looking forward to your more work. And hopefully you'll make tons of impact on our Afghan youth in Northern Virginia and all around the world.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Harris. Joining us by phone is Joi Brown, Artistic Director at the Strathmore Music Center. Joi Brown, thank you for joining us.
JOI BROWNOh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIMarjan will be performing at the Strathmore Music Center on January 24th as part of a celebration of the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. Joi, why did you choose to host this event and why Gwendolyn Brooks?
BROWNWell, actually there is a backstory to this. I think if there's a theme to it it's really about how arts organizations can look to artists like Marjan, like other poets in the community to really help infuse and guide content. We are presenting the Manual Cinema Company, which is a Chicago based shadow puppetry company that incorporates live music and cinematic techniques. And when they were commissioned to create a piece about Gwendolyn Brooks they reached out to their own local artist community.
NNAMDIYeah, because when I think Gwendolyn Brooks I think Chicago, but go ahead, please.
BROWNAbsolutely. Absolutely. And so I think the company really wisely understood that while they absolutely understood and had perfected all of these cinematic techniques that what they needed was authentic voices from their own local community to make sure that the content itself, the words of Gwendolyn Brooks truly resonated. And so they engaged local poets, local composers to help them create the screen bright and the music for the piece.
BROWNAnd I think that it made the piece feel very alive. And one of the things that Strathmore wanted to do when we presented this is to make sure that we don't present it in sort of an isolated bubble. So we've reached out to members of our own very vibrant artist community including Marjan that really help us contextualize this piece. So it's being presented on Friday night. There's a full performance of "No Blue Memories: The Story of Gwendolyn Brooks" presented by Manual Cinema. But then prior to that at 6:30 there's a poetry event called "We Are Each Other's Harvest," which is the piece that Marjan is participating in.
NNAMDIHow excited are you to participate in this Marjan?
NADERII'm incredibly excited.
NNAMDIHow nervous are you?
NADERIOh obviously nervous. It's a lovely question. I'm nervous of course, because I really care about the event, but incredibly excited because there's going to be poets like Brandon Douglas, who coached me on the Slam Team for a year, and Morgan Butler, who works with Words, Beats, and Life, and (unintelligible), who has been nothing but an incredible mentor for me. So it's a wonderful harmony of beautiful voices and backgrounds coming together to showcase and open up the show.
NNAMDIWell, good luck. Marjan Naderi is the 2020 Washington D.C. Youth Poet Laureate. Thank you so much for joining us.
NADERIThank you so much for having me. I had an incredible time.
NNAMDIJoi Brown, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJoi Brown is the Artistic Director of the Strathmore Music Center. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll meet local blind athletes, who are conquering their chosen sports. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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