BlacArted: Love Letter to Bay Area Poetry During National Poetry Month

Editor’s Note: Oakland Voices is launching a column written by our alum and the City of Oakland’s first Poet Laureate, Ayodele Nzinga. BlacArted is a front-row view into the maze-like mind of a multi-hyphenated artist pondering on art and the nature of reality as it intersects the creative and the imagined. 

On an evening in late January before the monsoon-like rains set in on the Bay, I caught a Lyft across the bridge to the Wattis Foundation to read in my first in-person event for the year. I remember walking through the gallery into the performance space to find it pleasantly filled with art lovers who came to hear poets read in a gallery. It felt familiar in a welcoming way; although Covid was/is still lurking, for that night, it was constrained to our obligation to wear masks for mutual protection. The room felt like poetry. The event, To Speak at the Speed of the Heart, was curated by Josiah Luis Alderete and featured poets like Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta. PC Munoz accompanied all of the poets. I followed one of my favorite poets, James Cagney. The night was classic, like a thousand nights before it, and somehow unique, brand new, born in the moment like the music we improvised over, playing with words, power, and sound in a longstanding ritual. It felt like blue smoke, flickering candles, and curiosity. For what felt like the thousandth and the first time, I leaned deep into the joy of being a poet among poets. 

As Oakland’s Poet Laureate, the topic of poetry and the month of April seem fitting for the debut of BlacArted, a new column at Oakland Voices for which I’ll be writing about arts and artists in the Bay Area. National Poetry Month is in April; established by The Academy of American Poets in 1969, it is the largest literary celebration in the world. 

Throughout the month, there are events celebrating poetry and poets from cultural centers to coffeehouses in Oakland to Oxnard and back again. The seemingly ageless conversation about the irrelevance and imminent death of poetry is in the background of all the earnest recitations, fiery oration, and political ponderings.

An African American woman looks upwards wearing a hat and sunglasses with a slight smile
Ayodele Nzinga. Photo by Beth LaBerge.

I, of course, find these derisive speculations ridiculous. The death of poetry is news to me. Poetry is as old as the historic captures of written language dating back to stone etchings with pictographs. It has had amazing longevity for a dying art and seems to be doing ok for itself now. In the opinion of this poet, poetry is as essential to the human experience as air itself.

The debate on poetry’s popularity is as old as the form itself. Even critics agree that since 2016, the form has steadily increased in popularity. There is a general opinion that youth are poetry-curious. In Oakland, one finds no shortage of young poets.  

This youthful curiosity is met with opportunity. The evidence can be found in popular educational and enrichment programming I am often invited into and well-attended local programs like Chapter 510 and Youth Speaks. Oakland had a youth poet laureate long before it entertained an adult laureate. 

Poetry has been popular in the East Bay since the days cyphers were hosted by Paradise the Poet at La Peña. There were and are multiple venues to see live poetry and to follow poets. 

In the 1990s, Paradise Jah Freelove, who credits himself with inventing the local Black poetry scene, hosted 10 Qweens & a Mic at La Peña. I remember sharing that stage with poets that included  Mama Ayanna, Tureeda Mikell, and Jessica Holter.  That mic was a precursor to the popular open mic at D’Wayne Wiggins’ Jahva House, which opened in 1999 on Lakeshore. I recall a similarly named and even older mic in the cafe at the Alice Arts Center–now the Malonga Center–called the Java House. 

At the turn of the century, there were dozens of open mics in coffee shops, bookstores, and small neighborhood bars in the East Bay. The Starry Plough has been a home for poetry for at least two decades or more in Berkeley. It hosts poetry events two nights a week. In January 2012, I pulled up to Starry Plough to catch a performance by Taalam Acey. While there, I threw my hat in the slam ring and won with my poem, “The Poet Most Likely.” Bird and Beckett is another iconic open mic and reading event hosted in the East Bay for decades. I would need more space to chronicle the number of open mics with long histories and the even longer list of local poets who keep poetry alive, fresh, and accessible. 

Nomadic Press, an Oakland publisher, supported thousands of writers and lovers of literature by publishing books, providing funding, and hosting events. Programs like Get Lit invited poets to share new work. The Writers Emergency Fund and Nomadic’s innovative Black Writers Fund made it more than a publishing house. It supported a community of writers from the East and West Coasts. Nomadic Press published 120 books between 2012 and 2023.

Nomadic is closing as a publishing company and becoming a national literary foundation offering fiscal sponsorship to mission-aligned organizations and artists. The foundation will continue Nomadic’s writer’s funds and literary awards programs, including the San Francisco Foundation’s Nomadic Press Literary Awards.

The Town, an anthology that I’m curating, will be Nomadic’s last publishing commitment and will be a fitting homage to its time in Oakland, a poetic love letter to Oakland. Poetry is the language of lovers and rebels.

Long live poetry!

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This piece is dedicated to the memory of  Reginal Lockett, who was considered for Oakland’s Poet Laureate in 2008 before his untimely death. His sudden loss was profoundly felt, and the idea of a Laureate was put aside until 2021. This City needs a laureate, and to be second in thought after Lockett is an honor I will forever treasure. – Ayodele Nzinga

Don’t miss the open mic hosted by Oakland’s first Poet Laureate, Ayodele Nzinga*. On April 26, 2023, SpeakEasy- Winter in America: (be)longing will feature Mimi Tempestt, Zouhair Mussa, and Cadence Myles, hosted by WordSlanger* via Zoom.

Author Profile

Ayodele Nzinga is an arts and culture theoretician/practitioner working at the intersections of cultural production, community development, and community well being to foster transformation in marginalized communities. Nzinga holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Writing and Consciousness and Doctorate of Philosophy in Transformative Education & Change; she resides in Oakland, CA. Described as a renaissance woman, Ayodele is a producing director, playwright, poet, dramaturg, actress, performance consultant, arts educator, community advocate, and a culture bearing anchor. Ayodele is the first poet laureate of Oakland.

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