Ayodele Nzinga is Oakland’s First Poet Laureate
Our long-standing tradition of giving a member the mic before our keynote speaker helps us get to know what our colleagues are working on. Our 5+5+5 guidelines (5 minutes of backstory, 5 minutes to read, and 5 minutes of Q&A) help emerging writers polish their professional skills.
Ayodele Nzinga will take the Member Spotlight before our January speaker, Kevin Fisher-Paulson. Get tickets here.
Oakland’s Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD, is a Transformative Artist Educator and Oakland’s first Poet Laureate. Also known as “Wordslanger,” she is a culture theoretician/practitioner working at the intersections of cultural production, community development, and community wellbeing to foster transformation in marginalized communities. Nzinga holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Writing and Consciousness and Doctorate of Philosophy in Transformative Education and Change.
She has been a member of the CWC since 2021, when our club honored her for being Oakland’s first poet laureate, 106 years after Ina Coolbrith, a figurehead of our organization, was named California’s first poet laureate. Read about that event here, or listen to the recording. She also read at Joaquin Miller Park at “Reading in the Redwoods,” an event in the Memorial Grove, at which the CWC dedicated a tree to her.
Ayodele Nzinga is a true renaissance woman: a multi-hyphenated artist; a brilliant actress, producing director, playwright, poet, dramaturg, performance consultant, educator, and community advocate. She is the director of the Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc., Oakland’s oldest North American African Theater Company, and founder of Lower Bottom Playaz Summer Theater Day Camp. She is co-founder of Janga’s House, a Black Women Arts collective, and a founding member of BlacSpace Collective. She is the Executive Director of the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation, of Oakland, (BAMBD CDC); and founder and producer of BAMBDFEST International Biennial, a month-long arts and cultural festival animating the Black Arts Movement Business District in Oakland CA.
Nzinga is a Cal Shakes Artist Investigator Alumna; a San Francisco Foundation Arts Leadership Fellow; a member of the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame. Her work for the stage has been reviewed internationally, and was recognized by Theater Bay Area as one of the 40 faces in the Bay that changed the face of theater in the Bay Area; she is the only director in the world to direct the complete August Wilson American Century Cycle in chronological order. A YBCA 10 Fellow, a BIPOC Circle Fellow, and a VOICES Community Journalism Fellow, Nzinga is the inaugural Poet Laureate of Oakland California. Her blog is read in 81 countries. She is the author of Performing Literacy: a Narrative Inquiry into Performance Pedagogy, The Horse Eaters, SorrowLand Oracle, and Incandescent, and her work can be found in numerous journals and anthologies. Nzinga, a cultural anchor, is part theoretician and part partitioner. She describes herself as a cultural architect invested in creating structures for culture making.
And now for a Poem:
Ayodele read a poem by Ina Coolbrith and two original poems in Joaquin Miller Park in 2022. A spoken word poet, listen to her read them here. California and Oakland Love Life, commissioned by the City of Oakland to celebrate the new city motto, Love Life.
And now a few questions:
We’re glad you are going to be able to speak to us at our inaugural event in our new space on Broadway. There is a pop-up store in the front of our meeting space as part of the Black Business District. How are you a part of that?
There’s a Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland and other places, and the Black Business Chamber of Commerce that supports all Black owned businesses. But The Black Arts Movement Business District is formalized with the City of Oakland and defined by a piece of zoned land between 10th and 18th St, between 980 and Lake Merritt. I am the Executive Director of the Community Development Corporation associated with this official district, (BAMBD CDC), which recently saved the black box theater formerly known as the Flight Deck and Piano Fight. It’s now called BAM House and is home base for my theater company, Lower Bottom Playaz, and Oakland’s Black Arts Movement.
You have achieved so many incredible things as an artist! What aspirations do you still have for your career as a writer?
If I could, I would write from multiple places, because different spaces and places evoke different things. I’m at a period of time where being present matters a lot to me. I like the energy of urban spaces —nightlife, neon—but I also like where it’s really pastoral, where your neighbor is 5 minutes away, where you see the sky and trees not wires, not tall buildings. The trees ought to be taller than the buildings!
I would also love to write something that paid off within an author’s lifetime, where creativity could go at its own pace.
What’s it like being Poet Laureate of Oakland?
It’s interesting being the first of anything, there’s no pattern. The role of laureate varies wildly from place to place, there’s no consistent set of rules. If there are no rules, make up your own! I have a life with lots of firsts in it…it’s difficult but if you are the type of person who likes to run with scissors,(laughter) then you should go first!
First is great but first in a pandemic? I was the pandemic poet. Just between you and me and your 40,000 readers (laughs), I’m the teensiest bit frustrated that the city hasn’t formally announced my second term! I’ll be continuing until (at least) April, 2025.
Poet laureate gigs have been really yummy in the experiences they’ve opened. I’ve been invited to read with some world class poets, and I’m now working with urban forestry. And I have a tree!
I’ve been able to accomplish so much. A recurring open mic (Speakeasy), a commissioned anthology (The Town), a magazine every August, doing Poetry in the Parks for free, leading workshops at the Libraries, and answering annoying calls, some of which come through like commandments (“We need the Poet tomorrow at the Janitor’s Luncheon and we need her to read a poem about how important janitors are”)!
The Laureate belongs to everybody. I’ve been a poet for a long time. And now all of a sudden people ask me to write poems for funerals! One of the reasons I’m asked is because I’m the Laureate, I belong to the people. I don’t want to be the funeral poet; I dislike and avoid them! But there’s some old customs where poets are commissioned to attend funerals when no one else will go. But I didn’t expect funerary rites to be part of the job!
The places you get called! You get called to meetings, conferences, official events at city hall. Sometimes you have to be with people you don’t agree with, but it doesn’ matter, I have the room. Sometimes the people call wanting a rabble rouser. I try to serve all of my “constituents” equally—and myself, my voice. I like having something of value to say in every room, even if it’s not a room I’d naturally be in… the challenge is speaking for everyone,
But it’s about being of service. I’m the city’s poet, the people of Oakland’s poet. We may not have perfect resonance but if they call on the laureate, I show up. I try to accept all invitations and requests. No one has authority over what I say. I try to say something true to me, that maintains my integrity and has value to the people in the room. Poetry is supposed to have power. Politicians come and go, but it’s really something to help the people, the citizens, have a voice. I like the thought, “What is to be said about the people who clean up after us all?”
Any other thoughts about writing?
Poetry is a love language, a way of exalting things. If someone writes about something it takes on another dimension, feels more solid than it was before. So If you ever want to cut someone out, do it verbatim. If you write it down, that gives it permanence, gives it power.
But even articulation is power. People will remember how they felt, what they think you said. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me?” That is what you tell people who have no verbal skills. You have to shape your thoughts so others can contend with them. “32, spaghetti, banana bread,” that won’t get you far. Words especially have power when used in the context of making. I don’t think we can make anything without language.
All we have to do is look at the creation story. In the beginning there was the Word: light cut darkness on command! So poetry is essential.
How long have you been part of CWC, and what does membership mean to you?
I was invited to join with an honorary membership in 2021 when I appeared as a featured guest at the annual “Blanket and a Basket of Chow” picnic reading up in Joaquin Miller Park. I read there the next year, too. I’ve continued to renew my membership because, well, it’s the oldest writers association in California, and why wouldn’t any poet laureate want to be a part of that organization?
When I found out part of the club’s legacy involved engagement with narratives of Miller and London, I felt like it was a good place for me to be with different views. Poetry is a medium of exchange with discourse. This branch is becoming open to creating a diversity of opinion on different things. I lIke reading Ina Coolbrith; it was thoughtful to link the two of us together. I like thoughtful.
And the tree. How fricking thoughtful and phenomenal and amazing. The CWC, specifically this branch, are the keepers of the Writers Memorial Grove in the Woodminster Cascade. Inviting me, and exploring ways to make more recent writers part of that legacy, is beautiful.
So how can I help ensure its legacy? I want someone to say Ayodele 100 years from now, just like you say Ina Coolbrith.
What else would you like to get out of the CWC?
There’s a history in Oakland of colonization, reclamation, and animation. I am part of that. I would like to see myself as Writer in Residence at Joaquin Miller Park one day, to work on long-term projects around art and nature and people’s voices, maybe bring something back like the WPA writers project that kept writers working during the Depression.
I’d also like to see how I can help create legacy spaces for unknown writers, artists, painters, photographers.
Meet Ayodele at our return to LIVE meetings tomorrow with Kevin Fisher Paulson.