Nisha Patel is an award-winning, disabled, queer, spoken word author & artist. She was the City of Edmonton’s 8th Poet Laureate and is a Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Champion. Her debut poetry collection, COCONUT (NeWest Press), speaks to her experiences as a Gujarati daughter of diaspora navigating internalized hate, self-love, and grief. She is a teacher, mentor, and public speaker. Nisha’s latest works include her disability poetics chapbook, NOT A DISORDER (Gap Riot Press) and her upcoming album. She is also an MA and MFA candidate at Queen’s University and UBC. Her website is nishapatel.ca, and you can find her @anothernisha.
When did you first read or hear about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own? (If you’ve read it, do you have a favourite passage, moment, or line? If you’ve only heard about the book, what have you heard, or what was the situation of your hearing?)
Virginia Woolf came to me first as a disabled writer, a mentally ill writer, who died in a way that I had to know more about. Our western philosophical history has always been inclined to pathologize women, especially successful women, so calling her ill might be an act of oppression from medical hegemony. But what I read from her accounts is that she was ill in a way that I relate to, and when I think of her I think mostly of how we share a connection to death, and how one of us embodied it sooner. I know much of her work by title, but I find it unbearable emotionally to read the work of a woman I feel kinship to in this way.
Do you have a room of your own? If you do, can you describe it? If you don’t, do you dream of one?
I write my best work in my bed. As a disabled artist, my bed is often how I ground my energy enough to create in the safe and vulnerable headspace that creativity requires. I also tend to create rooms when I need them through self-mesmerizing myself into a state where tasks and distractions become background noise, and silent time alone becomes productive. I have ‘ah-hah’ moments. Some poems are made through hours of effort with little written, and then tumble out within minutes to completion after a breakthrough. Multimedia work requires more physical limits – an elongated epiphany – so if I one day surpass my body, I might be able to create what I want at a pace that matches my imagination.
Where do you write from? Do you write in relation to community/communities? (Other considerations: What power dynamics have you observed or experienced in relation to you/your position within a writing community? How do you define and/or experience mentorship in writing?)
I write what is most urgent, which works because I am a spoken word poet in community with other performance-based poets of all levels of experience. Spoken word poetry communities have rarely made me feel gate-kept or on the outside, the way mainstream CanLit had until I published a debut poetry collection (COCONUT with NeWest Press). The power dynamics are clear – there are formally published writers who mostly do not perform and inadvertently that tend to view spoken word as sensational and rudimentary. And then there are spoken word poets who feel excluded and in turn, turn away from formal publishing. Some of us operate in both areas and experience the benefits and oppressions of both. But the reality is that most spoken word poets making an impact are not white, and the most powerful folks in CanLit are.
Mentorship is hard to come by once you reach a small level of success, and you quickly become a mentor for others. My teaching practice has grown as a part of my career, and I have mentored many poets and writers as I grow and learn myself (and I try to do this laterally). I have felt that this means I am not considered someone who still needs mentorship, which is why I decided to return to school and pursue my Master of Arts and then a MFA. But it also brings me a unique joy to skill share and learn with others how we can fill knowledge gaps in the community where whiteness and capitalism might have failed marginalized writers.
How does your writing practice relate to technology? Has your writing changed with time? (Other considerations: To what degree does living in “the digital age” impact your practice? Do you write/edit on a computer?)
Technology and fluency in technical tools is a type of language, insofar as language exists to communicate story and self to others. Technology is also used in augmentation of the body, and my literacy levels with various applications like Photoshop and video editing and digital art influence the form my writing takes. The physical tools of technology allow me to type when my wrists fail or transcribe audio and compose music with a string quartet digitally. And so technology is a vital extension of myself and a way of knowing, as well as a way to express auto-ethnographical work. The virtual canvas becomes my stage and site of creation.
Do you think of yourself as having intellectual freedom? How do you conceive of the relationship between writing and political activism?
I do have freedom, but I set limits for my personal boundaries as I grow. I don’t want to create work that retraumatizes myself and I don’t want to create work in someone else’s expertise, culture, lived experience, or wheelhouse. I am also at a stage in my career where writing a love poem feels more transgressive than writing about politics. Writing from a marginalized body with oppressions stacked against me makes the act of pursuing writing a counter and revolutionary one that has close ties to activism, and vocalizing my lived experiences reflect that. All art is political because all bodies are political. In my tenure as a Poet Laureate I faced backlash for this embodied sentiment. But anyone with the privilege to call themselves apolitical just operates differently from me.
How has money helped or hindered your evolution as a writer? (Other considerations: How do you maintain your practice? Do you have access to funding, or a job/career, that facilitates your creative work? Have you participated in formal/informal writing retreats or getaways?)
I write mostly under stress and pressure and it produces my most urgent work. The project is finished when it is due and never before a deadline.
Cash is king. As a more-than-full-time artist/student/arts-adjacently-employed person, I am reliant on grants and capital. I throw metaphorical darts with each application and mostly pursue a combination of what’s funded and what I’m called to. I’m also fairly reliant on performance and commission income for my work, sometimes exceeding fifty performances a year. I do what pays the bills, but I’m also lucky that most of it fulfills me. I want to be deliberate in my explorations. I want to experiment. But sometimes I have to find creative ways to fund that. But even without needing to pay bills I would do what I do now: make art that I can share with the world.
I’ve curated my experiences to maximize the skills I need to create. Most of my creative practice has been self taught until I no longer felt I could learn without mentorship, so now my partner and I are using our incomes to attend graduate school where I’ll be finishing a MA and then a MFA. I’ve created several residencies for myself through local partnerships and also served in a library for a year. The most fruitful and transformative growth came from class on poetry and research with Griffin winner Jordan Abel and a fiction incubator with Ingrid Rojas Contreras.