Work Like A Poet / Write Like A Woman

I have found that when I am honest and vulnerable, when I strive more for communal goals and community service, I am most happy. And truly it is really difficult to feel challenged or discouraged when I am doing something I enjoy.
— Nikia Chaney

It was Isabel Allende who once said, "Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul." These words, so simple, yet so eloquent, feel reimagined in our interview with our featured woman. It is so clear hearing her story that writing and its process has become as commonplace, natural, to her as taking a drink of water. 

 Meet Nikia, a poet from San Bernardino, California.

Meet Nikia, a poet from San Bernardino, California.

Still, there is a reason the word process is highlighted. There is a grand difference between the fantasy of a writer’s life, and making it a reality. The process is what weeds out the haves from the have-nots. There are people who want to be able to say they’ve published a book and there are those who are in love with the process, be it the quiet early morning writing sessions or the late night brainstorms. Those who read as much as they write. The people who make the time to do that and more. They create a community so they have the support of other writers. They teach others to write, and in doing so, teach them to love the written word. You will find, when you meet a writer, that writing is typically one part of the equation. Nikia is no different, except she is more. 

In reading her story, you will learn about more than just the life of a writer. You will learn how to live from a new perspective entirely. One of community, love, support, peace and expression. I doubt this was done by Nikia so intentionally, but it is clear she is a woman that others gravitate to for mentorship because of this perspective on life. She is a woman who is inspiring, not for the accolades and awards she continues to receive [though these are definitely worth celebrating], but for the work she puts in and continues to put in to hone her craft. This work feels no different than that of an athlete running drills, scrimmaging, and following a strict diet. The work, the process, is what we are celebrating alongside the woman who doesn’t just stop there. 

Simply put, Nikia is a force. You know what the definition of force is? Strength or energy as an attribute of physical action or movement. How else would you describe a person who creates, teaches, curates and connects with the world, using her brilliant voice, her energy, to make change?

Beyond Nikia, the writer, you will meet a woman who also finds a way to make time to use her platform, her voice, to help her community. She is a woman who takes her successes and finds a way to reach back to bring other women up as well. While Nikia has spent years creating an impressive resume in the literary world, we have a feeling she’s just now getting started. 

MEET NIKIA, A POET FROM SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA. 

Nikia, tell us about your journey to become a writer and publisher. Is it something you intentionally went after as a career path or something that came about unexpectedly?

I became a writer and publisher because I fell in love with the idea of voice. As a very young person, I learned to be quiet, to not speak or express myself to others. Later, I grew older and realized that creative writing is a form of expression. I felt like I was truly born then because being able to find myself and connect to others in poetry did more than just fulfill me; it helped me to understand what I wanted to do in the world. I became fascinated with giving that opportunity to others. I think we writers tend to make the books our goals in this profession. But I always felt that the book is the conversation, the idea that is spread from place to place. Being able to publish others is truly a gift because if we as women aren’t on the front lines holding each other up, then I’m afraid, there are very few who will.

There are lots of people out there who want to become writers, but not many find a way to make it more than a hobby. I had a professor once who said there is only one difference between those who are successful writers and those who aren’t -- the ones who find success kept at it. They put in the time and work and don’t stop. They continue writing no matter what else they have going on. That isn’t to say talent doesn’t come in there somewhere, but to say that there are some “natural born writers” diminishes the time writers spend working on their craft. The monotonous, lonely work it takes to get a finished product.  

I find myself making excuses about writing so much. I think I don’t have time in my day. I’m too mentally tired to be creative. I don’t have an idea worth writing about. The reasons are endless and they make it very easy to avoid putting in the work. So, I’m curious to know what your daily routine looks like and how writing fits in.

What does a typical day-in-the-life look like for you? 

 Of the many titles Nikia can claim, mom is definitely one that she carries with her at all times. In fact, she has also found ways to introduce her children and their classmates to the world of poetry and writing. Here she is pictured with her daughter at a fall program where Nikia taught the children at her daughter's school to write short poems. "My children are such an important part of my life," Nikia shares. "I try to volunteer time and do community events at their school programs as much as I can. That way I'm both being a mom and a writer/community organizer at the same time!"

Of the many titles Nikia can claim, mom is definitely one that she carries with her at all times. In fact, she has also found ways to introduce her children and their classmates to the world of poetry and writing. Here she is pictured with her daughter at a fall program where Nikia taught the children at her daughter's school to write short poems. "My children are such an important part of my life," Nikia shares. "I try to volunteer time and do community events at their school programs as much as I can. That way I'm both being a mom and a writer/community organizer at the same time!"

I usually get up to write for a hour or so in the middle of the night. I have children, so I have been doing this for many years. The house is quiet, everything is dark, and the children are sleeping, so it is easy to go into that creative space in my head. I teach, so on a typical day, I prep and then lecture for a class or two.  Right now, I am teaching a class on African American Heritage in the Arts at California State University, San Bernardino.  On my alternate days, I do work for my publishing company and magazine or I help plan events and readings.  I may have a writing workshop, or reading or other community event. At home, I cook dinner, dance around the living room with the kids, and go to sleep to get ready to do it all again.

What are some challenges you have faced to get to where you are today? How did you overcome them and what lessons did you learn?

Oh, I’ve failed and failed big! Just this past year I tried to start a community center for literary arts that I just could never get off the ground. I think about those failures much more than I do the successes. But those failures always drives me to continue and try again for something else, some other big dream that will do good and inspire others around me. That in many ways is what I feel is the secret to success; getting back up and moving forward, always moving forward. I also think too that the way we define success is often wrong. Part of my journey has been discovering what is meaningful to me. I have found that when I am honest and vulnerable, when I strive more for communal goals and community service, I am most happy. And truly it is really difficult to feel challenged or discouraged when I am doing something I enjoy. 

What do you love most or find most rewarding about your work?

As a writer, I love that instance when the right line or word just clicks in place. I love looking for, defining, and playing around with words. I think of these words as pieces of music; getting lost in the rhythms and flow is simply lovely.

As a teacher, my favorite experiences always involve the “lightbulb” moment. The student gets quiet and then has understanding of something they never considered before. 

As a publisher and community worker, I love the connections with others. I might talk to a person who is creating something truly unique, or I might meet another organizer and collaborate on a project. 

There is so much synergy and shared goals and positivity and hope for change out there, if one just looks. I don’t necessarily feel that any one path is the best path for all.  My life makes sense for me.  I think we as women need to keep the idea of personal journeys, and subjective experiences of success forefront, too.

I’m always curious to hear about where people start, because so many times it’s such a departure from where they arrive. Sometimes the early work steers you there without you knowing it at the time. So, it’s definitely worth looking back, I think, to see if you can spot those early trends. Tell us a little about your first jobs. 

 While Nikia is without doubt someone who has worked hard throughout her career, her view on success has more to do with attitude and less about accolades. She shares, "I have always noticed that the writers I looked up to were so easy and comfortable in their own skin. You think that the success got them there. But maybe it is the opposite way and that ease they had within their selves got them to success." Here she is pictured at a reading. 

While Nikia is without doubt someone who has worked hard throughout her career, her view on success has more to do with attitude and less about accolades. She shares, "I have always noticed that the writers I looked up to were so easy and comfortable in their own skin. You think that the success got them there. But maybe it is the opposite way and that ease they had within their selves got them to success." Here she is pictured at a reading. 

I have had many many different jobs over the years. I have been a security guard, housekeeper, seamstress, child care worker. I did a lot of physical labor in my teens and early twenties. Before I went to graduate school I worked for the County of Riverside, and as a secretary at a hospital. Right now I always want to pinch my for my “cushy” teaching job. Truly though, I just feel grateful that I am able to do what I love. I do know that I have always been willing to work hard. No matter what I did, I did it all the way, with honest effort. I learned, though that when I was not happy with a position, to not slack in the work, but change the position. In my mind there was always a myriad of opportunities out there. And while it is risky, I do think it is imperative that we try in some way to work in a field that we love. 

Looking back at the way you have approached your professional development, education, and decisions, what would you say is your philosophy about work? What is the key to professional success according to you? Where did you learn this?

If we think of success not as what you have obtained (job, awards, accolades, books) but as a continuum of what you are, then qualities like intuition, vulnerability, and community service become very important. Intuition implies self-trust. And notice that if you trust yourself then things like jealousy and fear go away. You do what you know is right for yourself and you realize that your path is going to be very different than someone else’s path. Vulnerability implies honesty and a little bit of humbleness. Stepping down or away, admitting to your own strengths and weaknesses. And since you cannot work in a vacuum, community service is just sharing openly without reservation that comfortability of self with others. I have always noticed that the writers I looked up to were so easy and comfortable in their own skin. You think that the success got them there. But maybe it is the opposite way and that ease they had within their selves got them to success. That image of clawing your way to the top is so horrible. You are going to spend so much time on the journey through development and education and opportunity. This should be a journey that is worthwhile and joyful.

What are some misconceptions about your profession in the writing industry?

 Nikia's first full-length book, us mouth, was published March 2018 by University of Hell Press. Per the publisher's website, " us mouth  attempts to speak to the fracturing of intimate relationships, the importance of voice, song, and empathy as an instrument of connection and healing. The poems are filled with wordplay and rhythm to create an intensity of presence of various speakers who cry out in the pain and joy of being alive."

Nikia's first full-length book, us mouth, was published March 2018 by University of Hell Press. Per the publisher's website, "us mouth attempts to speak to the fracturing of intimate relationships, the importance of voice, song, and empathy as an instrument of connection and healing. The poems are filled with wordplay and rhythm to create an intensity of presence of various speakers who cry out in the pain and joy of being alive."

That writing is easy. Writing is not easy. Writing takes a lot of time. Most of what I write is either heavily revised or unpublished. I can sit down for hours and not produce anything that I think should be published. But the act of writing (and by extension reading others) is very important. Creative writing is a skill that is best developed with lots of practice. Expressing ideas of experience, telling stories, and creating poems, like all art, is something that cannot be mastered with just a passing interest. Inspiration is the start, but there needs to be real love and effort to keep going.  On the flip side, publishing is not as difficult as it seems to be. All the information a new publisher needs is out if she is willing to research. I started my own company with just an idea of what I wanted to do and we now have seven books published. I have been asked how I did that, but the only answer that makes the most sense is this; I just started. 

How does being a woman influence your approach to your practice and your career? Have you felt any adversity, discrimination, harassment or other challenges that you feel were due to your gender at any point in your working years? What about your current field/profession? If not, what do you find unique about your work environment that helps prevent this?

Unfortunately, being a woman does effect being a writer.  According to Vida, in 2017, women are still underrepresented in major literary magazines. This translates to less opportunities for publication and positions in the field. I have found that I have had to be especially persistent and willing to engage in entrepreneurship. While that come with its own rewards, I have wondered how my career would have looked if I were a man.  

What advice to you have for women looking to become writers? 

I would say to women who might be thinking of becoming writers to really educate themselves on this field. Have a passion for it is necessity because it does take reliance and tenacity. Stick with it, keep one foot, one toe even in the door no matter what you have to do for economic reasons. The great secret to success as a writer is longevity. Find a way to make it your life, love the writing, foster your own voice, and find your own unique passion. 

Share something with us about the literary field the general public doesn’t know.

There have been studies that show that reading poetry creates unique neurological responses in the brain of anticipation for coming pleasure (Delistraty, 2017). Isn’t that so cool?

You've brought up the importance of community a bit in this conversation, and you seem to always be working on some way to merge your craft with community outreach. Before you go, tell us a little bit about your current project, Voices Against Violence.

 As featured in the Press Enterprise, here is Nikia, left, with Karina Cerda, center, and her son Javier Cerda working on their Voices against Violence posters at a recent art and writing workshop. (Photo courtesy Inlandia Institute)

As featured in the Press Enterprise, here is Nikia, left, with Karina Cerda, center, and her son Javier Cerda working on their Voices against Violence posters at a recent art and writing workshop. (Photo courtesy Inlandia Institute)

With the Voices Against Violence program, we hosted writing workshops throughout the month of April. We took poems, art, and other images and posters and created an exhibit. The exhibit will be opening on July 15th at the Garcia Center for the Arts on July 15th.  You can find more information about it from Inlandia's website.   

Nikia's website offers further insight into the heart behind Voices Against Violence, showing just how writing and community can help provide a platform for healing after trauma. 

Voices Against Violence, with the generous support of Inlandia Institute seeks to contextualize the impact of violence through a humanities framework by providing a program that supports reflection, conversation, and self-empowerment, highlighting the personal experience of individuals affected by violence in the community of San Bernardino County and two of its outlying cities, Redlands and Riverside. San Bernardino is still healing from the 2015 Dec. 2 terror attack, and the 2017 North Park Elementary School shooting. Other incidents of violence including domestic abuse and police brutality are also unfortunately still prevalent.  Writing workshops and a culminating public exhibition will be utilized to allow individuals impacted by violence the opportunity to have their voices heard.

About Nikia

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Nikia Chaney is the current Inlandia Literary Laureate (2016-2018).  She is the author of us mouth (University of Hell Press, 2018) and two chapbooks, Sis Fuss (2012, Orange Monkey Publishing) and ladies, please (2012, Dancing Girl Press).  She is founding editor of shufpoetry, an online journal for experimental poetry, and founding editor of Jamii Publishing, a publishing imprint dedicated to fostering community among poets and writers. She has won grants and fellowships from the Barbara Demings Fund for Women, and Cave Canem.  Her poetry has been published in Sugarhouse Review, 491, Iowa Review, Vinyl, and Pearl, Welter, and Saranac. She teaches at California State University, San Bernardino.

Contact Info

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nikia.chaney

Instagram: @nikiachaney

Website: www.nikiachaney.com

Press - Jamii Publishing: www.jamiipublishing.com

Check Out Nikia’s Book: us mouth (University of Hell Press, 2018)