Kai-Isaiah Jamal is a spoken word poet, performer, model and trans visibility activist whose work aims to disrupt the literature sphere with the inclusion and celebration of marginalised voices and perspectives, specifically trans/queer, black and working class intersections.
Jamal also debuted his poem-come-script 'Snap My Legs and Ask Me to Crip Walk. All the Ways I'm Dancing/Dying For You' as part of DRAF's take over at Ministry of Sound for Frieze Week London 2019 curated by Louise O'Kelly.
Named ICA's first Poet in Residence as well as previously working with Tate, Freeword Centre, Barbican and The National Gallery. Art and access to it for those that fall into the intersections similarly to those he himself belongs to are at the core of his activism.
Q: What drew you to text as a medium to express yourself? How did this happen and how old were you?
I think words are our biggest gift. I guess I always wanted to know how to articulate myself, for us from marginalised backgrounds we often also need to be able to articulate ourselves, as a necessity. I then realised how creative I could get with words and language, I realised the utopias and understandings I could write us. It’s funny, I also started writing music. There were so many cultural reference points at the time and Grime was a huge part of it. My first notebook, covered in stars and them S’s. Filled with bars and beat URLs, back when you didn’t have the internet on your phones. I then shifted into poetry, it feels more fluid and free. It used to be just something I did for myself, a cathartic free therapy of some sorts if you like and then I started sharing it. I shared it and people resonated, liked or felt something for it. It quickly turned from passion to career.
Q: Do you remember your first ever poem? What was it about?
I can’t remember the first ever. The first ever poem I read aloud about my transition I do remember though. It was a small bar in Kennington and a room full of some school friends. I think it was a letter back to the old me, a very naive outlook on transitioning - that was all that could be expected in such baby early stages. I like looking back on that kind of writing, all of my work was about my transition. It was so graphic and explicit and then filed with beautiful naturalistic metaphors and imagery. Now my work is all in metaphors, it feels more me. I guess it was all trying to find my style and voice.
Q: What does your writing process look like? Are there spaces or places which help you write?
Usually, I write in response to something, whether or not the actual piece is about or explicitly about that situation; it’s usually sparked from something. I like writing and listening to something. I have go to songs to write to as well. I also really enjoy writing in the back of long Ubers, on walks when I’m a little lifted and when I can remove myself from a social setting to just take a moment to scribble something.
Q: How has writing helped with the struggle of transitioning gender and the expression of your identity?
I think without writing I never would have arrived at a point of starting to unlearn the vast amount of language; that we are conditioned to exist only in one of the various binary systems. I don’t think I ever would have been able to unscramble the grand scale of gender either. It has given me such confidence in finding new ways and words to identify with, to give sentences - even when you don’t think they make perfect logical sense. A lot of my wiring is influenced by my gender identity but I also believe that my gender and sexuality are too and can be influenced by my poetry. They kind of work in unison at times. I think it has always given me an intentional and isolated time to be able to explore and think about my gender, in a literal, physical and critical manner.
Q: What advice would you have for other POC poets, writers and speakers wanting to break into the world of performance and art?
Don’t be made to be small, to fit yourself or your work into one type of narrative. Literature and writing, story-telling or spittin’ should all be authentically created from us, in whatever manner we want to. There aren’t rules here, there is an allowance and want to hear what you have to say. So please always say it.
Q: Which other writers or poets work are you inspired by the most?
Some of my favourite and influential writers; Jasmine Mans, Danez Smith, Hanif Abdurraqib, Yrsa Daley Ward, Roxanne Gaye, James Baldwin, Junot Diaz, Travis Alabanza, Rene Matic, the list could go on forever.
Q: You’ve performed in front of some big crowds; DRAF, Autograph ABP and ICA to name a few, do you ever get nervous before going on stage?
I used to, now not so much. You get familiar with crowds, spaces and poems. Finding ease with a poem after performing it a few times really feels like mastery of performance, gives you more opportunity to actually perform it in the desired manner. I have recently though tried to be mindful of where I perform and what I am performing in spaces, in a moment of vulnerability (like reading - on stage even more so) you become porous and I guess easier to absorb particular energies, your defence is stripped so you become absorbent. I think there can be times where this is helpful for me so I take some distance.
Q: What more do you think art institutions can do to support writers and poets like yourself, what needs to change?
I think last year I realised how tactless institutions can be with poetry, it is often undermined or under-resourced meaning poets leave with smaller amounts of money than artists of different mediums. It means it is hard to take to larger scales, bigger venues, wider accessible locations. I also believe there is a need for knowledge in poetry from curators and gallerists. The amount of times that I am not being artistically questioned or critiqued due to the limited knowledge people have of the literature, specifically the poetry sphere.
Q: Lastly, what’s next for you after the Coronavirus pandemic finishes?
I want to do lots of wholesome stuff, I wanna just exercise the momentum that I have to want to get up and do things whilst I can when I can. Work lots, kiss lots of peoples faces and travel to really nice romantic destinations. I think it will give everyone the urgency to want to do and do and do more.
Published: 25/03/2020 by Queerdirect
Edits by Tamar Clarke-Brown