Meet Oakland's First Poet Laureate: Dr. Ayodele "WordSlanger" Nzinga
This year, for the first time, Oakland's Cultural Affairs Division began accepting nominations for the city's inaugural Poet Laureate program. The rules were that the nominees had to be over 18 years old, had to have lived in Oakland for at least five years, and show a demonstrated record of community engagement. Nominations ran for a month. On June 10, the winner was announced: Dr. Ayodele “WordSlanger” Nzinga.
"I think that Oakland has an interesting history that is not extremely well known or remembered, much like America has an interesting history that it struggles not to remember out loud," Nzinga says.
Nzinga will, among other things, be required to write a poem that commemorates the whole city. But it won’t be her first on the place she calls home.
"I have spent a lot of time talking about Oakland, and the subset of Oakland that come from West Oakland. And West Oakland fed into East Oakland," she says. "This is a place where people came to be free, when they left the South with nothing, freed into nothing, leaving with nothing."
She says that writing is her way of examining her city and the world.
"I actually make sense of the world through writing myself to clarity." She recalls: "I've always kept journals. There's something comforting about words. I don’t think anything can happen or be real without words."
"There's something comforting about words. I don’t think anything can happen or be real without words."
Dr. Nzinga is usually all over Oakland, writing plays, essays, teaching, and more. But on the day she found out she was going to represent the city as Poet Laureate, she was, like many of us during the pandemic, at home.
"It began as a series of phone calls. The first one [was] from the people who were in charge of the selection process. And that kind of landed like shock, really," she says. "They tell you: ‘Don't tell anyone until we make the formal announcement.’ So I walked around for two to three days feeling like I was going to explode."
Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Division created the Poet Laureate position with the hope of making poetry more accessible to everyone in the city, promoting what they call “the transformative power” of the art form.
"The overarching goal is to bring more poetry to the people, right? The hope is that the Poet Laureate will not be cloistered in City Hall," says J.K. Fowler, who works on Oakland's Cultural Affairs Commission.
He and Cultural Affairs Manager Roberto Bedoya created the Poet Laureate search program and led the Oakland Poet Laureate Oversight Committee, which reviewed the nominations and decided on a winner. Fowler noted that many Oakland community members have long wanted a poet to represent them.
"The Poet Laureate is someone that is integrated — has been integrated — in the culture and the world of Oakland," he says. "They're with the people. They're doing the work. They're building alliances. They're building collaborations. They're working across mediums and various art forms to give voice to various types of artists."
A deep involvement with Oakland’s communities was one of the first things the selection committee looked for when deciding who would be named the Poet Laureate. Fowler sees the position as a point of reference for how Oaklanders understand their city and each other. For Dr. Nzinga, this understanding starts with a little tough love.
"The truth isn't always easy or shiny. I've been known to rattle a cage or two - to say what people think but don't say in polite company," she says. "So, it feels right that Oakland, with its history of connection to the Black arts movement — which supported the Black Power movement, pushing the envelope — that I could be its Poet Laureate."
The new Poet Laureate is a big believer in the collaborative power of poetry.
"Poetry is a universal language," she says. "What happens, perhaps, if young Asian children and young Black children write poetry together, and they get to, perhaps, share their experiences of what violence looks like in their community? What would happen if Youth Speaks had events where people who are 80 or 90 read poems too? What happens if people from MFA programs who do poetry do it in juvenile hall with kids who are struggling to get out of middle school — much less get into a higher education program?
I don't think that there are any limits on how you can expand the inclusion of art, poetry, [and] literature."
"Poetry is a universal language."
Dr. Nzinga believes words and poetry can do more than bring people together — they can also be a means of self-discovery. She knows this because writing helped her find her identity and her place in the world.
She recalls: "I discovered the canon of Négritude and the Harlem Renaissance really early. And it felt like a home to me, even before I fully understood the thing of being Black. That felt like a comfortable space. It felt like an echo. It felt like coming home. It felt like someone who knew my heart."
One of the Committee’s criteria for selecting the winner was “understanding of civic narratives around equity, culture, and belonging.” But “belonging” is a complicated idea for Dr. Nzinga, because for her, Oakland’s history is one of dis-belonging and displacement.
"When you ask me about 'home'? I don't think we've ever had a resting place since they took us off the ships," she says. "The story of gentrification is the story of being a placeholder until the space is more convenient to someone who has the resources to use it. You become collateral damage, and you're moved around the chessboard. So, Oakland holds a lot of history [and] a lot of energy for the tale of North American Africans; and no resting place; and the desire to sink down roots in spaces that were redlined."
Then Dr. Nzinga takes a moment, sniffling. "I don’t know why I feel so emotional about this this morning. I am fighting back, literally, tears," she says. "I think that, in this moment, we don't all understand how beautiful and important the struggle song of Oakland is to liberation around the world."
"When you ask me about 'home'? I don't think we've ever had a resting place since they took us off the ships. The story of gentrification is the story of being a placeholder until the space is more convenient to someone who has the resources to use it. You become collateral damage, and you're moved around the chessboard."
She continues: "Oakland taught the world how to struggle, in many ways. I mean, do youngsters realize why it's so dangerous for Black men to have guns, and why they hand out felonies like Tic Tacs? Because they're still trying to take back that moment when the Black Panther Party stood on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento, legally armed, and said, 'We will watch the police, and you can't keep killing us.'"
"Oakland taught the world how to struggle, in many ways."
How will Dr. Nzinga reconcile her new duty of promoting belonging with being open about Oakland’s history of displacement? Amiri Baraka, the former Poet Laureate of New Jersey, served as a guide and North Star.
She says, "I remember asking Baraka, once: 'How do we keep the door open? How do we move the mark?' His response was: 'Publish, publish, publish.' So that translates as: 'Keep telling the story.' I’m a people's poet; I’mma tell the story the way the story go. So if that story continues to be our struggle to stay here, then that means I have to uplift the history, tell our story, and make it not be invisible as we go."
"I’m a people's poet; I’mma tell the story the way the story go. So if that story continues to be our struggle to stay here, then that means I have to uplift the history, tell our story, and make it not be invisible as we go."
As Oakland’s first-ever Poet Laureate, Dr. Nzinga is part of a large historical moment for the city. And the momentousness hasn’t been lost on her - the self-described People’s Poet has felt right at home in her new position, ever since she found out she won.
"[I'll] keep it one-hundred, I cried a couple of times since then," she says. "I wake up every morning since then, and I say to myself, ‘I'm the Poet Laureate of Oakland.’ So it's still real new and real fresh. The bike’s still shiny, the bells still work on it - everything, you know? I don't know when that part of it will wear off. It's a two year appointment. I'm hoping it don't wear off until the day after there's another Poet Laureate. I hope it feels like this the whole time.
As Poet Laureate, Dr. Ayodele “WordSlanger” Nzinga will deliver four readings at city-owned locations throughout Oakland. And she’ll kick off her two-year term with an inaugural address.
The date for Nzinga’s inaugural address has not yet been set.