Nué, who recently released their first book, Waning, shares how they went from hating poetry to being crowned 2020’s Chicago Youth Poet Laureate, and how who they are is heavily influenced by where they’re from.
Who are you?
I think it’s very important that I’m a South Side nigga, from the Hunnids (hundreds), from Chicago. Not just any South Side nigga from the Hunnids, from Chicago—I’m a Libra. That’s very important. I’m a writer, storyteller, poet. Sometimes I like to think of myself as someone who just records what’s happening and what’s already happened around us.
What was the genesis of your writing?
The genesis of my writing is actually so super funny—it’s not that funny, but I like it. So basically, my grandma used to make me go to church, I used to hate going to church. It’s not a secret, it’s not something I’m ashamed of. I hated going to church. And every time I would go there, she would have cough drops or peppermints. I’d be like, “Grandma, I am so bored, like what’s tea?” She would just give me a piece of paper, and she’d just tell me to write. She would be like, “I don’t know, write something.” I just used to draw honestly, and the drawings were not good, but they were drawings. I think I started drawing like in 2nd grade and my mom made me read a lot. Always. Even if I had the audio book, she would even have me read the book while I was listening to the audiobook. I was always like this super reader. At a point it felt wrong to be drawing these people I would just draw, and they not have a story, so I would write their story. I’d have notebooks of just stories and writings. But poetry came a lot later.
Honestly, I’d always hated poetry. My understanding was it was about some old dead white poet who wrote it. Old white poets used to love talking about clouds and shit like that. I just hated poetry, but going into my freshman year of high school I remember being at home, and I was super bored, and I just randomly YouTubed spoken word. So random, especially for someone who has always despised poetry, and I instantly fell in love—I’m super impressionable.
I used to rap in elementary school, and it wasn’t good but it was good for its time, it was good for my age. So I tried out for my LTAB (Louder Than a Bomb) my freshman year, and I barely made it! [Nué laughs hysterically] I think my coach laughed in the middle of my poem! My coach fucking laughed at me in the middle of my poem, and there were some other people, they were judging the poem for the tryout—yes we had to try out. It was not no open, present, type thing.
I remember my best friend was like, “How did you do?” and I was like, “I did not make that shit bro, they laughed at my poem.” I definitely don’t have that poem now; it’s burned, it’s gone, it’s in the earth now. My best friend was like, “they WHAT? Aw naw, we gotta figure out what they laughed about!”
They had me go all the way back into the school, all the way up to the third floor, and made me ask my coach—who wasn’t my coach at the time—made me ask what she laughed at. She just kind of shoo-ed me off, and laughed again saying, “Don’t take it personal, you did good.” And so, I barely made the team. That’s how I got into writing.
Why do you think writing about the South Side is important?
I feel like it’s just as important as everything else I write about, whether it’s something as miniscule as the bus going on the South Side, or someone I love. I have a popular poem I do, it’s really short, but it’s one of my favorites because it was one of the first poems I was experimenting with in terms of form and how I was writing. I think writing and liking that poem made me want to write about the South Side a little bit more. I give my best work to my niggas and my community and myself, that’s where my best work comes from. So when I write about the South Side, it’s important to me because I know I’m not going to commodify it. That’s why its important to me—because I know I’m not going to read it to niggas who can’t relate to it, who don’t know what I’m talking about.
You can have an audience of people that consume your work, yet that’s not who you write for. So I won’t ask who your audience is, I’m wondering who do you write for?
That’s kind of how I interpreted the questions because who I write for isn’t usually my audience. I was reading some of my old journals and this one line I wrote said, “I’m writing just to breathe.” That’s really what I be doing for real. Literally just write to breathe just to get weight off of my shoulders. I write for me, honestly, and that’s not how I started off at all. When I was writing those stories in [middle school], I was having people read my writing because I wanted them to read it. And they would be like, “Okay Nué, where’s the next chapter?”
The stories weren’t good, they were like Wattpad stories, but they were really fun to write, and they were really fun to see how other people experienced them. When I look back on that I think I couldn’t have been writing for me, but I think I was because even when I was pumping out things to write, I was doing that because I needed someone to talk to about my writing. I do truly do things on the terms of ’I write for me’. Even when I’m going to write a performance piece it’s because I’m in the mood to perform. I’m in the mood to be consumed.
What is your favorite poem out of your book?
Oof. I would have to say, there’s this one called “How I Describe Her to Others.” It’s that poem and then the next two are “Waning” and “Working On It”.
Does where you’re from shape who you are?
It shapes a lot of my personality, because a lot of my personality is being from the city I’m from. That may be corny or cliche but that’s the truth. It shapes how I look at people—everybody, and I mean everybody. It shapes how I talk, where I want to put my roots in.
I come from that big group of Chicagoans whose ancestors come from the South. My entire family is from the South, I have no family whose ancestors are from the north. My entire mom’s side is from Mississippi, my entire dad’s side is from Alabama. I claim Mississippi a whole bunch. Damn near all I write about is being from Mississippi, and Black people from the South, and Black Chicagoans and their way of life.
What are you excited for?
I am excited for my move. When I was writing my book, I told myself that when I was done writing it, I was gonna move. And so I’m moving to a place I’ve never been before. So that’s very exciting. I’m moving to Philly, I’ve never been. I was looking for a city that’s just as affordable as Chicago, and close to other cities I would want to travel to, unlike Chicago, and then I wanted it to have Black people.
What is your favorite place Out South?
The Point. The Point, The Point, The Point, The Point. It’s the place that I can go to and literally just sit at, and just be at peace. I have a lot of East Coast friends and they’ll be like “you’ve never been to the beach, yada, yada, yada”—I don’t care what nobody says, Lake Michigan is an ocean. It’s The Ocean, it’s my ocean!
One last thing: to Southsiders, G, the Kenwood graduates specifically are out here trying to spread this propaganda that [redacted] is good when Italian Fiesta is down the street. That’s all I have to say. I think that’s a little wild—I know it’s accessible, I know you could get it fast, but I think that kind of speaks to my point.
Chima Ikoro is the Community Organizing section editor for the Weekly.