Jamila Woods met me at Lovely, a cozy bakery in Wicker Park located half a block from her workplace, Young Chicago Authors (YCA), the organization behind the slam poetry competition Louder Than A Bomb. A Beverly native and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, Woods recently won the 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. The fellowship, which is given to five U.S. poets between ages twenty-one and thirty-one, awards $25,800 to each recipient. Her work has been published in literary magazines such as Poetry and Winter Tangerine Review, and in anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. She is the vocalist of her band M&O and appeared on Surf by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, with a band featuring Chance the Rapper and many friends. With a BLT in hand, we sat down to discuss her work that spans multiple genres, the collaborative spirit of Chicago, and her grandma.
How do you feel about winning the 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship?
I feel good and surprised, a little. The backstory to that is that I’m in the Dark Noise Collective. We try to support each other in our craft. We applied for Ruth Lilly as a collective last year and this year. Last year Danez [Smith] won, and this year Nate [Marshall] and I won, and I would never have applied if it weren’t for that group, and having that as a collective goal made us push each other to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. So to me, it definitely shows how circles rise together, and how when you really commit to bettering your collective, you can really better yourself.
Could you tell me a bit more about the Dark Noise Collective? How do you guys collaborate?
It started out as a response to graduating college. College is a really great bubble, where there are resources right at your fingertips. And at least in my experience, there was a really strong community of color, and it’s just not like that in the real publishing world, which is very white male-centric. I think the main thing that’s really innovative and important about our collective is that we’re a support for each other. People don’t think about the human element of being an artist, and how sometimes you just need some people who let you cry about your life. That’s actually a really important part of maintaining a healthy practice, so we provide that for each other. We also look at each other’s manuscripts, and we just booked more gigs together.
You’re in the Dark Noise Collective with Nate Marshall, and you also collaborated with Chance the Rapper on Surf. Could you tell me about this network of South Side artists?
I don’t even remember how I met Nate. He used to just drive by my house in his little car. And I saw Chance randomly at this thing at the Art Institute that YCA was doing. Chicago has a very small town feel, and I always bumped into people. When I did my first album with my soul band, we got Chance on our song through a friend of a friend. It’s fairly organic, how things happened.
I appreciate coming from that kind of community, versus a kind of community that felt more cutthroat or competitive. That’s how I approach collaboration all the time. It’s just in me, that spirit of collaboration, that spirit of building with people and coming together. That’s something really special and unique about Chicago. It feels like everyone’s in grind mode right now, and not all in the same place, but definitely still, I still get really inspired by things that I see Chicago artists doing.
How would you say the South Side has influenced your work?
There’s something about the poetry of people’s everyday language that I learned and observed growing up on the South Side. My grandma is a huge, huge example of that. When I think of why I’m a poet, I always think of her. I can’t wait to do an oral history of her life. She just speaks in this really economical way. In poetry, they talk about the economy of language. She can shut you down in less than ten syllables. Or she can tell a whole story in a sentence. It’s just really amazing to have grown up listening to her.
And also just the things you overhear, like on the bus. I rode the bus a lot, since I went to high school at St. Ignatius. And I was also just going downtown all the time for everything. Everything to do with poetry was downtown or up north, so I rode the Red Line a lot, I rode the bus a lot. And so you hear really incredible, amazing things. I remember one poem I wrote off of a quote, this guy said, “I can’t gangbang, my feet are too soft,” or something like that. I was just like, oh my god, what do you even mean? It was just constant food for my imagination, being on the South Side.
And also the element of history that’s there. I remember doing a project for the Poetry Foundation where I went to different neighborhoods and tried to find poetry there. I learned a lot just from listening, learning about unsung heroes that the South Side had. I always knew Herb Kent is amazing, but I never knew his whole life story until my grandma was talking about him one day. I want to write a whole book about who these people are, people you would never read about in history books. They should be celebrated, and that’s something that really drives me.
What role do you think poetry plays in education?
Poetry is a really amazing tool for helping students feel ownership over their education, over their ability to create knowledge, to tell their own story. What we say at YCA is that students are experts of their own experience. No one’s going to write your story better than you can. It’s kind of the opposite of what a lot of schooling today does.
It’s about the transformative space that’s created when we do the poetry workshops that we do. Whether or not you consider yourself a poet, you have stories. As a young person, when I found Louder Than A Bomb, it was permission to be myself, because a lot of poets are just really eccentric, weird people. That was what I was really drawn to. Especially growing up in Beverly, which is a very different part of the South Side from where the rest of my family lived. I recognize that I was different from the people in my neighborhood. And going to St. Ignatius, which was like super preppy, super Catholic. I was always an outsider in all of these spaces. But then, poetry was like a group of outsiders. It was an important community for me.
You talked about your band M&O. How did you get into music?
I came from a musical family. My mom played guitar and sang to us a lot when we were younger. I have three siblings, so we could form a little quartet, and I went to church with my grandma ever since I was super young. I always knew I loved it.
But it wasn’t until I met Owen Hill at Brown. The year I graduated and moved back here, he was working in Atlanta, trying to get into the music scene there, but it wasn’t really working. So he just drove up to Chicago and was at my doorstep randomly one evening, like, “Hey, I’m here, we’re going to start a band.” I was like, “All right, cool!” So after work every day, I would go to the studio space that he was pseudo-illegally living out of, and we would just make music. And that’s how we made our first album, and then we did a Kickstarter and funded a whole tour over the summer and that was my first time really by myself, singing in front of audiences, new places every night. I think I gained a lot of confidence that way.
He’s moved away since then. We started out writing long distance, and I’m sure we’ll continue to write in the future, but now I think it’s more about me figuring out what I sound like as a solo artist. I’m working on a mixtape that’s coming out in March, and my first song’s going to come out in the next few weeks.
So how is your creative process with music and poetry different?
The creative process of writing a poem for me would often be in response to something. It was more like a cognitive process. Sometimes it would be emotional catharsis, but a lot of times there would be more thought. With music, it’s always been a little bit less thought, more intuitive. Oh, I heard that guy singing at the train station, I’m going to steal that. That’s the question I’ve been trying to think about a lot lately, and I’ve been interviewing poets who are singers, particularly women-identified poets, to see what that relationship is.
I like to sample a lot. When I can’t think of what to write, for example on my most recent mixtape, I would read other song lyrics, take out a book of poems, just steal a first line, and then write off of that. Some of the songs from M&O were written by me opening a James Baldwin book, and freestyling based on pulling words from it. There’s a whole song that came from that. So I think they’re very different, but also very related. Sometimes I would even use one of my own poems as that text to pull from when I’m singing.
What’s next for you, besides your mixtape?
The mixtape’s a big part! I want to focus a lot on music in the next few years—I want to be in a place where I do music full-time and I’m still teaching poetry, still writing poetry, but really putting my music out there. Right now, there’s nothing that is just purely me. I’ve done a lot of collaborative work, but I want to develop my own sound, and the mixtape is going to be a part of that.
I’ve learned a lot about community-building and facilitating spaces from working at YCA, and from growing up in those types of spaces. I’ve noticed that there is a lack of solidarity or, like, crews between women artists. So I’d like to start a space for women to come together and collaborate on music. There’s SAVEMONEY, there’s Pivot, there’s all these male-dominated hip-hop groups. And then when someone wants a singer on their song, it’s like, which one of us are they going to pick? We’re not really given a space to feel like we’re building together. So I’d love to create some kind of conference or retreat or something aimed at that.
I also want to help develop a generational level of experience sharing. There are students I have now who are trying to get into music, and then there are people who are really making it. So, how can we come together and help each other?