“With the poem comes everything, every sound,” says spoken word artist Neiel Israel. “It all comes exactly the way it is.” These words reflect Israel’s thoughts on her art form—ideas that inspirits her work. In her performances, she seems to channel a force larger than herself, orating with an assured, unique energy. She has received increasing attention as an emerging voice in the lively Cambridge slam poetry scene and performed her most well known poem, “When a Black Man Walks,” at the March on Harvard demonstration last December. Israel sat down with The Crimson to discuss her creative philosophy and her work.
The Harvard Crimson: Your poems are quite closely aligned with ideas of social justice. Did you begin writing poetry with a socially conscious purpose, or did that focus come about more organically?
Neiel Israel: I don’t necessarily sit down to write a poem on purpose.… I have never been that kind of poet. It doesn’t mean it won’t change, but I respect the idea.… Sometimes when the idea comes, I’ll sit with it who knows how long—it could be a week, a month, who knows—but when it comes it generally just comes straight through for me. So I suppose that’s organic.… I wait for the idea, and when it comes I take full advantage. Maybe I could even say, honestly, I obey and write it down.
THC: When researching you, I came across a video in which a man said seeing you perform made him feel the proudest he’d ever been to be a black man.
NI: Oh, wow.
THC: And a lot of what strikes me about your poetry is that it’s very loving. How important is it to you that love comes through in your poetry?
NI: Oh, that’s very important. That’s me embracing the responsibility of being a poet, because...I’m required or responsible to write the poems that I need to write in my life. So it is love. When I was a child—I’m a larger child now, an older child—but when I was a younger child people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I’d always say a poet. I knew that I was a poet at 6...and people, even the ones that loved me the most would always shoot that idea down. Uproot it even before it could grow. So growing in the world as an artist, or a poet even, was very difficult for me because people would chop it down. They would say things like, “You’ll starve to death,” or “You’ll die. How’re you gonna pay your rent?”.... Now I don’t let anything get in the way of that. I don’t let doubt...affect me.
So I think because of that there is a love, and I think I have to hold it because I know that’s what I am. And recently I’ve been completely overjoyed, just overjoyed, trying not to be overwhelmed with the joy of being a poet.... There would have to be love in it, because without poetry, honestly, I really...have nothing.... And it feels good [to write poetry]. I’m teaching students now.… I kind of get to go and say to people, “Go forth and write poetry!” which is what I didn’t necessarily have growing up. There were no poets that came to my school on...career day, whatever that is. And what a sad thing that is, if that’s who and what you are.... So now I get to share and give what I so desperately needed as a creative intellectual, as a poet, as a child.... What I like is that I can be somewhat of a liaison for people who are not sure of their own tongue, who are afraid to use their own words and of what might happen using those words or what might not happen using those words. But I like that I’m there as a witness that it’s okay to be poetic, to write poems, to create.