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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Nikki Patin brings her Phat Grrrl Revolution to NZ

Posted in: Performance
By Matt Akersten - 28th February 2009

Visiting us soon: Def Jam's Nikki Patin
"I'm a fat, mixed-race, Black-identified woman. Even if I wasn't queer, my career would suffer because of those things."

The Phat Grrrl Revolution is a multi-media performance extravaganza, featuring the groundbreaking work of Chicago-based performance artist and poet, Nikki Patin. She blends spoken word, music, burlesque and her powerhouse voice to belt out songs of revolution, throwing off stereotypes - and possibly her clothes - in the process, and throwing in a bit of comedy, rock-n-roll and hip-hop to get the party started.

She's also taught hundreds of workshops at various high schools, colleges and universities on performance poetry, body image, sexual assault prevention and LGBT issues.

Patin will be on stage with New Zealand's own performance group, The Literatti, at the London Bar on Saturday 7 March as part of the 2009 Auckland Fringe Festival. Winding up on Sunday 29 March at the Dunedin Fringe Festival, the Phat Grrrl Revolution will also visit Auckland, Leigh and Wellington along the way.

We were keen to chat to Nikki Patin about her live and art, before she arrives onto Kiwi stages. Hi Nikki. It's great to hear you're on your way to New Zealand! How is the poetry scene in Chicago, and in today's multi-media world, what place does poetry have? Is poetry still as popular as it once was?

Nikki Patin: The Chicago poetry scene has already been really strong. Poetry slam, which is competitive poetry, was invented in Chicago back in the '80s by Marc Smith at the Green Mill. That same show still runs every Sunday night. Chicago is an extremely prolific poetry city. In addition to the wonderful small presses and independent bookstores, there are also open mics for every night of the week. At the organisation I work with, Young Chicago Authors, we're introducing multi-media and new media to our youth poets and utilizing video and audio to complement and distribute their work. I don't know about any other city, but poetry still reigns supreme in Chicago. We like our food, our sports and our poets.

When did you 'come out'?

It's interesting. I identify as queer, which means that gender isn't the defining factor in my attraction to people. Of course, I did come out as queer a few years ago and it was interesting. It was actually a really smooth transition, though experience tells me that coming out isn't something you do once. I find myself explaining my sexuality all the time, once a week, at least. That doesn't exactly bother me, though, because I like defining myself, versus leaving it in the hands of others.

When I came out to my Mom, it was completely on accident. I was writing the press release for a one-woman show that I did way back in 2005 and I asked her to proof-read. I described myself as queer, but didn't think about that until she asked me "when I decided to be queer." I told her that I've always felt an attraction to all kinds of people and felt most at home in the LGBT community. I already thought she knew, since most of my friends were/are LGBT and since I'd done a lot of work and performance in the LGBT community. It was a shock to me that she was shocked and it took a year to really ask me about it. She gets more and more comfortable as time goes by, I think. I think that my coming out experience is unique, in that I always thought my queerness was obvious. I just thought everyone, including my Mom, knew and that they were being really cool about it. Sometimes, I'm slightly naive.

There are many well-known people who choose to stay in the closet because of fears their career would suffer. Has that ever been a concern for you?

Not really. I'm a fat, mixed-race, Black-identified woman. Even if I wasn't queer, my career would suffer because of those things. I like to live my life in the light and to be honest with myself and about myself. I think that the homophobia that stifles careers comes from the same negative place as the racism and sexism and sizeism that stifles careers. Refusing shame around any part of myself is more important to me than my "career." I don't really think I have a career as much as I have a burning desire to inject a different perspective in cultural conversations. That desire fuels my writing, motivates me to teach students who can bring other perspectives to the table and gives me the confidence to publish books and plan tours.

I made the conscious choice to let the art determine my path. For me, I write and sing and perform what I know, what is real for me. Being queer and a part of the LGBT community is what I know and what is real for me. If I did it any other way, I couldn't sleep at night.

Who are the LGBT people you most admire? What qualities in an LGBT person do you most respect?



I love Audre Lorde, may she rest in peace. She's my favorite poet and essayist of all time. "There is No Hierarchy of Oppression" changed my life. I love the LGBT folks who ARE out and proud, especially the independent and underground artists who are creating work that is smart and shameless. Folks such as Johnny Dangerous, QBoy (from London), Juba Kalamka, God-des and She and Tori Fixxx are tearing it up, doing gay hip-hop in the States and all over the planet. Them tackling a genre of music that is notorious for being extremely homophobic and sexist is epic in cultural scope and awe-inspiring. They're like my gay superheroes.

The E.D. of Young Chicago Authors, C.C. Carter, is a big mentor and inspiration for me. She created the longest-running, weekly Black lesbian poetry open mic in the U.S.

The qualities that I admire in LGBT folks are their strength, their pride, their refusal to accept anything less than the full acknowledgement of their humanity and dignity.

Here in New Zealand, we get several women's magazines from the USA, and we publish many ourselves. But sometimes they're criticized for making the average woman feel bad about themselves in order to sell products. Some of the popular gossipy mags are also quite cruel to famous women. What are your thoughts on the magazines many young women are reading?

Whew. I teach a program called Girlspeak, which tackles some of those very issues. I do a workshop, called "Deconstructing the Body," wherein the participants take the magazine you described, cut them up and then reconstruct the images how they see fit. I think those magazines, like most mainstream media in the U.S., are profit-driven. I think that they also serve as ridiculous bits of brainwashing that instruct women like they're schoolchildren instead of adults. I'm a fan of freedom of speech and democracy and all that freedom jazz, but I don't understand how this type of cultural imbalance is tolerated. The magazines that would serve to counter-balance the negativity present in a lot of these rags aren't as widely distributed, well-known or published as frequently. Also, making something entertaining that isn't disparaging or negative seems to be a big challenge.

I think that young women are especially vulnerable and that their vulnerability is preyed upon. Who doesn't want to look and feel good? The problem is that these magazines send the message that the only way a young women can have worth is by looking a certain way. That "way" is usually limited to sickeningly thin, Caucasian women. So many different kinds of women are left out of the imagery and articles and conversation, which makes it seem that all women think, talk and act alike. How are these young women supposed to develop a strong sense of self if they're being culturally trained to be the same person?

Your work is now available to High School students as part of the 'Greatest Living Writers Project'. Quite a compliment! How does it feel to know your writings are helping to shape young minds?

Humbling. I work with teenagers every week and I am constantly humbled. Truth to be told, I think they shape my mind a lot more than I shape theirs and for that, I am forever grateful.

What can New Zealand audiences expect from your shows when you visit our shores? Some of our readers may never have been to a show anything like yours before.

Energy and excitement! I love to entertain and to share. I love to sing and dance. All of those elements will be present, along with storytelling and poetry. My shows are revelatory in a lot of ways. I like to show what's behind the curtain, the fourth wall. My shows are rhythmic and intense, emotional and for me, exhilarating! I think that the New Zealand audiences can expect to meet a new friend and to hear about a world that they most likely have never seen before.

Our last question is, what job do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a writer and performance artist? Can you imagine another career for yourself?

Well, it's funny. I do a lot of things. I'm a designer. I designed my book, I design all of the promotions for my home shows and I also art direct most of my photo shoots. I'm an educator. I'm an activist and advocate. When I was younger, I wanted to be a scientist and a lawyer. I still think that the qualities present in people in those professions still reflect in my current work. I can be very methodical and analytical, as well as stubborn and argumentative! So, if the chips fell a different way, I'd probably be a lawyer or trapped in a lab somewhere.

I'm glad that I'm a poet, though. To me, it's the most gorgeous job title of all.



Tour Dates:


7 March – The London Bar – Auckland

Nikki Patin's Phat Grrl Revoution Tour

10 March – Thirsty Dog – Auckland

12 March – The Wine Cellar – Auckland

13 March – Leigh Sawmill – Leigh

21 March – Happy – Wellington

26–29 March – Fortune Studio – Dunedin

Watch Nikki Patin work up a Sweat on a TV poetry special below.

Matt Akersten - 28th February 2009