Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Writer Bassey Ikpi

Washington, DC

Bassey Ikpi. Photo courtesy of artist

Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-born writer who was a featured cast member in the National Touring Company of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show, Russell Simmon's Def Poetry Jam. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and is currently working on a memoir documenting her life living with Bipolar II Disorder.

NEA: What’s your version of the writing life? Do you write full time, do you write everyday, do you write at a specific time or have any writing rituals, etc?

BASSEY IKPI: I write whenever it hits me. I always keep a pad and pencil (I prefer writing in pencil) around. I have dozens of writing apps on my phone. My laptop is always within reach. I actually sleep with it on my bed so that if something comes to me, I can get to it. I had a boyfriend who used to get up and write from 9-5 every day. Like he was at work. I admired that but I can't do that. If I could, I'd work a 9-5! Writing to me is also about reading and talking to people and observing and being in the world. So even if I don't write a word that day, I'm doing something that is aiding me in writing. I wish I had rituals. I can jot down notes everywhere but when it comes to writing and letting the ideas flow in complete product, I have to type. I have to be on my laptop.

NEA: Do you consider yourself a poet? Do you consider yourself a spoken word artist? Does it matter?

IKPI: I just recently started referring to myself as a poet out of sheer peer pressure. I got tired of correcting people. I don't feel like I poet. I write poetry and I've written poetry. I'm probably better known as a poet but I think my real love and motivation is prose and creative nonfiction. I think there is a talent and drive to poetry that I don't own. I know some brilliant poets and I just cannot put myself in the same category as them. I'm nowhere near there but it's not something that I aspire to either. I write. I like to write. It's one of the few things I enjoy and have enjoyed for a long time. "Spoken word artist" is another label that I'm hesitant to take on. I'm not sure what it means. I know what it means to other people but for me, it's just a collection of words. I'm a writer. That's what matters to me.

NEA: Why do we---the general public---need poetry? Why do you need poetry?

IKPI: Poetry is beauty. It's life. I think about young poets that I've discovered who do these amazing things with words. I think about this tsunami of things that I feel and having the luxury of poetry to say it exactly as it is. The ability to take a few words and create a metaphor that pinpoints exactly where you are and how you got there. It's extraordinary. You look at these words you've built and then set on fire and think, "I did that. This says all I need and it took me years of feeling it before I could put it to words." There's a sense of urgency and a way that poetry lays things flat for people to see and identify. It's powerful. I've said it before, but poetry is words set on fire. And that's why I need it. I've lived a simple life filled with complicated events and emotions and the only way to say it is through poetry. One of the best compliments I ever received was when someone stopped me after a show while I was on tour and said, "I didn't know how to say it and you said it." That, to me, is the crux of this thing we do. To find a way to "say it" and have others grab onto it and say, "me too."

NEA: What's the most surprising thing that's happened to you because of your poetry?

IKPI: My entire life. I've been writing since I was eight. I wrote my first poem in the third grade, and I fell in love with writing and words and poems and people who create them. I had no idea that it was a career. My love of words gave me two options: journalism or law school. I'm not a journalist. I'm not at all committed to the truth and facts enough. I need phrases to turn and sift through and shake apart. So the fact that I tell people that I'm a "poet" as a career is crazy. It took me to New York one summer. It put me in the company of amazing and brilliant contemporary poets. It forced me to grow and change and live a more examined life. It created a life I didn't know was possible but it also gave me the words to express a lot of silent ache and turmoil I'd been holding. If it wasn't for poetry and the writing and the movement of it, I would never have been in tune with my emotions and life enough to accept a mental illness diagnosis. It's cliched but poetry literally saved my life.

NEA: What is your definition of creativity?

IKPI: Insanity set to music. I think creativity is a lens that both allows you to see the world in a "different" way and then take what you see and process it and then turn it over so someone else can see it.

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?

IKPI: Soothsayer. Truth teller. Town crier. I think it is the artist's ultimate role to  take what happens in our communities and give it movement.

NEA: Conversely, what do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

IKPI: That's a difficult question. Ideally, the community should support the artist. In ancient times, artists were protected. They could trade art for life and as payment. Now we have this struggling artist mentality that I don't think is necessary. So many programs that would allow artists to grow in our communities are being cut. It's no longer about wanting to bring the best of our communities out or to identify the problems. It's now all about survival, or you have a "real job" and you do art on the side. I wish that just being an artist and given room to create was enough to live a useful life. Now, I'm looking at books and the selling of the art in order to live rather than a plus or a supplement to an already rich and full life. I'm not sure if that's clear.

NEA: In a recent issue of NEA Arts, Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.”  When it comes to poetry—or even the arts as a whole—what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you or other poets or artists as a community are making that isn’t yet there?

IKPI: I've been writing about this a lot lately, but I think that there's a definite lack of nuance that's taken over the art world. Everything appears as it is. There is no room for subtlety or an understanding of how to process what we've seen. I think the desire to create "good" work and honest work has been taken over by this need to just "produce" and "produce." I see it in open mics all the time. I see poems that are reflective of the fact that we're not reading as much anymore. We're not finding the art and poetry in our everyday lives. The basics are missing so the output is this shaky foundation. "Flashy lines" and this diluting of truth and honesty in order to get a reaction. I wonder if some of the things I hear in the spoken word scene have ever been written down. It's disheartening but then I hear people like Warsan Shire and Safia Ehillo and these amazing young poets who have found a way to take the past and the future and create this honest and necessary work. It gives me hope. It makes me believe that the books and the writing to come will bring the worlds back together.

NEA: What does "Art works" mean to you?

IKPI: Art helps. Art heals. Art creates. Art soothes. Art uplifts. Art shakes the foundations. It means that art, when done correctly, does its job.

NEA: Anything you wish I would have asked, and how would you have answered?

IKPI: I think that part of being a good artist is learning to see YOUR art in everything. To see the movement in a poem. To hear the music of bodies. To see the poetry of dance. Everything is connected. You can't be a good writer until you become a good reader and life "observer."

Click here to watch Bassey Ikpi perform "An Apology to My Unborn"

Click here to watch Bassey Ikpi perform "Choices"

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