Author: Kai Davis
When I tell people I’m a poet for a living I’m often met with surprise. I get a lot of, “How do you make that work?” and “I didn’t know there were people that did that full time.” The truth is, I get it. There aren’t a lot of stable working writers who aren’t also teachers or students or occupying some other working class job. There especially aren’t a lot of Black women doing poetry full time. As a result, my journey has been marked by trial, error, and a good dose of luck.
I started doing poetry as a way to communicate the concerns in my life as a young Black girl. I dealt with a lot of emotional turmoil as a result of growing up in both the whiteness of private school and the disadvantages of public school. In a lot of ways poetry was a remedy for that turmoil. I got involved in a youth poetry organization, which led to local poetry slams, which led to national poetry slams. I worked hard on my craft, constantly seeking edits, practicing my performance in the mirror, and taking every opportunity to perform. I wasn’t the only one working this hard. That’s where the luck comes in.
I competed in a poetry slam with a poem entitled, “F*** I Look Like” and suddenly I had a viral video. Filmmaker Sharvon Hales happened to be filming that day and happened to ignore orders not to post online and someone with a lot of Tumblr followers happened to see it and it spread to youtube, worldstar, and blogs across the web. I don’t want to downplay what happened. I wrote a poem that spoke to people, especially Black girls across the country who were struggling to articulate their condition and looking for representation. However, it was luck that allowed it to reach them. Had that poem not gone viral, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
There seems to be an unspoken rule amongst entrepreneurs and self-employed folks, to not mention luck as a factor in your success. I find that to be incredibly harmful, especially for marginalized people. We are so often told that we are the one thing that is holding us back. We are told that our conditions can be changed if we put mind over matter. But what about predominantly white institutions not hiring us because our names look too ethnic, or banks denying us loans, or the algorithms on apps like Tik-Tok that keep Black creators out of the spotlight. These are barriers that aren’t always circumvented through hard work. Telling creators who are just starting out that the obstacles they encounter aren’t real or difficult perpetuates the racist idea that we can simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. It has the potential to destroy people’s self-esteem by encouraging them to blame themselves for their oppression.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in accountability. I believe that success is possible through consistency, which is fueled by passion in what you do. That’s the only reason I was able to flip viral success into a career. I kept creating, got booked for college shows, gained more of a following, kept people abreast to what I was up to and that worked… for a while. Then I discovered that I was being severely underpaid, which is not uncommon for Black poets. Especially for Black poets representing themselves.
By happenstance, someone I knew personally was starting an agency and was open to representing me. This is that luck I was talking about. I rose to the opportunity by providing info for a media kit, getting headshots, and re-working my workshop descriptions. Yet, the thing that made the biggest difference was that my agent is a white woman. It’s not always you, it’s the system.
As a Black woman who performs poetry that is unapologetically pro-Black, Queer, and in defense of women, it was hard representing myself to institutions that wrote the big checks. Once I got my foot in the door and was able to stay there with some consistency, I used it as an opportunity to challenge the culture of the universities, to educate staff and students, and advocate for poets like myself by inviting them to shows and paying them. If I eat, the homies gotta eat too. I’ve gained knowledge on the way from poets who were candid with me about their process. I started managing my income with quickbooks, updating my bio regularly, using social media to stay connected with other poets, and affirming the work of my peers as often as possible. I then pass that info along to my community because my community isn’t my enemy.
I try to be honest about my journey because that’s the only way we will all survive. It’s important to be generous with resources and information because that generosity always comes back. That’s what sustainability is all about. It is also paramount to the success of those around us who face the same hurdles that we do. Hard work and passion are not the only things we need. We need opportunity. Hard work and passion allow us to be prepared for the opportunities once they arise, and generosity and honesty allow for our successes to not exist in a vacuum.
My success in the poetry world is not common. I am the exception to the rule as a result of being in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t make me better than the poet next to me. What it does is put me in the position to reach audiences that were once inaccessible, to gain knowledge that was once inaccessible, and to share that with my people. White supremacy, elitism, and capitalism are antithetical to our work as artists because it turns everything into a competition. If we are lucky enough to be the exception, then it is up to us to make someone else lucky.