Name: Nzinga Ever Elon Nzuriwatu Jaha Bella Taylor
Nickname: Jaha Bella
Hometown: Johannesburg, South Africa (native) and Atlanta, GA (natural)
School: Cristo Rey Jesuit High School
Favorite Poet(s): Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes
Fun Fact: Numbers of birthday are consecutive (11/23) and birth year is a perfect square (1999) [triple 9]
Q: Why Do You Do Poetry?
Jaha Bella: I think that words, especially English, can sometimes be used to harm and can be ugly, and chunky and hard to understand, so I think poetry makes words beautiful.
Q: In the great scheme of things or life, where does poetry fit in?
JB: Poetry is the art form that … everyone [can] be invited in. I know sometimes when it comes to dance and music, people feel like, “Oh I’m not a dancer, so I can’t love dance; I can’t sing so I can’t enjoy music.” But with poetry, everyone — if you’ve written your name of a paper you’re a writer…it’s something you can try…and it’s still art.
Q: How or when did you find yourself as a poet?
JB: I was in sixth grade and my [English] teacher had this project called a chapbook project, where we had to compile 20 poems… and I did not do the assignment because I thought it was stupid… Why I gotta write 20 poems when I can write an essay about my life? Then she put a zero in the gradebook and emailed me: “I’m going to let you redeem your grade, but you need to submit something.”
Then she made me read “Letters to a Young Poet” by [poet] Rainer Maria Rilke… and that book really inspired me, so I ended up writing all 20 poems in a night and submitting it to her. That was actually the first book I ever published…she’s the reason I became a writer.
Q: Describe your writing routine or process.
JB: Usually, something will come to me in a dream, usually in the evening, that I really wanna say, or something will happen and I feel like there’s a narrative missing about it. And I just write sh*t down, notes or outline…
Then I would build a poem, go back add some stuff ’cause a lot of my freewrites start off really short, so I just add and add and add for maybe a week, then I send it to someone I trust. Sidenote: All poets/writers — only send your poems to people you really trust because poetry-snatching is real.
Send it to editors who edit for me, and I try to perform at an open mic or slam…within a month of me writing it… I try to get the narrative in while it’s still relevant.
Q: When or where are you most inspired?
JB: Every time I fall in love with something. The first time I fell in love with my blackness it produced a book. The first time I fell in love with a person, it produced a poem that I put up at the first Brave New Voices [I attended], and that person was myself. Every time I fall in love with the idea of something…a topic it turns into something I need to write.
Q: Is there some consistent trademark or characteristic that you’ve discovered in your poetry?
JB: My blackness, my womanhood and my pansexuality comes up a lot in my poetry. I think its because its the things I am all the time no matter what. Of course, I’m a activist, and of course I’m a singer, and I’m everything else… Above all I was born into this world a black, female pansexual. So even if I’m talking about [another] topic, I might slip in a line, or if I was to put all my writings together those three would definitely be motifs.
Q: Your favorite poem you’ve written and why?
JB: To me, all my poems suck (laughter)… one of my favorites that I’ve ever written…was a piece about my mom… It talked about growing up, what it felt like to not understand the way that a mother loves and not understanding someone who has not healed…and give long-lasting emotional scars to their child, even when it’s not intentional. And for a long time I hated her for all the sh*t I went through when I was younger. I hated my dad too. But that poem revealed to me that she didn’t know how to love, and it made me empathize with her way more… It was also the first time I had written [alongside] a group of people… It was for a slam, so we had to cut some sh*t out. But I felt like I was in a community of people who really understand because they didn’t judge me for it. They really helped me through it, through a piece that was not only my favorite piece that I’ve written but my hardest piece to write.
Q: Outside of poetry, who are you, what do you?
JB: I’m the baddest b**ch. I am a unicorn galloping on a rainbow… I sing, I act, I write, I direct, I produce, I am a part of the teen ensemble at The Alliance Theater. I am the founder of the arts program at my school. I am a poetry mentor at my middle school. I am a non-biological mother, big sister, non-biological aunt, big cousin, and I’m an inspirationalist.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with your talents and skills in life?
JB: I hope to be a mirror to young girls, because…there’s not a lot of people brave enough to reveal all their scars, which makes a lot of us feel alone because we don’t know that people are struggling with the same things we are struggling with and they made it through and they’re successful. I hope to be that beacon of light for girls like me who have been sexually abused, who have questioned their sexuality, who haven’t really gained support from their community.
I wanna be that things that say: hey, I can be here for you and I can show you there’s another way.
Q: Any special news, events or releases we should be excited for?
JB: I’m going to Brave New Voices July 19-22 in California to represent Atlanta with my team.
I’m still single, and I’m graduating from high school!
Q: Anything else you’d like to share — advice, anecdotes — to young poets?
JB: If the words are pretty but they don’t fit right inside of you, then it’s not the piece that you should be writing… Only write things that are true to you because you’re going to regret ever being inauthentic, because no one can grow, especially yourself, from something not true and not honest and not full of integrity.
As told to Ogechi N. Ofodu, 19, who is going to BNV ’17 as a member of Team Atlanta, too.
Interested in Slam Poetry?
Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival is an annual slam poetry competition for poets ages 13 to 19. This year the festival will convene in the Bay Area, California, July 19-22.
Atlanta Word Works offers free poetry workshops during the school year at VOX, too. Submit your own original work for publication by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.