Smile Politely

Urbana’s first Youth Poet Laureate talks poetry, performance, and promise

Danyla Nash is the real thing. Demonstrably committed to poetry and performance, Urbana’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate embodies individuality and we are lucky to have such a gifted writer and performer in our midst. A freshman at Urbana High School, Nash was a founding member of the Writers of Oya, young women writers of color who work in written and spoken word, a group encouraged by visionary Ashanti Files during her tenure as Urbana’s Poet Laureate. In my interview with Ms. Nash, we discussed the role of inspiration, creativity, originality, and her take on the creative process.

Smile Politely: What do you want your readers to experience when they’re reading or listening to your work?

Danyla Nash: When I’m performing, I don’t really want people to feel what I’ve felt because then at that point, the piece is already used up. If everybody felt the same thing I felt when I wrote the poem, then I wouldn’t be a very good poet. To be a good poet, you have to be able to contact a range of emotions. If all humans thought the same things, this world would be boring. I want readers and audiences to feel a range of emotions. Not necessarily mine, but if they can connect to the piece, that’s what matters. Maybe they do feel or have felt what I feel. But I want the experience to be uniquely theirs.

SP: Being unique and being an original seems to be a theme in your work.

Nash: Yes. Definitely. I’ve always had this weird, almost crippling fear of being like somebody else or being a duplicate so I’ve never really looked up to anybody in particular. I always felt like if I looked up to somebody I might become somewhat of a duplicate and I don’t like that.

SP: You also have a real commitment to social justice in your work. How does that figure into what you want readers and audiences to get out of your art?

Nash: The type of writing that I do, slam poetry, feeds into anything and everything. It has theatrical elements or more of a tone to it. It’s all about finding the right tone and words and those work together for any message. I choose to do social justice because of the political statements I wanted to express around the time I started writing poetry. I had to reflect what the world was really like at the moment. I don’t only write political poetry but that is mostly what I perform. As far as how social justice and poetry correlate, I’d say they can go hand in hand.

SP: Who are the artists that you pay particular attention to? Maybe not so much as inspiration but because their work fuels your desire to create.

Nash: One artist who really connected me to poetry and lyrics was J. Cole. He isn’t really known for his poetry so much as his lyrics. I feel like he’s a lyrical genius. I hear his genius when he’s talking about his work or in interviews or, of course, in his music. You can hear his passion in his lyrics and in his beats. You can hear that he carries the weight of where he comes from on his back. Cole doesn’t come from the best conditions and he persisted. I figured if he can make art out of what he’s gone through, then I can too.

SP: How did your art evolve over these last couple of years of the pandemic?

Nash: Actually, the pandemic year was probably the most active year that we had. For the Writers of Oya, especially during peak pandemic time, we were really creative. We met all the time and found ways to support each other and to stay creative. I was lucky since it was my 8th grade year. I didn’t need to be in the building to learn so I felt pretty fortunate.

SP: How would you describe your creative process?

DN: I can get a pencil and paper anywhere. I can create anywhere. I want other writers out there to know not to throw the book when you get writer’s block. I get inspiration at different times and places. You have to be ready for it. I promise–you will get some inspiration. But you can’t force inspiration. I always keep a pencil behind my ear or on my hat. Inspiration hits me when I’m not even looking for it so I have to capture the words and tones. It’s all about being ready and being open. Sometimes a line just comes to me and then I play with that and create from there.

SP: What are you the most excited about this year in your role as Youth Poet Laureate?

Nash: I haven’t been the most vocal about what I wanted in the past. So this role and this year will definitely be different. In the past, I could be a leader when I needed to. But I’m looking forward to hosting events in the community and engaging with kids my age. I want to get young people excited about poetry and spoken word so they can find their voices. I want kids to know poetry can be an emotional outlet when you need it. God knows, teens need an emotional outlet here and there. If I can help teens with a vocabulary to help them get through this, then I will be helping my generation. I’m really looking forward to one of my first events that I’m doing on the summer equinox, the longest day of the year. It’s all about new beginnings and will be open to the community and is tentatively scheduled at the Crystal Lake Boathouse. People can present speeches around new beginnings, or spoken word, or poetry or present their art. They won’t have to stick to the theme, but I want it to be a positive event that brings artists together.

Danyla Nash is the perfect ambassador for new beginnings. It will be a joy to watch her bring her creativity to this role and to our community. We are grateful to the City of Urbana’s Arts and Culture program which, in partnership with NYC’s Urban Word project, helped develop the Urbana Youth Poet Laureate program and we look forward to all of the ways Danyla Nash will foster creativity and commitment among our local teens and adults.

Top photo by Anna Longworth.

Arts Editor at Smile Politely

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