Cultural Storytellers: Nikki Patin

How are we supporting overseas artists who want to come here? Renee Liang talks to Chicago poet, musician and organiser Nikki Patin, who's contemplating the big move to NZ.


How are we supporting overseas artists who want to come here? Renee Liang talks to Chicago poet, musician and organiser Nikki Patin, who's contemplating the big move to NZ.

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I first met Nikki in 2009, when she came to NZ with her show “The Phat Grrl Revolution”. Nikki is a poet, musician and performer hailing from the south side of Chicago, where she has made a name for herself with thought-provoking, risky work which always spirals back to exploring her self identity as “mixed-race, Black-identified, fat, queer.” She’s also built a career as a teacher and advocate, developing and running programs which reach out to the disadvantaged and youth.

So why would a poet from Chicago even think of visiting small cities like Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin? Like many, she found our poetry community on the internet - or rather, we found her, and in that ever-hopeful but chronically impecunious state that poets exist, invited her to fund her own way over. She did and loved it so much she’s decided to sell everything, give away her job in Chicago, and risk everything to pursue a degree in Auckland. As she says in her blog,  “This is about reaching for a dream I have for my life. When I was in Auckland in 2009, I felt more at peace, at home and more creative that I ever did anywhere else.”

But being a poet in NZ (where poets are quite literally expected to write free verse) is quite different to working as a poet in the US. Nikki is one of a number of high-calibre overseas artists who have tried to come to NZ to settle for a while – some find a niche and stay, others try but eventually have to move on. This is due, I think (and this is purely anecdotal) to not being able to sustain their practice in our community-rich but funding-poor environment.  You think it’s hard to get funding? Try being a non-NZ resident.

This raises the question of what we are doing to not only help overseas artists to visit, but encourage them to stay for a while and spread their creative seed.  Nikki is a case in point. In 2009, she performed her show in bars, halls, theatres and schools, wowing audiences.  She was nominated for “Best Standout Performer” in the Dunedin Fringe and gained some media attention.  She also built many collaborative bridges with local poets, many of which continued after she went back to the US. As she prepares to auction her bedroom furniture and take on as many odd jobs as she can physically manage, Nikki is already organizing projects over here. She’s a valuable asset and we need her to stay.

But enough of me. You should hear it now from her.  But before I sign off, I’d like to ask our community – what resources are you aware of to help overseas artists stay and work? And from your experience, what more is needed? Comment below.

Why do you write poetry?

I write poetry because there are certain things that I want to say that can only be expressed through poetry or, more specifically, poetic performance. I'm fascinated with language that is visual, insightful, dynamic, rhythmic and emotional. Poetry encapsulates all of those qualities for me and I've been drawn to it since I started writing at age 7. I write poetry because I have to, because it's like my skin. I could not survive without it.

How much does life influence your writing, and vice versa?

My writing is my life and vice versa. Writing has always been my space to say exactly what I think, no filter or boundaries necessary or entertained. I write to make sense of my life and the world around me. I'm a subscriber to the belief that I should write what I know. I think that there are enough presumptuously ignorant people in the world, who arrogantly believe that they can think for others and decide their paths and beliefs for them. So, I write directly from my experience and what I've taught through that experience. It's also my way of processing the ridiculous amount of trauma that I'm still coping with. On the flip side, writing also allows me to write beyond my life. It gives me the room to literally write my life into existence. I can be braver, smarter, stronger than I currently am, simply by dreaming it into words first. And that's how it's gone. I've written about my life, then allowed my life to become how I wrote it to be.

What does poetry do that other art forms can’t?

Poetry allows for breath, for rhythm, for unbearable pain and intense beauty. In other spaces, those things would be maudlin or cheesy, but in poetry (which is the cornerstone to modern music, in my opinion), all things become possible. I think poetry cracks chests open, reaches into the tiniest opening and just splits it so that all this light and thunder can rush in. Poets run the world. I know that sounds crazy but if you think of how most people are influenced or moved, something of the poetic exists in those moments. Someone's favorite song, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, lines from movies that are repeated ad infinitum, a favorite book passage or some quiet, important moment between two people. Poetry exists in all of them.

What themes and ideas are you exploring right now?

Right now, I'm exploring the nature of transformation. What does it take to pull the train back onto the track? My previous work explored body image and mostly from the perspective of someone with a negative body image and resigned to feeling that way permanently. The latest project that I'm working, The Vitruvian Woman, is digging deep into the process of transformation and actualization. Can one construct their own life like an architect would construct a building? Are we determined by destiny or design? I'm leaning towards design, but we'll see how that works out.

Why did you decide to live in NZ?

I just really love it in New Zealand. I had an amazing time in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin in 2009. I speak to many of my friends in NZ more often than I speak to people in Chicago. I have a real connection to this country. Plus, I want to live there for the obvious reasons: it's beautiful, full of good people and delicious food, alive with culture, history and spirituality. It's my favorite place in the whole world.

How important is formal education in a creative career?

I think it depends on the artist. I've reached a point where formalizing my education is necessary because I want to dig deeper into what I doing and I need some insight into that process. I also want to be able to discuss and debate ideas and theories. Being in a university setting allows me greater access to those ideas and theories and provides more opportunities to flesh them out. I will say that I've learned mostly my doing, in terms of my creative career, so I think there definitely needs to be a balance between thinking and doing. I wouldn't be able to engage my education the way that I am now  without a solid decade of performance and teaching behind me.

What can you contribute to the creative community here?

I can contribute a different perspective and voice that the New Zealand creative community might not get to experience often. Not to get into too many labels, but I am a mixed-race, Black-identified, fat, queer (meaning that attraction has no gender for me and I'm very likely to carry my wallet in my back pocket while rocking a face full of glitter and lip gloss...I don't fit very neatly into the gay or straight boxes) American from the south side of Chicago who's moving away from home for the first time. I'm also a singer/songwriter who's been in bands that have played everything from power pop to hard rock, hip-hop to free-form jazz and blues. I've done burlesque, but wouldn't call myself a burlesque artist. I make collages and other art pieces, but wouldn't call myself a visual artist. I'm also a graphic designer who can design books, album covers, stickers, buttons, etc. I design and maintain three  websites for my own projects. I think that I have a wealth of information and talent that I would love to share with other artists and I know there are plenty of artists in NZ from whom I have much to learn. I'm ready to contribute energy, excitement, bad jokes, good times and lots and lots of love!

What barriers have you had to overcome to get here?

I think that I've had to overcome what most people do when relocating far away from home: lack of money, lack of time, etc. I'm working on applying for my student visa, so we'll see what happens with that. I think the biggest barrier that I've had to overcome is myself. This is a scary process, you know? I read a story about a women who had a high BMI and was denied a visa because of it. I let that one story derail this plan for almost a month! And all because I was terrified that that would happen to me. I was so terrified that I gave up on the whole plan and thought it wasn't even worth it to try. However, when I got my acceptance to the University of Auckland, I decided that the only thing worse than being denied a visa because I'm too fat is not applying for one at all.

How could it have been made easier?

If Google didn't pop up that stupid article! Honestly, I think it has been made easy. My friends in NZ have been so supportive and are putting in massive amounts of time and energy to help make this happen. I wouldn't be moving here without them because they have been pushing so hard, even when I've been doubtful and downright whiny about the whole thing! I think the only thing that could make it easier is hearing that I've been awarded a full-ride scholarship and someone's decided to give me a first-class ticket to Auckland! Have you seen those first-class lounger seats? Your knees only come to your navel, instead of your nose! It's like a miracle in the air.

What do you hope to do in your first two years here?

I want to do a lot. I want to get straight A's in school. I want to complete the first phase of the Vitruvian Woman project. I want to find a fearless, genius band and play lots of shows. I want to do collaborative projects with the Literatti and South Auckland Poets Collective. I want to bring artists I know from all over the world to New Zealand. I want to find or create a recipe for feijoa-tinis!

What projects are you working on?

I'm working on the Vitruvian Woman project. It's still in its planning phase, but the project is based on Vitruvius' architectural theory on what it takes to build a good structure. He said that a good structure is solid, useful and beautiful. He also said that the human body is the greatest design in the known Universe. So, I want to transform my body, according to this theory. My hypotheses is that if my body is strong (solid), then it can become useful as a tool of expression and performance (beauty). Throughout this transformative process, I'll engage in movement designed to build strength, such as yoga, martial arts and resistance training. I'll also engage in an eating plan designed to support strength-building and healing of myself and the earth. It's my goal to eat local, affordable and organic. The entire process will be documented through writing, performance, video blogging and weekly outlines of my body that will drawn on canvas. Ultimately, I'd like to show what it takes to make such a transformation happen and analyze its effect on my creative energy and process. You can check out the full details of the project here.

How can people help or collaborate?

People can help by letting us know what resources may be available for scholarships and travel grants. People can also help by contributing encouraging words and positive energy.

As far as collaborators go, you can check out who I'd like on the project team here.

Written by

Renee Liang

16 Jun 2011

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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