Nandi Comer article written by Vince Patricola and Monica Isaac… Find this and other amazing articles in DEQ17_18 (pictured here)
Type A in the best way. That’s how I would describe the personality of poet, author, DJ, professor, director, advocate for Black artists, and writer Nandi Comer. She is the type of person who understands the struggle of Black writers and is ready and willing to lend a hand to help them get through the landscape gauntlet. Through teaching in classrooms, to podcasts, to meetings large and small she proves no task is too tall.
Behind her enlarged glasses is a pure rock star, glowing with intelligence, energy, humility, giggles, wit, flow and empathy at every turn. Realness oozes out of her and effortlessly makes you think that this is someone to learn from and be around. The accolades (between awards, grants and scores of amazing projects) in her arsenal are plentiful and are rarely flaunted but truly reflect her drive and genius.
The hard hustle she learned to help her gain success, she applies towards helping youth and adolescent artists. Many of Comer’s days are spent in the non-profit sector, mainly with the Allied Media Projects’ Seeds Program. In essence, this Detroit rooted company with global reach helps media groups interested in bettering society raise funds to keep doing their essential work.
She’s also the Co-director of Detroit Lit (a program devoted to providing opportunities for writers of color) and wrote two multi-award-winning poetry books: American Family: A Syndrome(Finishing Line Press) and Tapping Out(Northwestern University Press.) Her fondness for Detroit techno led her to her Techno Poeticsseries and to a DJ career within the Seraphine Collective, a network of women, femme, and non-binary DJs, musicians, and artists. Detroit Electronic Quarterly is proud to feature her poem “Detroit Tells Its Techno Story” on part two of the DEQ compilation vinyl (issue 17.)
DEQ:Nandi!! What a career and you are just getting warmed up. Your passions are truly inspiring. How did you come to start writing poetry? Which poem was the first that made you choose your path?
Nandi:I don’t remember when I started writing and I don’t think there was ever just one thing that drove me to write. As a kid, I rewrote fairytales and fables I had heard. Oftentimes I was more interested in writing them from the villain’s perspective. When I entered high school, my English teacher, Terry Blackhawk invited me to enroll in a creative writing class and I have been writing poetry ever since.
DEQ:When you began as a young, Black female poet, did you experience a lot of the setbacks that youngsters today still receive? Do you still see them yourself?
Nandi:When I was a young adult, I don’t think I was self-aware enough to identify “setbacks.” I just loved going to open mics and sharing my poems. I saw great poets like Jessica Care Moore and Fluent performing on stage. I loved watching them. I admired the reactions they drew from their audiences. But my poems tended to be quiet and I noticed that quiet poets didn’t get the big applause. It wasn’t because I was Black or young. It just wasn’t the audience for what I was trying to do. Instead of trying to be someone I wasn’t, I just figured I needed to find my audience. It took me a while to find examples of the kinds of art I made in the poetry world. I think all artists love when they find their tribe. I found my poetry tribe when an incredible teacher and poet, Vievee Francis, invited a few writers to learn the craft of poetry. It opened a different world. I was studying the kind of work that really shook me in my bones and I finally found other folks that approached their work in similar ways. Finding a tribe is likely the largest barrier to writers in Detroit. A tribe can help you learn about what you are trying to do. Your people will share resources and think of you when they come across opportunities. I think it can be even harder for young writers because it is difficult to get plugged into the poetry world without a mentor.
DEQ:What are the missing teachings in the current school systems? With the advancements of broadcasts/podcasts, have they aided the process? Is the climate for Black writers improving?
Nandi: I don’t think poetry is taught in meaningful ways in schools. A lot of that is because most of the poetry in the curriculum can be inaccessible even for most English teachers. I’ve heard teachers tell me they would like me to teach something in the textbook because they would like more insight into the piece. I don’t mind most times because I think the best literature classes are taught by writers. Today though, students have so many resources accessible to them that allow them to circumvent the barriers of schools. When I was in high school (spoken like an aging woman, lol) we didn’t really use the Internet. So these days the classroom is a lot broader than what’s being taught in the schools. They are podcasts, YouTube channels, Instagram accounts, and more that are just dedicated to poems of all kinds. No one these days should feel like they can’t find a poem to fall in love with. That’s said, finding good poetry is not the barrier for most Black writers. Most Black writers’ can write the work. It’s having access to resources after you write it. There need to be more places to learn about the field, where to publish, how to get paid or even where to study. The literary world is still white-dominated and those predominantly white institutions determine what literature is and who gets to speak. That kind of gatekeeping is still a large barrier to publishing and getting your voice heard on the national, even global level. It can be done but today’s writers definitely have to hustle a lot harder than their white counterparts. That has not changed.
DEQ: Are there more role models like yourself stepping out and helping the cause?
Nandi:There are people all over the city doing incredible work in after-school programs, in the classroom, at bookstores, we are all over the city mentoring youth. I don’t think I am in any way different or more effective than the mamas and babas doing the work all over the city. I am grateful for the youth I reach. But I know I am not alone. We all collectively make changes in the lives of our youth.
DEQ:Your second poetry book Tapping Outis a wildly different animal. How did you come to appreciate Lucha Libre & wrestling? Did this find you or did you find it? How do the poems in it tie back into your life and experiences?
Nandi:I write about everything. Anything I come across and it’s material for a poem. I really wanted to write about my time traveling abroad. I’ve been traveling since I was nineteen and I have lived in a few countries. I tried writing about that, but the poems I was making were really bad. So I stopped that for a while and shifted my attention to writing about Lucha Libre, a sport that I really loved. I began to see in this violent artform, metaphors for themes I was trying to tackle in those earlier poems so I went back to them with a different eye. I borrowed language to talk about my experience. Many of the poems in Tapping Out are about the sport but I also included poems about racism, about my mother, and growing up in Detroit. The sport became a vehicle for really getting at a lot of topics.
DEQ:How did DJing enter the picture? I know being in Detroit and hearing all the music, mix shows and being a part of the culture is obvious.
Nandi:Poetry brought me to DJing. I started a project in conjunction withInsideOut Literary Arts Projectwhere I did a year-long poetry project, Techno Poetics, that was focused on the history of electronic music in Detroit. As a part of that project, I interviewed DJs and producers all over Detroit. Any time you talk to anyone about a skill they are passionate about they inevitably get really technical. While interviewing legendary DJs like John Collins or Hotwaxx they would begin to talk about remixing a song or blending two songs in a very technical way and I had no idea what they were talking about. So I decided to try to gain some basic DJ knowledge by enrolling in Beat-Match-Brunch, an introductory DJ course Seraphine Collective. We learned the essentials of beat matching on vinyl, how to connect the equipment (which I never knew), and the basics of listening. When I took the class, I realized how much I really liked DJing and I couldn’t stop. What started as research gave me another passion. Before that class, I don’t think I owned more than two records. Now I have a whole studio just for my vinyl setup.
DEQ:How does DJing and music intersect with your writing?
Nandi:The two are very connected. I write poems directly influenced by music and its history. Also, DJing is a lot like being a poet in so many ways. In both disciplines, I had to learn how to listen deeply and broadly. I listen to music and read poems from around the world. Also, putting together poems for a poetry reading is a lot like performing a set—I am pretty improvisational. I might bring a stack of things I want my audience to hear, but I like to read my audience choosing the next piece based on the vibe of the room. Crafting a poem can be like setting up a good set. I like to be uninterrupted and get lost in whatever I practice. The words are like the records. If you put them together poorly you will cause nothing but noise, but when you really get them in the right order you can move someone emotionally.
DEQ:Tell us more about your Techno Poeticsproject and the Detroit Techno Tells Its Story Track on the DEQ EP.
Nandi: Techno Poeticswas a project that really started with a moment of frustration. I had been on a few trips outside of Detroit and every time I would tell someone I was from Detroit and they always responded with “Oh yeah! Motown!” There’s nothing wrong with Motown. It is one of our largest cultural contributions to the world. But I felt like there needed to be more conversation about our techno history. I teamed up with an organization InsideOut to do a research project where I wrote poems influenced by history and the musical riffs in techno. InsideOut invited me into several schools where producers and I teach youth about their city’s musical legacy. They also write poems and we had a huge celebration at 1515 Broadway.
Throughout that time I recorded many interviews with a lot of Detroiters. I interviewed DJs, producers, youth, and any Detroiter that would tell me about their relationship to Detroit music. I wrote poems directly influenced by those intimate interviews . “Detroit Tells its Techno Story” is a piece I developed from direct quotes from five interviews of Detroit music makers and DJs. Very little of the language was altered. When I listened to those interviews I could hear a collective narrative–a voice that was accomplished, sad , a bit bitter and gleaming with pride. It told the story of an artist in Detroit and the joys and pain of hustling to do your art especially when you love something so hard.
DEQ:Do you feel that non-binary, femme and females are discriminated against like Black writers are? If so, how and how can we overcome the barriers?
Nandi:I don’t like to play the oppression olympics on who is being oppressed more. I just know that if some folk are not getting in the door then the system is unfair.. There is a massive problem with inequality in all fields and the writing world is no different. There are so many voices that go unheard because they don’t fit the image or check the right box, but there is a movement to disrupt the institutions that discriminate against marginalized voices. We individually can overcome these barriers by taking up artists and giving them a good listen no matter how they identify. Unfortunately individual actions don’t tear down systematic problems. We have to collectively be dedicated to disrupting the system. Not only do we have to support marginal voices by buying their releases, we have to stop supporting institutions that refuse to share resources.
I find hope in that younger artists don’t seem to have the same considerations or discriminations as even my generation. This makes me hopeful that the movement will not have such a narrow understanding of music and art. It’s time that this industry’s gatekeepers open up or step aside. There is too much incredible work being made to not think broadly about who gets to speak.
DEQ:What are some of your favorite tracks in your record bag?
Nandi: Oh! I really love this question! I like this question because I don’t always have the same answer on any given day. Today I am my favorite tracks right now are “Banana” by Dengue Dengue Dengue, “Smooth Criminal (Main Mix)” Teno Afrika & SilvadropZ and anything off Embryoby Jlin
DEQ:How do we find more information about you and your projects?
I am the only Nandi Comer in the world. You can find me @nandicomer on all social platforms and www.nandicomer.com. Hit me up! Say hi!