Nisha Patel is a poet, spoken-word performer and visual artist. // Anaventure

Edmonton poet Nisha Patel on performing and creating space

By Matthew James Weigel

Nisha Patel is an electrifying poet, spoken-word performer, and visual artist, who brings her honest intensity to shows across Canada and around the world. Her work is in demand, as evidenced by the fact that she has performed more in the last year than ever before. But she also uses her talents as an organizer here at home, in Edmonton’s literary arts scene.

Producer of this year’s Edmonton Poetry Festival, Patel scheduled performers and planned events for a week full of literary activities that took place across the city. Outside of making sure that the busy week ran smoothly, she helps organize the Breath in Poetry collective.

The collective’s regular Tuesday nights at The Nook Cafe are energetic and full of fun. Although Patel now performs across the world, she says those Tuesdays feel like returning home. For her, that sense of community is all about relationships.

“It may seem intimidating,” Patel says, “but the moment that you try to engage, people are very welcoming.”

Then once you get involved, she says, more doors start opening for you.

She sees her role in that process as one of making space for other artists—being an organizer for the poetry festival is just one aspect of that. She also just wrapped up her winter residency at the Sewing Machine Factory, where she held regular workshops for writing and performing.

Patel has a lot to offer as a performance mentor, because it’s on the stage where she thrives. She recently became Edmonton’s 2019 slam poetry champion and will be leading the city’s team to Guelph in October for the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.

Performance is not just about connecting with an audience, says Patel, it is about being faithful to the story that you are telling.

“The goal,” she says, “is to create an experience for that audience in that moment in time and honour that experience.”

There was one such occurrence in February after a performance of Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal’s play, Lake of the Strangers. The producers of the play asked Patel to write a poem responding to the work and perform it to an audience after a show.

“There [were] only two people in that entire room that I knew,” says Patel.

For her, the nature of the audience is an important thing for performers to keep in mind.

“In a lot of cases,” she says, “we’re the first poet someone sees, or the first time they’ve heard spoken word. So we have to treat every opportunity to perform with that kind of responsibility.”

Standing only a few feet away from the crowd around her, Patel delivered an emotionally moving performance and connected with an audience otherwise unfamiliar with her work.

Reflecting on this moment, and where these new opportunities might lead, she asks, “Is every room a potential audience?”

Patel brings this entrepreneurial attitude with her everywhere she goes as she keeps exploring new places to take her poetry. When Glass Buffalo published her chapbook, Patel carried around copies ready to sell wherever she went.

With a degree in business rather than fine-arts, she says that sometimes she does feel like a bit of an imposter. But for Patel, if there is a culture of sharing and mentoring, poetry is something that can be pursued as more than just a hobby.

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