For some, sharing personal thoughts, dreams, and fears with a room full of unknowns can be a daunting proposition. Will the composition's true intent be delivered to the audience? What will be the response...acceptance, ridicule, reflection, or possibly a mutual understanding of a life experience voiced with artistic vernacular. Time and time again "meaning" has been captured in the minds and hearts of those who seek it and shaped by the wordsmith who is intent on whetting his craft. The subject of this profile shares insight into his passions, his inspirations....his soul.
Q and A with Iri J. Nelson
Kevin: How did you get into spoken word and what/who serves as inspiration for your compositions?
Iri: I started writing poetry when I was around 8 years old. I grew up on hip-hop and R&B and was enamored with wordplay from a young age. I always had a knack for grammar and spelling as a kid, thus eliminating the struggle to master the language I was writing in and leaving all the more room to be creative. It was nothing more than a quiet hobby for me up until my teen years. I battled more than my fair share of demons before I was old enough to grasp the perils of the world around me and attempt to battle them on my own. I was also much too quiet and introverted (imagine that!) to seek help. Before I turned 15, I had fallen into a deep depression. To this day, I can only theorize why. It wasn’t until my parents had found a few poems I had scribbled in a notebook that anyone had the slightest clue I wasn’t alright. The poems were quite dark and naturally had them concerned. It wasn’t until they sat me down and watched as I unsuccessfully attempted to squirm through explanations for what they found that I gained a better perspective. I was ashamed of what they found, regardless if they were my legitimate thoughts and feelings. This was a perplexing circumstance; for me to be ashamed of something I truly felt and expressed. This was my entrance into a brand new perspective. I could not possibly continue entertaining thoughts and feelings that I was so ashamed of being brought to light. I started seeing my thoughts and emotions as objects that belonged to me that I could control and direct as I saw fit, as opposed to pure manifestations of who I really was. This is where poetry was crucial for me.
Through everything I had thought, felt, and experienced, I could always write. Not only did this save my life in a dark interim of life experience, it also aided in helping me grasp this new world I was living in. I could write down anything I saw or felt and manipulate it as if it were made of clay. I acted as the master of my words and feelings and I could craft them to perfection because they belonged to me and I controlled them. I was no longer a slave to my metaphorical demons. They were banished into a loose-leaf prison of pressed trees and black ink until I allowed them to be seen. This is the perspective that has been the breath behind my poetry ever since. This is what has shaped the dark nature of much of my writing. I no longer feel that darkness is something to be afraid of, but rather a different realm to explore. It is filled with just as much beauty as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but is properly explored with a different set of senses.
As for spoken-word, I really didn’t start tailoring my pieces to be spoken until early 2013. I had wanted to start a poetry event in the Ramstein area before I knew of Soul Sophistication so I had material in the works before I became a regular at the event. Before then, it was all meant to be read. The transition was a challenge but I’ve greatly enjoyed the rush in releasing an original piece on the mic. It’s a different kind of therapy. Writing it in a notebook is one thing. Gripping the minds of a crowd by their ears is a whole different ballgame.
Kevin: You've been able to build many cultural bridges through your art, relating to different groups with varied subject matter. What's are some of the challenges that you've faced as far as audience reception when introducing new concepts or types of artist?
Iri: The beauty of this craft is that we work with concepts that are very universal. At times though, we do hit minor bumps in the road with connecting with international audiences that are very difficult to explain. At its root, it comes down to nothing more than coming from a different “matrix”, so to speak, than the international community we have had the pleasure of connecting with. It isn’t that we don’t understand each other or can’t relate. We’re just cut from different cloths. This perceived struggle, however, becomes the foundation for some of the most beautiful bonds we’ve created. The different perspectives we have has helped shape and mold some of the most enlightening conversations and provided powerful avenues for growth and understanding with nothing more than an exchange of words. The initial challenge is just ensuring your points can be well explained and reasoned when questioned.
Kevin:Soul Sophistication is on the move, reaching new heights and challenging the traditional framework of the art form as it relates to the background and nationality of your performers. What's your vision for this venue?
Iri: To be quite honest, the vision is not crystal clear. What I mean by that, is I don’t ever want it to stop growing. So it’s quite difficult to say what the “vision” is. The closest I can come to stating a vision is to establish such a strong pace of growth that whoever takes over when I get a new assignment will be overwhelmed by the influential power at their fingertips. Of course, this is difficult with a high turnover of personnel in a military community. However, we should seek to use the event as a springboard to reach more people. Our artists are not merely entertaining crowds on a Friday night. They strum the strings buried deep inside of peoples’ hearts and we have a responsibility to find those who are willing to help touch lives, as well as find the lives to be touched. So whether it’s promoting the event, reaching kids in the schools, or creating bonds with the community off base, my vision is for endless growth.
Kevin: You've developed and fostered a strong bond with the local community through several cultural and youth initiatives. What's the the thought process behind exposing our youth to spoken expression?
Iri: As I said earlier, poetry was crucial during my childhood and teen years. Without poetry, I would not have that necessary release for my struggles. It is so important to mentor and nurture these talents while they are young. I am talking about much more than standing in front of a classroom with a piece of paper in their face while they read. I mean exposing young writers to formats they don’t teach in school and breaking the chains that many curricullums place on free expression. I never understood the concept of teaching kids how to express themselves. They already know how to do that! It’s a matter of guiding them and exposing them to new ways of expression as opposed to teaching creative writing like formulas and equations to plug words into. Establishing skills in spoken-word will bolster their confidence and help them build an artistic foundation, as well as improve how they communicate with others. They can learn to come out of their shell and build bonds with others who share in their ideas. What could potentially come from that is limitless.
Kevin: Renown poet Langston Hughes was drawn to New York, in part, because of the cultural movement flourishing there in the 1920s as the streets of NYC have served as a inspiration to many classic art forms. Langston once stated, "I'd rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia.'' Describe the influence that your hometown has on your art?
Iri: It’s quite a coincidence you cited this quote. I didn’t know of this quote before and I recently told someone that I’d rather be a bum on the streets of New York City than to have a mansion anywhere else.
It’s tricky to answer this. I technically don’t have a “hometown” per se. I was born in New York but spent much of my childhood between Lakewood and Toms River, New Jersey. We moved to Orlando, Florida when I was 14, and to Tampa when I was 16 so claiming one as “home” gets a bit complicated. At the end of drawing all over a map of the east coast, I can firmly attest that my heart is, and has always been, in New York.
We spent a lot of time visiting my family in the Bronx and I could never contain my excitement to go. I still remember like it was yesterday…in the backseat of my parents’ Ford Windstar heading up the New Jersey Turnpike. My earliest memories of our trips “up north” were the highlight of my youth. I remember fighting with my brother to sit on the right side of the van so when we passed Manhattan on the Turnpike, I could see the city across the river. The Twin Towers were my welcoming point. Once I saw the towers, I knew we were upon arriving to the city that was endless with things to discover and experience.
Today, New York serves as the home to some of my most memorable moments. My wife was raised there. My first game at Yankee Stadium was a magical scene. I proposed to my wife on top of the Empire State Building and got married in White Plains. It’s the place I visit the most and I fall in love with it every time I go back. I’ve met many people who don’t like the city, and I understand why. It’s fast pace borders on chaos. There are seldom any open spaces. The people are extremely blunt and direct. But those things are all secondary to what it is to me. I see the city as an enormous
playground, teeming with interesting people and culture. It’s a masterpiece in the art of progress. It’s a living, breathing body of work, created by thousands of people who said “let’s do something that’s never been done before” and made it happen. It is the result of generations of people who sought to move forward and did.
Therefore its influence on my art is quite indirect. My love for New York and my desire to make it there has shaped just about everything that I have done.
Kevin: You have a style all your own, what influences inside the art form have helped to shape your
Iri: My style has been well shaped by hip-hop and the great artists that littered the radio waves of my childhood. I’ve been told that some of my pieces sound like they are made for music. I grew up with artists such as Nas and Talib Kweli and still admire what they were able to do artistically.
The unfortunate decline of quality hip-hop helped me broaden my horizons with artistic influences. A broad range of artists from Frank Sinatra, to The Weeknd, to Bon Iver, to Pink Floyd have helped me push my own boundaries when it came to writing.
Specifically when it comes to spoken-word, I could not talk about influence without mentioning Soul Sophistication’s co-host, Matt Sion. We actually met through Soul. The night we met, he eloquently and passionately spit verse upon verse of powerful poetry, not too long after I had read a poem off of my phone. I watched his technique carefully as he was much more experienced than me and drew a lot of inspiration from it. This helped when crafting spoken-word pieces because it broke the chains of writing for a reader and opened me up to writing for an audience. Since then, we’ve become very good friends and I’m extremely fortunate to have crossed paths with him.
Kevin: Connecting with an audience is a highly valuable skill. In terms of content, what are some of the topics that you address that have drawn an emotional response from the audience?
Iri: This has easily been my trademark when it comes to spoken-word. I’ve addressed numerous unsettling topics including rape, suicide, relationships, politics, religion, sex, and obsession. I pride myself in being unapologetic and graphic with my work. I seek to leave absolutely everything in a poem to where I feel like I may never have anything to write again. I’ve always gotten the most therapeutic fulfillment from exaggerating in my writing sometimes. It ensures that there’s no way I could possibly leave a worthy line unwritten.
I’ve gotten a good deal of feedback from listeners who were affected by a piece I performed, but the most notable happened a couple of months ago. A fellow poet was in the audience when I performed “Crimson Me” which was a first person account of suicide. After performing at Soul, he departed for a new location. Some time after he left, I got a lengthy message from him, outlining his struggles in transitioning and expressing how he had relapsed into a depression himself. He then went on to tell me how he thought back to the night where I performed that poem and recounted the words to help fuel his resilience. He said to me “I think you saved my life.” I received the message on my lunch break at work and it took everything I had not to burst into tears over my lunch when I read it. For someone to tell me that I aided in escorting them out of their own personal hell was one of the best, and most emotional moments of my life.
Kevin: Some artist describe a feeling of "feeding" off the energy of the audience. Have you had any of these experiences as a performer, how so?
Iri: Absolutely! Audience feedback is huge when performing. Artists put so much into each line that they write. Each line acting as a different ingredient to be digested. I remember the first time I performed “Shrink’s Plea” and hearing the verbal feedback with each line. It fuels your performance to know that your words are hitting them. To know that something you crafted with words that they already know, affected them in a way they hadn’t experienced. On the flip side, the stunned silence of an audience who has been shocked into oblivion has a similar effect as well. This happened when performing “Maybe in the Morning” for the first time, which was a first person account of rape. The concerned questions after the chilling silence was almost amusing. To have created something vivid enough to make people ask if it was autobiographical was quite rewarding as well. It lets me know that my words have influence. And if I can use my words to influence others, I can help them with the things they cannot express. The second the words leave my mouth, anyone that can relate to the subject is no longer alone in the world. So to feed off of that sort of feedback on the spot is quite rewarding and motivating when performing.
Kevin: Everyone has a process for creating. Take us on a journey with you from inception to curtain
call in preparing a piece.
Iri: The creative process is a strange thing. I never have the slightest clue what will inspire me next. Many times, a random line or stanza will come to me out of absolutely nowhere, at which point I type it into my notepad on my phone so I don’t forget it. Most times, I don’t choose a subject beforehand. I’ll come up with a line and just go from there. Somewhere in the middle, the piece will take some sort of direction. It’s rare that I can pick something to write about and have it come out that way. I’ve learned to just go with it and not think too much. I try to keep in mind that my thoughts and my soul are not the same and will likely not agree on many things, so I try to block out my thoughts as much as I can. Listening to music usually helps regulate the creative process and get the static in my head to come to order.
Once I’ve deemed the piece complete, I read it over and over again out loud and changing it as I go to find the right delivery for it. Once that’s down, I’ll record myself delivering it in the voice recorder in my phone and say it along with the recording over and over until I’ve memorized it. Everyone has their creative quirks. Mine is the place where I most often practice and recite while preparing a piece - in my car. At any given time, it’s completely normal to see me reciting poetry while I’m driving alone. I probably look like an absolute madman. But driving gives my mind a certain focus that I can’t attain in a quiet room so it works well for me. I do it over and over again until I can spit it out on a whim. At that point, it’s ready to be performed.
When it comes time to perform, all I need to do is make sure I’m hydrated so my mouth doesn’t dry out and I’m good to go. The first time performing it is, in my opinion, always the worst. You just want to get the first one out of the way. The second time and beyond is where I really get to enjoy it. After I’ve done it once and felt it come out on stage, I know how to perfect it.
Kevin: Your presentation and etiquette are always spot on when performing. What are some of the things that you've experienced, knowledge you've gained through your journey as an artist?
Iri: I attribute 100% of these facets to my experience as a member of Toastmasters International. I’ve been an active Toastmaster since early 2012 and am currently the president of the Ramstein club. It has acted as my lab for working on how to communicate with an audience. Learning to communicate well is even more important than actually knowing much of anything– sad as it may be. Everything from never leaving the mic empty, clapping the entire time a speaker is approaching the mic, knowing how to feel out the audience, was all worked on in Toastmasters and I’m confident this had much to do with Face’s confidence in me to host the event.
With Soul Sophistication specifically, I learned quickly how demanding it can be to run this sort of event. We’re basically handing loaded pistols to our performers, telling them they can freely express themselves on stage without having a clue as to what they’ll do or say. It was quite an experience the first time we had a sound discrepancy during a show. There was a few minutes of awkwardness while waiting for the issue to get fixed and I realized that I failed in taking charge of the show. From that point forward I started being more firm and proactive in how the show is run. Free expression does not mean there aren’t rules. Even the autobahn has speed limits. I’ve also learned to anticipate how to control the mood of the room regardless of what a performer does or says on stage which comes in handy when you get the occasional performer that everyone applauds for even though they don’t have the slightest clue how to react to what was presented. I have to decide what to say and what kind of performer to follow with to ensure the performers flow, while not always knowing what the performer is going to do.
Kevin: For the up and coming artist, what advice do you offer in regards to perseverance?
Iri: I always find perseverance to warrant little more than clichés which are important but not worth harping on. Do not stop. It’s that simple. What I have found most important, is passion.
If you are not passionate enough to sacrifice almost anything to develop your craft, you will not make progress. Whatever your goal may be, you must strive for it with a borderline sociopathic brand of ambition. Most recently, the Soul Crew comprised of myself, Matt Sion, Steven Price of Steven C. Price Photography, and Edward Walker of Peace by Piece Productions. The 4 of us had a blast together in our downtime when working on projects, but when it came to business, I don’t think any of us ever cracked a smile. We had objectives to meet and anyone who did not share in our passion for what we were doing would be swiftly run over and left for dead. It was that serious with us. We had some great expertise between us, but even that came secondary to the passion we all had for the art. Nothing less is the least bit acceptable.
Choose a goal. Source your passion. Build a strong team. Proceed to break through doors and crush obstacles until they are nothing more than a fine powder. If you do not subscribe to this sort of resolve and rely on luck, you are likely to be run over by the next strongest suitor who thought nothing of luck.
Last – but equally important point – learn the ropes of criticism. Learn to discern between negativity and constructive criticism. Next, learn how to completely deflect negativity. Understand that negativity is another’s projection of fumes from the personal hell in which they live and NOT a legitimate assessment of your skills. Once you recognize quality criticism, always consider it carefully. Never stop learning and never reject constructive criticism. If you have decided that you don’t wish to bother with feedback and criticism, take your ego and your notebook and go home. When you’ve lost the ability to be humble and have grown bigger than the art in your own mind, there is nothing more you can offer to the advancement of the craft. At this point, you’re a nuisance and must be done away with. Stay humble. Never stop learning. Or make way for someone else.
Kevin: What was your first piece and what was the message?
Iri: Well I started writing when I was 8 and I don’t have the slightest clue what I wrote, so I’ll go with the first piece I did at Soul.
My first time at Soul, I read a poem entitled “6 AM” off of my phone. I can’t say there was much of a message as it was meant to tell a story more than anything. It was a story of vengeance for a heartbreak in where the speaking character takes an opportunity for reconciliation and turns it into cold blooded revenge. It was not entirely autobiographical but was inspired by legitimate experiences. The female character I’m speaking to named “Ms. Moonlight” is actually based on a girl I dated a long time ago.
Kevin: You have a strong bond with your father. How has this relationship fortified your pursuit
Iri: My parents often give me a hard time about my demeanor. I’m very much a type-a personality and can be extremely headstrong in my endeavors. My parents are two of the nicest people anyone could ever meet, so they often ask me who my real parents are because I don’t act like either one of them! My dad’s influence though, is far clearer than they think.
My dad had back surgery that put him out of work when I was 13 so most of the money he made was from his injury. This put a cap on how much money he was allowed to be paid from an additional job but he never liked staying put. When I was 18, I got a job at a bowling alley near our house in Riverview, Florida just outside of Tampa. For a period of time, he worked there with me and we would go to work together. It was at this point where I learned to respect him as an individual and not just as my father. I knew he was hardworking, but I took it for granted when I was a kid. When working together, I really got to see his work ethic and it was unfathomable. He just would not stop until everything was completely done. He didn’t take many breaks. If he did take a break, he rarely sat down. He often finished tasks early. It was a whole new light to see him in. Even still, he was beloved by everyone that knew him. This stuck with me as I grew up. I’m far more blunt and sarcastic in my discourse with any others than he is, but that bullheaded grit is what was instilled in me. He would not slow down even when he was asked to. This played a major role in developing myself as a person. No matter what I’m doing or working towards, I’m not done. Even when I’ve reached my goal, I’m not done. There is no such thing as “finished” metaphorically. Depending on what I’m speaking of, my father gets either the thanks or the blame!
Kevin: Are there parallels that the audience can draw from your art and your personal life. Give
a few examples?
Iri: In my normal day-to-day, I’ve been known to be a very pragmatic and progressive thinker. I seldom complain or stay in a negative place and it takes much conscious effort to do so. I value the ability to sift through what isn’t important and get to the point to milk every drop of good from even the worst of circumstances. My poetry normally carries dark themes and tones. Even on “These Tears” which I wrote for my wife came from a period of deep struggle for us as a young couple. The idea of writing about these things and maintaining such vivid illustrations is milking all of the beauty I can possibly get from even the most sinister circumstances.
Dante’s Inferno was such a gruesome and horrid depiction of hell, but is nonetheless one of the most beautiful pieces in human history. Sylvia Plath’s work was quite violent and morbid but is still timeless poetry.
Most recently, I posted a poem entitled “Smoke” which tells of a girl whose actions are provoked by her fear of life and relationships. There is absolutely nothing uplifting about this poem at all, in fact, the character is encouraged to maintain her fear because what comes of her fear is so beautiful. This best encapsulates the overall goal in most of my writing – find the beauty in what normally causes discomfort and fear.
This is not to say that I look for silver linings in the sky. To look for silver linings is to imply that the night sky is not beautiful and majestic in its own right. To simply “look for the positive” can come off with such cowardice at times and has become such a mundane sentiment that it barely calls for any extra attention. My mindset in most endeavors is extreme realism and not a shred of intentional fear. Being easy to digest does not mean something should so easily be called beautiful. I find the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things in life are those which are the hardest to grasp. My mindset is that of accepting the most difficult of realities such as: only knowing that I will never know everything and the certainty of death. These realities are never to be run and hid from. To hide from these realities is to rob yourself of your own life while your heart is still beating – what an incredibly sad way to live. These things are real. They are terrifying. But they are still beautiful.
Kevin: At the end of the night, what are you determined that the audience leave with after a
Iri: After performing, I can only hope the audience is left with their cages rattled a bit. I hope to whet their appetites for free expression while also challenging their pretenses. To those who directly relate to my pieces, I want them to leave feeling like someone took back the vocal chords that were taken from them in their experiences and amplified on their behalf. No one who struggles is alone. But they won’t know that until they hear it.
As a host, I want ensure everyone has a great time! At the same time I want artists of all experience levels to feel encouraged to take the stage and share. Anyone with a message to share needs to do so. I harp on it constantly with the artists. When we take the stage, it’s about those who need to receive the message. It isn’t about us. If I can continue to encourage artists to get excited about poetry and music and assist them in progressing in their art, I will continue to be elated beyond measure.