Activist and poet e nina jay calls her new book Bricks, Blood & Water a “walk through the valley of my thoughts and feelings.”
As a survivor of rape and incest, jay is healing through poetry, and she wants her work to help other survivors—who often thank her for speaking out—to break their silence around sexual assault and to heal with her.
With a new poetry collection and an upcoming book-release party this Thursday at Mary’s Attic, jay has a lot to look forward to, but the poet admits that healing and working through depression is challenging.
In our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, she opens up about her depression, how poetry saved her life, why vulnerability is so beautiful, and how it feels to have a Black lesbian as our city’s mayor.
In the foreword to Bricks, Blood & Water you write, “the world is painful to me these days, inside the skin. my voice feels small. my rage tempers and flares.” What does it mean to exist as a Black lesbian today?
It’s many things. It’s all things, actually. Some days it’s excruciatingly painful living in this Black skin because you live in a culture that tells you you’re ugly. The culture is built upon that assumption. Even though we’ve done so much work to dispel a lot of the myths, I still have an 11-year-old Black niece who is still battling these same stereotypes and these same assumptions about herself [before] she can even make a name or presence for herself.
But also, I’m a part of a body of people who make the most amazing arts, [do] the most amazing things, sing the most amazing songs, dance the most amazing dances. So I feel powerful too. Often it’s about living inside this skin, in this culture, this country, this world right now.
You speak and write openly about being a survivor of rape and incest. How has poetry helped in the process of healing?
It saved my life in many stages. I used it to survive. I would’ve killed myself a long time ago if I had not been able to find a way to use my voice or to use it to find a vessel for my healing. Even now when I sink down into depression, it’s the only thing that will pull me out. I let myself write a poem because a lot of the times that’s what the depression is about—I’m not letting myself say something that I’m not ready to deal with or don’t want in my mouth or in my head. But it’s still living inside my body. So until I let it out, I’m down.
How did you find your voice?
I’ve been writing all my life, but I didn’t find my voice until probably when I was in my early 30s, working in the rape crisis centers. I just got so full, and I never learned or realized that I could use the writing to tell my secrets. I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear it. I didn’t think I wanted to see it on paper. And one day it just happened. I made the decision to stay around long enough to get this stuff out of my body.
Have you confronted the people who assaulted you?
One of them was confronted. When I was a child, I experienced incest from ages nine to 11. So, the first time he ever tried to touch me I didn’t confront him as a nine-year-old, but I did tell, but nothing was ever done. So, the abuse continued for another two years. As I got older and was able to learn about that history in my family, I was able to confront some of the adults, but the ones who needed to be confronted were dead.
I was kidnapped at 19 and raped by a stranger, and he was caught a few weeks later, and we went through the court process. He pled guilty, so I didn’t have to testify. I would say he was confronted. I didn’t personally confront him, but I do it in my poetry, and that’s enough for me. I don’t ever want to share space with him again.
I have women in my messages telling me every day that it [rape] happened to them. Seventy years old, 15 years old, and I love that they’re able to say that. It happens to so many of us and we never ever talk about it, we whisper about it. All of us are whispering the same things, which means we should be screaming.
In your poem “Unshocked,” which really stood out to me, you write:
murder don’t scare me no more
rape don’t scare me no more
violence don’t make me jump no more
. . .
if I keep letting myself grow numb
I am afraid it will kill me
You’re powerful because you’re able to talk about what you’ve been through, but is it a constant struggle to not be numb?
Yes it is. The struggle is to fight the urge to because it’s a survival instinct. It’s too much happening and I’m wide-open. I keep myself wide-open. But when I stay open like that, everything can get in. For instance, Maleah Davis, [a 4-year-old Houston girl whose stepfather is a suspect in her death] I’ve been trying and trying to find a way to read the stories to bear witness to what happened to her. I can’t get through the stories because I don’t want to feel it. I’m upset with myself because she’s dead, and her story needs to be heard. She shouldn’t have had to endure what she endured. I feel guilty for allowing myself to skip over the story and not feel the pain. And that’s what I mean by that.
How do you practice self-compassion?
I get more and more women telling me their stories. In therapy, I’m trying to work on ways to create boundaries for myself so that I don’t get overwhelmed because I have to listen to their stories. I recognize that my poetry opens up wounds in women. I’m trying to figure out a way to balance taking in their pain and still handling my own strengths. And not getting to a place where I’m pushing people away from me or closing myself off.
Would you say poetry is more than a creative outlet for you?
Poetry is my language more so than who I am. If I could just do it all in poems, I would. If I could just talk to my friends and family in poems, I would.
Chicago is making history with its first Black lesbian mayor. Do you remember where you were and how you felt when you found out Lori Lightfoot was our new mayor?
I was in many places because I found out many times . . . I kept checking back because I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t believe it. I was excited and then I was terrified and then I was apathetic, not in any particular order. Excited because, oh my God, a Black lesbian mayor. I can’t believe that. I was so young, but I can still remember how it was like when Harold Washington was elected, and then when Obama was elected—seeing a Black women occupying that kind of space.
And then terrified, because this Black lesbian is now mayor and she’s open, and what are they going to do to her? And how are they going to try to tear her down, because no one will really try to protect her the way they’ll protect a white woman. I was terrified in that way. And apathetic, because politics bore the shit out of me. I don’t believe in them. I think it’s all a game. And I’m tired of playing it. No matter who’s in there, my life never really looks any different.
I’m glad to see her in there. Hopeful? Not really, because politics is politics and it’s a game.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
The courage to break their silences. I want them to understand that whatever has happened to them in their lives, whatever trauma or experiences, that it wasn’t their fault. I want them to take away that they can say anything they want, that they’re here for a limited amount of time. Don’t worry about the fear, don’t worry about being vulnerable, just be all of yourself as much as you can, or try to. v