Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 — Nkosi Nkululeko

How does performance fit into your writing? 

If we’re talking about “performance poetry” then my physical reincarnation of a poetic memory has dwindled. I’m not as interested right now of theatrically reproducing emotions to create an experience for an audience. However, I still believe in the art form and wouldn’t automatically turn it down, especially if I can utilize my musical side with it as well. But I would like to expand; the concept of “performance” is unavoidable if you look at every action as a performative attempt to get a message across. As I constantly learn about consonants, inversions of syntax, edits, etc., it compliments my work in the sense that when read it registers as music to the ear as well. Using my body for the act of reading to others (or even to myself to a certain degree) seems inherently performative. Yet, there are those who can remove themselves from many public reading opportunities. But if they are able to maintain a stable lifestyle from the work alone, it brings an unfortunate possibility that writers from certain economical backgrounds may be forced to interact with the world in ways they may have not initially wanted. I love performance. It is invigorating, important, creative, and challenging, but it can also be tiring. And philosophically and economically-speaking, many of us can’t afford NOT to perform.

Is there any way to survive in this world without assimilating into systems of power? 

The way I see it, these systems of power manipulate our own personal values which seem to diminish even the desire to live outside of these structures. I’m not entirely a believer of free will since will in the modern context appears manufactured by man itself, utilizing fear to alter or enclose our “choices” in limited, mental perimeters.  So essentially, I think we perform characters of ourselves that are not that unique to begin with (due to the influence that helps us develop a “Self”), and we’re doing it for the point of maintaining a stable lifestyle WHILE attempting to do what we love. But assimilation is not always bad, it just depends on the systems that we’re using as a model. The earth itself is a system that many forms of life, here, is modeled after (unless we find out it was just inspired by the doodles of a Rick (from Rick & Morty) from another dimension) but the technological era can and is used as a new and improved vessel to import fear and compliance into our subconscious through particular symbols. At this point, maybe the modern human is practically designed to assimilate the same things that wish to annihilate it (i.e., blackness assimilating whiteness, the poor class assimilating the high class, etc.)  but the optimistic idea of imagination, innovation, and creativity keeps me hoping that systems of power will fall short once our society simply gives up our subtle dependencies for such a system in the first place. As I said before in a different manner, I do believe that this country has readjusted its people’s values to its own benefit. The idea of “desire” is most troubling. In its purest state, I believe desire is important for the human to establish their own unique meaning on earth, but in today’s world, it seems to act as a conduit to living a life based entirely on those we think have obtained some kind of “power” or “influence” over others, without doing the mental work of creating a self that is entirely our own.

Does gender or gender performance affect your writing?  

As a male, I’ve walked through the world with a privilege that has historically blurred other identities. Growing up in the midst of such an important, political and philosophical conversation about gender has opened me up to the nuances and imbalances even in our language(s). The dangerous imbalances distort many men’s morality, and on the page, as well as my outlook on life, I seek to push against the overbearing voice of the masculine. My developing work wishes to collaborate both the body’s feminine and masculine side. The dark intensity I often cultivate is due to the depressive and the truth-enveloped states of my mind, and the history of masculinity can confuse how I engage with even my own self. This brings to light the self-destructive nature of overpopulating one’s identity with only one vantage point. Unlearning the problematic forms of masculinity has been informative and allows continuous growth. I am in the learning process of what my writing could transform into if I utilize my perception of the world through, under, above, and outside of my gender.

When, if ever, do you personally feel the most free? 

Either in a jam session (or alternatively my own one-man jam session in my room. yes, this may include dancing) or exploring a forest (yes, this may include befriending a bear named Baloo).

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

Lately, I’ve been rockin out to folks like The Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Regina Carter, Alice Coltrane, Soft Machine, mid-career Herbie Hancock (his album “Crossings” has rocked my world!), Tracy Chapman, Daedelus, Radiohead, and that doesn’t even break the surface lol. I’ve arranged some Spotify playlists that reflect my experience with books of poetry. I find the book’s musical references and use my ear to get a sense of the songs I’d set in conversation with the poems. This series has pushed me to find musicians and performers I once wasn’t aware of, and therefore, my musical library keeps growing. Right now I’ve been hovering a lot of Electronic/Dance – HipHop/Jazz – Soft Rock/Heavy Metal genres. Recently, I’ve been reading Anatoly Karpov’s “Chess is My Life,” Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s “Why Only Us: Language and Evolution,” and the newly released book by Terrance Hayes “To Float in the Space Between.” The movie “Sorry To Bother You” is soo good! As far as emerging (with all of its meanings), I’m really excited for Julian Randall’s debut book “Refuse” and I encourage everyone to seek the book out and dive in!



A photo of author in front a microphone and a number of posters.NKOSI NKULULEKO is the recipient of fellowships from Poets House, The Watering Hole and Callaloo. A Pushcart Prize nominee and finalist for the 2016 Winter Tangerine Awards for Poetry, he has read for TEDxNewYork, Aspen Ideas Festival, and more. Nkululeko’s work is currently published in Apogee, The Collagist, Michigan Quarterly Review, Third Coast, VINYL, and his work will be anthologized in the Best American Poetry 2018 anthology. He lives in Harlem, New York.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.