Collection marks moment poet moved hobby to centre stage

Nisha Patel hopes to help South Asian writers speak their truths

Life changed for Edmonton spoken word poet Nisha Patel when she quit her day job.

“When I worked as a political advisor, I worked exactly 35 hours a week and did poetry on the side as a hobby,” says Patel.

“Now, as a performing artist, published author, publisher, and community organizer, I’m lucky to take an evening off a week. Balance is something I am trying really hard to find, but my drive to create, perform, and teach (and also keep the lights on in my house) has really motivated me to push myself right now, at this moment in my life.”

The poems that came out of the year after she quit became the backbone of her debut collection, Coconut.

“I want Coconut to be a slice of my life, a marker in time, to measure how I grew as an artist from my start in the community to this debut,” says Patel.

“I don’t need it to impress, but I do hope it has an impact on young and emerging South Asian writers or writers speaking from places of being oppressed and marginalized to help them realize their own capacity of speaking their truth in the face of violence, power, and discrimination.”

As a queer Indo-Canadian writer, Patel hopes that her debut holds other lessons for her peers and for the writers coming up behind her.

“I also want this book to teach writers that we can pursue the subjects most important to us, whether that means writing about love, nature, or politics, and how doing so still makes our stories South Asian stories,” Patel says.

Working with Jenna Butler was a new experience for Patel, who’d never had concentrated, one-on-one time with an editor before.

Nisha Patel
Nisha Patel

“I’d always learned from many individuals in community, but having someone like Jenna look at my individual word choices, and do line-by-line edits, that was something I’ve been lacking in my entire time as a poet,” Patel says.

“And Jenna, because we come from communities that are diverse and marginalized, understood all my words even when they weren’t in English – which is a huge gift for an emerging writer, knowing that someone who needs to hear you is listening.”

Patel is currently Edmonton’s Poet Laureate and the executive director of the Edmonton Poetry Festival, so launching Coconut is only one of the tasks on her to-do list.

“I think if I work hard enough while I’m emerging as a writer I’ll eventually be able to take a step back and focus more intentionally on my work,” Patel says. “But it’s too difficult to say no to the opportunities that come my way, so I just try to do everything at once. It’s chaos.”

Not saying no seems like a good plan, given that she’ll be the Edmonton Public Library’s regional writer-in-residence for 2021.

But Patel is looking forward to seeing the poems that make up Coconut in print.

“Putting them out is a way for me to say goodbye to them,” she says, “and now allows me to move into projects that will challenge me to continue to grow.”