Poet Laureate KaNikki Jakarta brings ‘real life fiction’ to Alexandria

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KaNikki Jakarta is Alexandria's first African American poet laureate. Her work focuses on love, loss and trauma. (Courtesy photo)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

KaNikki Jakarta was born with the words of Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou in her head.

While pregnant, Jakarta’s mother would read Giovanni’s poetry to her not-yet-born daughter. Jakarta was almost named after the Knoxville poet but her mother decided to add the “Ka,” “so I can have my own name,” Jakarta said.

Since her in utero poetry lessons, Jakarta’s work as a poet, author and performer has garnered awards along with local and national recognition, and, on April 1, Alexandria appointed Jakarta as the city’s first African American poet laureate, a position she will hold for the next three years.

The seeds of Jakarta’s career in the arts were planted early, during a third-grade poetry recital contest that did not go well for Jakarta.

“One year there was another girl and she had chosen the same poem that I did, and she actually won the contest,” Jakarta said. “… So I was like, ‘Well next year I’m going to write my own poem.’ After that, I started writing my own poetry. I’ve been writing poetry ever since.”

Jakarta moved from Alabama to Alexandria in 2000, and began participating in D.C. open mics, connecting with the D.C. poetry scene out of necessity. There just weren’t that many events in Alexandria, Jakarta said.

Throughout these early years, Jakarta was learning not only what kind of poet she was but also how to get her work out into the world. Poetry readings and poetry slams can only do so much. Jakarta eventually decided to self-publish her first poetry collection, “The Skills of a Sistah,” in 2003.

She asked people she knew with self-publishing experience about the process but ended up navigating that world mostly by herself.

“No one really wanted to give up the goods on how they got this book done, so I was like, ‘Ok, I’ll self-publish,’” Jakarta said. “Then I took a class on how to start a business, so I was like, ‘I’ll open up an LLC and publish books, so I can help other people publish.’”

After publishing her first novel in 2006, Jakarta started to see herself as more than just a part-time open mic poet. Jakarta and her husband, also a poet, toured the United States and United Kingdom for two years, promoting awareness of epilepsy, which her husband suffers from, through literature and poetry.

Newly appointed poet laureate KaNikki Jakarta accepts a proclamation recognizing April as National Poetry Month, at the city council legislative meeting on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)

Jakarta still works a full-time job as an HR specialist for the U.S. military, but she describes herself as a full-time poet as well. It’s hard to argue when looking at her body of work. Jakarta has published three novels, two poetry collections, a poetry CD, a memoir and has taken part in countless performances, including a collaborative performance with her husband called “Subject Matters.”

She also performed in the lead role in an independent film, “Played Out,” where she played a woman who had been raped. The experience deeply affected Jakarta; her first, best-selling novel, “In Real Life,” was an effort to depict that very real, lived experience.

Jakarta’s work tackles themes of love, pain, trauma and rebirth, cycles of real-life love and loss filtered through fiction. She labels her work “real life fiction” for a reason, connecting the work of the artist with the experience of the audience.

The term came out of an experience Jakarta had reading a poem at a women’s shelter for an event themed around the impacts of HIV on the lives of women.

“When I finished it, when it was over, I had two young ladies come up to me and they were telling me that that was their story,” Jakarta said. “It dawned on me that anything I write that is fiction to me, it’s also someone’s story.”

More than a decade later, Jakarta began hosting and organizing her own events in Alexandria, with a particular focus on elevating the voices of women. She started hosting poetry workshops for women at a local Barnes & Noble in 2015 and has continued organizing poetry readings, slams and workshop sessions in Alexandria.

“Through all these workshops and writing groups and open mics that I have gone to, I have witnessed poetry have the power to inspire and to heal,” Jakarta said. “That is what poetry does.”

Lately, the healing effects of poetry have become literal for Jakarta. Jakarta’s husband was recently bedridden for a year, and just last year Jakarta learned she has a fairly serious heart condition.

“Going through those things, both of us being sick and having to take care of each other, and still trying to keep poetry in our lives and trying to have normalcy was a lot,” Jakarta said.

Jakarta and her husband never lost their creative spark. Jakarta even wrote a memoir about her experience, “Peace of Mine,” “about how to be an artist, how to be a wife, how to honor your vows, how to honor yourself while still being the caregiver in a marriage,” Jakarta said.

From a third-grade classroom in Alabama to MetroStage in Alexandria, Jakarta aims to bring all of her writing and life experience to bear as she steps into the role of Alexandria’s poet laureate.

She is only a week or so into her three-year term and is already scheduled for events throughout April, which is National Poetry Month, including “Embrace Your Voice,” a sexual assault awareness poetry session on April 16 and a poetry slam on April 26.

“Now everyone can pretty much read Facebook, so I want to promote reading of literature and poetry and performance poetry,” Jakarta said. “I just want to be an advocate for the arts in general and for poetry specifically.”

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