As a teenager, Nasra Adem wrote in her journal about “dumb boys” and watched videos of spoken word poetry and slams on YouTube. Inspired by poets such as Carvens Lissaint of New York’s The Strivers Row, she started posting videos of herself performing, waiting on the courage to do so in front of a live audience. That finally happened in October 2013. Adem took the stage at the Edmonton’s Breath In Poetry Collective’s weekly open mic, performing an original poem ironically titled I Am Not a Poet. The rush from the performance was exhilarating. She was hooked.
The multidisciplinary artist went on to become the city’s grand slam champion and competed at Canada’s national youth poetry festival. Now, as Edmonton’s second-ever Youth Poet Laureate, Adem is working to spread her love of poetry, literature, and the arts to other youth in the city.
Drawing from personal experiences growing up—from trying to fit in as the new kid in school to navigating her identities as a Black, queer, Muslim woman—Adem, now 22, is using her one-year term to speak to students and encourage them to tell their own stories. In classrooms across Edmonton, she conducts workshops and asks students about their lives—who they are and where they’ve come from, what they’re scared of and what they want to say. “I think the answers to those questions are poems,” she says. “When they’re true and honest, they’re always poems.”
Adem says it is important to empower students, reminding them that their voices are valuable and worth listening to. She recalls tuning out in high school because she couldn’t relate to the material being taught. Learning about poetry meant learning about concepts like metre and stress, not the emotional element of the form. “I felt very detached from human speech and its relationship to poetry,” she says. Instead, Adem took refuge in writing personal essays, working out her anxiety and depression by turning her frustrations into something tangible. Only later—outside of the classroom—did she turn to poetry. “I say that poetry saved my life and I don’t really take that lightly,” she says. “Using poetry as a way to heal and as a voice for trauma to make them real is another thing I strive to encourage and work through with students.”
Her more recent works have focused on redefining and reimagining identities surrounding race, sexuality, faith, and gender. Adem cites her mother, who raised her as a single mom, as a strong influence in her poetry. “Recognizing my mother’s humanity has been the key to me readily recognizing my humanity and everybody else’s,” she says. Adem always thought of her mother’s strength as indestructible; but as she got older, Adem began to recognize how the world affects her mother, and how that affects their relationship. Viewing her mother outside of her parental role taught Adem empathy and perspective. “It forces me to always think about my audience and to think about how my words are affecting other people,” she says.
For the past few years, Adem spent parts of her summers in New York, slamming and collaborating with other poets in the city. Taking cues from the vibrancy of the scene and inspired by the artists she met, Adem returned to Edmonton determined to bring some of those lessons back. “It’s helped me look at my community here and be able to see what’s missing and what’s not,” says Adem. During a trip last summer, Adem was inspired to write one of her favourite poems. She was walking home when she spotted a young Black girl practicing choreography on a street corner in Brooklyn. “This girl was [going] full-out, like not a care in the world,” Adem recalls. “She reminded me a lot of myself when I was around her age.” Adem later wrote Birthright, a poem discussing the experiences of Black women and children. The piece asks: “What do we owe our babies if not the same safety as the womb?” “It made me think critically about how much longer she will be afforded that carefree-ness,” she says.
In 2015, Adem founded Sister 2 Sister, a bimonthly artistic showcase for and by women of colour. Tired of participating in shows that lacked diversity both in performers and audience, she longed to create a safe space for other marginalized artists like her in the community. Next year, Adem hopes to expand the showcase to offer services and workshops for artists looking to learn how to make a sustainable living. She is also an artistic associate at the Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre, where she is curating Edmonton’s first-ever Black Arts Matters festival. The new three-day arts festival will bring together Black artists from across disciplines in an event that will include performances, workshops, and panels.
In the future, Adem sees herself moving to New York, a dream she’s had since she was a child. A true artist, she still wants to act, write plays, and record an album. But for now, she is determined to finish what she has started in Edmonton. “I want to make sure that when I leave, I’m not leaving other people like me with nothing,” she says. “I want to make sure there’s a safe space here for the artists of colour—they’re my priority.”
Thinking back to her high-school self—that young woman who took the stage some three years ago—Adem wishes she had opened herself up to the world of arts sooner: “If I had stopped apologizing for who I am, what I wore, the way I spoke, what I ate, and how loud I was, I would have been a lot freer a lot earlier.”
Erica Ngao is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalism student at Ryerson University. She is currently a senior editor at the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Her work has also appeared in Torontoist, Ryerson Folio, and McClung’s magazine. Her interests include culture, urban affairs, and the arts.