On stage, the Original Woman, a.k.a., Nitche Ward, confesses, “I have to tell the truth. I’m not really a poet. I’m a people’s soldier. I only use poetry as a tool to mobilize the people.” This native of North Carolina, has been educating, training, and mobilizing since 1996. She also co-chairs a five-location spoken-word series with Queen Sheba, Kwintessential and HBO’s Punany Poet Mo’ Browne, called “Sistah Cypher: Women Empowerment Through Spoken Word,” hosted out of Washington, DC; Chicago, IL; Durham, NC; Norfolk, VA; and London, UK. You can find out more about her and her two spoken-word CDs, “The Messenger of Truth” and “Life—By Any Means Necessary,” on her website: theoriginalwoman.com.
How/when did you start writing and performing poetry?
Original Woman: You know for any poet—poetry is something that you are born with—it’s something that runs in your veins since birth. Poetry has been on my fingertips since I was old enough to know how to use a pencil. I remember writing about my experiences since elementary. Believe it or not I was always somewhat of any introvert, so the only outlet to get out some of my frustration was through poetry. I was raised pretty much as an only child. I am the oldest of five; the youngest of my siblings and I are separated by 15 years, so I was alone a good portion of my life. So my pencil was always my best friend. I was never the prettiest or the most popular. I wasn’t the best at anything, but I could always write. I remember competing in writing and oratorical competitions in middle and high school, and for some reason I won a lot of them, so I grew attached to my writing.
Did you wed poetry with politics from the beginning?
OW: I have always believed the old saying that “the personal is political.” I wrote about my experiences and my frustrations. I remember one of the first poems I ever performed was called “The Black Man’s Pride.” It talked about the frustrations of people of color living in America today, and how it was rooted in the politics of this country over the last 400 years. I think I was in 9th grade at the time, so I was about 14 years old. I performed it at school during a student
body assembly—a talent show or something—the poem was so raw and blunt that the principle cut off my mic in the middle of the poem. This was one of my first realizations that people were afraid of the truth. I ended up spitting the poem for everyone after school that day while we were waiting for the buses. I think I helped create a few revolutionaries then, though none of us knew what the word revolutionary meant at the time. Ever since then I have committed myself to recruiting soldiers one by one.
How/when/why did you choose “The Original Woman” as your artistic name?
OW: Ironically it wasn’t purposeful! One of the my oldest poems was called “The Original Woman.” It was a poem about full figured women — and how we rock! Over time it became my most requested piece — particularly in this little black owned coffeehouse in Durham, North Carolina called IDEAS. So whenever someone saw me in the street, they could never remember my name, so they would say, “hey um, um original woman,” and it kind of just stuck! Over time I have made the
title my own, and I use it to bring awareness to cultural and body image issues, as well as sarcastically breaking down the gender binary.
Please tell us about Sistah Cypher. How does a five-venue poetry series work?
OW: Sistah Cypher is a national network of women empowerment through the form of art—in particular spoken word. The organization was started by me and two other international spoken-word artists, Queen Sheba and Kwintessential. What we do is go scouting for some of the most powerful artists, who are also hardcore activists in the communities, and showcase them through performance and workshops. We work on issues such as rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, pay equity, affirmative action, women in the military, LGBT awareness, the war against women, media madness against women, and other hot topics that affect women today. What differentiates us from most artistic projects out there is our action component. We are also out there organizing students and elders, putting together protests and rallies, educating the youth, going in the schools—we try our best to create change and not just talk about it. Right now we have venues in Washington, DC; Norfolk, VA; Chicago, IL; Durham, NC; and we have a brand-new venue in London. We are out hitting the concrete constantly bringing people into the movement through spoken word, and we are growing everyday. For the most part, one or more of our co-chairs travel to the city where the Sistah Cypher is being held at that time. We soon hope to build representation in every state. “It takes a village to raise a child—and a woman to raise the world!” (Superwoman, by the Original Woman)
You recently produced the Freedom Fire Spoken Word Festival and the “$1,000 Poetry Slam” in Washington, DC. How did they go? How did these projects come about?
OW: The Freedom Fire Spoken Word Festival was a project that was used to create and support artists in the social justice movement. I guess the best way to describe the Freedom Festival is that it is like a huge family reunion—yeah, a family reunion of artists and activists nationwide united for change. The Freedom Festival is an annual event held in different cities each year; this year it was in Washington, DC, and it was spectacular! Those who missed it this year will surely not want to miss it next year, when it will be held in Denver, Colorado. We try to teach artists of all forms how to learn to use their gift for changing the world. It’s not enough to just teach any more. There are a lot of artists out there that think it’s enough just to teach about social justice issues—and yes, we need that too—but it’s not enough. We can’t just talk about it; we have to be about it! That’s what the Freedom Festival is about—working with artists to not only talk about it, but be about it. But we all have heard that “the revolution is financial,” so in addition to working on the movement, the Freedom Festival works with artists to improve their booking and management as well. The Big Highlight of the festival is the $1000 poetry slam. The best of the best poets from all over the country come together for inspirational competition—and one leaves with slightly heavier pockets. It’s not about the money though. The prize money is just a way to help a few soldiers in the movement continue their artistic struggle.
What is your vision for a spoken-word movement?
OW: I don’t know where the spoken-word movement is going. Although I perform spoken word, I don’t consider myself a spoken-word artist. I’m just a soldier in the movement myself; I only use poetry as a tool to deliver the message. A lot of times you can’t get everybody to go to a rally or a protest, or a meeting, so you have to find alternative ways to get the message across. All I know is that the movement will never die, because poets and artists around the world are keeping it alive. That’s what keeps me breathing.
What’s the best/worst experience you’ve had while touring/performing?
OW: Worst performance—I had a freak accident while touring through Georgia and South Carolina. I fell in the shower about a month prior and bruised my leg a little. It didn’t seem to bother me that much, and it didn’t scar. While I was on tour my leg started swelling up and it was becoming extremely painful. I didn’t even think about the shower fall, because it had been at least a month prior. A week into the tour, my leg was so swollen that I couldn’t walk on it, and I had to perform my shows sitting down. Two weeks into the road trip, I was on stage, and out of the blue, my leg burst open, and before I knew it I was standing in a puddle of blood. I know it sounds crazy! I was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the show, and I was hospitalized in the middle of Bum Fuck Egypt for 10 days! The good news about it is that it created an awesome piece called “Poets Spittin’in Blood!”
Best Performance—The March for Women’s Lives—Washington, DC; April 24, 2004—Largest march in the history of the US. It was so powerful to see so many people united together for women’s issues. Sometimes in the movement we feel like we’re the only ones. But when I was on that stage and I looked out into the audience and saw groves of people further than my eyes could see, I felt the ultimate solidarity.
What are three essential things that you cannot go on tour without?
OW: A pillow and a blanket to sleep on (in case I have to rough it for the night)
Pencil and Paper to keep myself inspired
And CDs to Sell
What’s the first thing you do when you get home from being on the road?
OW: Sleep! Sleep! And Sleep! Being on the road is hard! Don’t believe the hype they tell you on TV. A lot of artists come into this thinking that being a full-time artist on the road is spectacular and fun. I had my feelings hurt a few times in the beginning with those expectations! As a spoken-word artist, you’re often on the road for months with no money, no place to stay, no food, and no idea about how you are going to get to the next venue. There has been several times when I had to spend my last $2 getting to the venue, praying that I sell enough CDs for gas and food for the next couple of days, and hoping that someone would be gracious enough to let me sleep on their floor until my next gig. Floors are hard, and cars are crowded! We keep doing it, because we believe in the art and the movement. Sheba always says, “Hey, sleep when you’re dead!” Most of the time I can’t sleep more than 3 or 4 hours at a time when I’m on the road just because I’m uncomfortable, or it’s cold, or I have to be aware of my surroundings, so the first thing I do when I get home is jump in my big cushy bed and fall into a coma!