On an unusually warm
February Sunday afternoon in the Mount Royal Terrace area, a petite young woman gets situated on a legless Asian sofa. Her hair is extremely close-cut and tattoos on each forearm read
, but her demeanor is warm and welcoming. Her frayed jeans and a simple heather-gray shirt look stylish on her. The smell of incense and candles fills the air as her videographer, working on a possible documentary about her, positions a tripod on the hardwood floor. The intriguing woman is Michelle Antoinette Nelson, aka LOVE the poet, and she is one of Baltimore’s more talented spoken-word artists, guitar-playing singer/songwriters, and a recently published author. Her
Black Marks on White Paper
was published in December.
The Columbia native discovered her calling at a young age. “I’m kind of an anomaly,” she says. “I figured out my gift was poetry when I was 11 years old. When I realized I was good at it, I’d start to use it in my schoolwork. When my friends got wind of it, they’d have me write little love notes to their boyfriends and girlfriends.” Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” was the first poem she ever memorized, and Nelson felt that as an awkward child it spoke to her. Come high school, she was influenced by Gil Scott-Heron and Erykah Badu.
She moved to Baltimore in 1999 to attend Coppin State University, where she majored in criminal justice. “If I wasn’t a poet I’d be a cop,” she says. “My parents used to call me the ‘militant midget.’ I’ve always been about justice. I know when people think about cops they’re like, ‘Boo, cops suck,’ but I was down with the paramilitary operation as a way to help people.”
While attending Coppin, she saw local poets perform and was inspired. “[David] ‘Native Son’ [Ross] and a sister named Danielle Fuller, they were the first people I ever saw do spoken word,” Nelson says. “I ran up to them and said, ‘Teach me how to do that!’ They were like, ‘OK!’ and I latched on to them. That was about 12 years ago.”
Through Ross, Nelson was introduced to the legendary poetry troupe Poetry for the People of Baltimore, and her earliest performance exposure came at one of its slams. “It was the first Battle Uv Da Skoolz slam,” she says. “Me, Danielle, and a sista named Angie got together [representing Coppin State] and we slammed against Morgan [State University]’s team, which was Sir Reigns, Lyrical the Lyricist, and Third Isis. That’s when I started meeting everybody, but I didn’t go out into the scene officially until I graduated.”
Just as Nelson was developing as a poet, the local spoken-word community also blossomed. She honed her gifts at spoken-word/open mic events held at Notre Maison, the Olu Butterfly and Fertile Ground co-founded Organic Soul Tuesdays, and Warm Wednesdays at the 5 Seasons.
Even with that level of activity, Nelson doesn’t think Baltimore audiences strongly embrace poetry. “When people come in from out of town they notice a distinct difference,” she says. “Here in Baltimore it is harder for artists to get recognized and get the respect they deserve—or even get the claps they deserve. It’s hard. The best way to describe it is to quote [one-time
contributor] Femi ‘The Drifish’: ‘We’re creatively angry.’
“Baltimore is in a place now where we have rebuilt the art scene,” she continues. “I think everyone is working really hard because that brings a city back to life. We have to work harder here so our performance has to be on another level. When people see us [Baltimore artists] they are like ‘Whoa,’ but people come into town and wonder why they’re not getting received the same way. Well, it’s a different place.”
Baltimore’s tough audiences have supported Nelson though. In January, she was awarded one of the recently started Baker Artist Awards b-grant prizes, which will be given to up to 18 artists annually. “It’s people who are homegrown, doing this and getting acknowledged—and money,” she says. “It was a $1,000 grant and they just give it to you, no strings attached. They just want you to know you are loved [as an artist] and what you’re doing is viable to the community.
“My biggest thing is letting people know that you can do this,” she continues. “I’m a full-time artist. I am a black woman, lesbian poet, full-time artist.”
Nelson realizes there are budding local poets that don’t have the resources to hone their skills, so she mentors beginners and teaches classes with individuals and groups. “So many people sit in venues and they want to do it but they don’t know where to go with it,” she says.
Nelson the soulful musician has released four albums and one mixtape since 2005. Her most recent was 2010’s
LOVE Zone: Erotic Mixtape Vol. 1
. “It’s interesting to see the response of people who aren’t necessarily into poetry,” she says of this outing, though she’s explored the subject matter for many years. “It’s a gateway to the rest of my work.”
Her solo erotic efforts proved to be good training for her work with the Punany Poets. Founded by writer Jessica Holter and featured in a segment of HBO’s
, the Punany Poets are an erotica poetry theater troupe that includes poets, musicians, and exotic dancers. Nelson met Holter at the 2007 Baltimore Book Festival, and after Nelson released her 2008 album
The Chrysalis: The Rebirth of Michelle Antoinette
, she was invited to audition. The experience in the local circuit and with the Punany Poets helped her hone her stage presence and performances.
Nelson has toured the country with the Punany Poets for the past three years, but decided to take a hiatus to focus on
Black Marks on White Paper
, a compilation of her work. “I want my book on shelves in people’s homes, and if the electricity goes out they can read it with a candle,” she says. “That’s important to me because I don’t know if I’ll birth children, so this is my contribution to the world—my art.”
Poems about her personal experiences are seamlessly intertwined with fiction throughout the book. In the impressive debut, Nelson skillfully uses her words to pull readers into her emotional realm. Arranged in three sections—the Griot, the Woman, and the Warrior—
is a poignant work that deals with race, acceptance, sexuality, and love. The attention-grabbing “Passion Fruit Tea,” for instance, tells the story of a man married to a woman but in denial about being gay. Among her favorites is “When I Speak They Listen,” which was inspired by the power of one of her own performances at the New Haven Lounge. “I was performing and as I started to talk, grown men who were standing sat down at my feet,” she says. “It hit me, like,
Wow—these are grown men in a bar!
It really took me aback.” Nelson’s heart-felt poetry and charismatic presence is enough to make the world stop and listen.