Torch Photo/Spencer Clinton
For junior education major Tatiana Nicoll, unapologetically expressing herself has been a consistent trait throughout her life. From dancing to painting, Nicoll has dabbled in many different forms of expression — but one art form that she developed during her time at St. John’s is poetry.
When the California native isn’t fulfilling her duties as treasurer of the poetry club, Food for Thought, editing the literary magazine, “Sequoya,” representing the School of Ed’s class of 2020, or mentoring incoming freshman as a Teacher’s Assistant, she’s writing poems.
Delving into her thorny past and the unrealistic standards that society forces onto women, Nicoll uses her poetry as a way to heal. While she heals, she’s found that sharing her experience has helped others to do the same.
So why’d you decide to come to New York City?
I just wanted to experience something different. If we’re being really honest, I had a boyfriend [at] the time, and I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ I didn’t know about St. John’s or anything. We lasted maybe a semester and then that was it! But everything happens for a reason, and I’m glad I’m here.
When did you get involved with Food for Thought?
I joined poetry club at a very hard time in my life. He was gone, I was out here by myself. I felt kind of lost. And I remember my first days in poetry club, I was just a wreck. But it was exactly what I needed. I needed that outlet to really express myself and get my feelings out there. Becoming honest and vulnerable is what changed everything. Because before you really admit all of your mental health problems and heart break, and everything, it’s hard to get better.
So going to poetry club really made me get out of my shell and really come to terms with everything that’s going on in my head and in my heart. And now I’ve never been better, honestly. It’s really changed my life.
That explains your poetry, because it does feel like that, like you’re constantly growing.
Yeah, and that’s why I love poetry because you can go back to a poem you wrote a year ago and be like, ‘Wow, that was raw.’ That was what I was really feeling in that moment and now a year later I’m here and I don’t feel that way anymore.
What is your creative process like?
I started out just journaling. Journaling everything, every day, since I was like maybe 11 or 12-years-old. Just last summer I thought of a little rhyme, and I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of want to write that down,’ and so I did. And then I just started. Any time I’m overwhelmed or I have a lot going on, it’s when [it all] comes out.
Each poem that I write, it’s like everything comes full circle.
Are there any topics in particular that you gravitate toward the most?
I think one of the hardest things for me is, I was best friends with my mom, and then we had a big falling out in the middle of high school. So I noticed that a lot of my poems refer back to her and that bond, our relationship, everything we’ve gone through and where we are now. My poetry is a lot lighter now that we’re good!
Those poems where you mention mothers are very impactful. What do they mean to you?
When I was in high school she relapsed with drugs and it just broke my heart. I moved out of my house … and then I didn’t see her for four years. Just this summer I saw her for the first time, like literally a few weeks ago. It was intense, but it was honestly so beautiful and the sincerity of her and our talk just fixed everything.
You’re giving me chills!
It healed me. It’s just what I needed…confirmation that love is still love and a mother can still love her daughter even though she made a lot of mistakes.
Do you feel like going through hardships makes your art deeper?
Definitely. [Food for Thought] had a mental health awareness event last semester, and I was [going to go] to the event and perform, but I didn’t really connect with the theme because I never really identified myself as having mental health problems. But then once I was there, I was like, holy s—. We all feel the same. Like anxiety, depression…everyone’s in that boat and no one really wants to come to terms with it.
But I think that’s the point of poetry, to come to terms with your own problems and read them, and face them, and fix them.
Let’s talk a little bit about womanhood, since it’s very much present in your poetry.
I grew up with my mom, she was a single mom. It’s always been like, ‘You can do this yourself, you don’t need no man.’ I’ve always had that mentality, but meeting guys that come from a very, very different mentality, who treat girls like objects — I’ve never been okay with that. And it’s so prevalent, you can just tell when a guy doesn’t have good intentions.
And [for me], I’m not going to dress differently because you can’t control yourself. I’m not going to tone down anything about myself because of you and because of how you view me. Because I’m me, and I shouldn’t offend you. I’m not personally offending you by wearing a low cut shirt.
And how did you learn that?
I went through puberty really early. Like I remember in fifth grade, guys just making fun of me [because of my body] — and I was just like, ‘Okay, this is my body and this is how it came.’ And why do I have to deal with you being mad about that? Or even walking to school [now and getting] catcalled. That is not okay, and that’s something that I just want girls to understand: It’s not their fault that guys can’t control themselves.
I believe in equality and all that, but it’s our turn to say what we want to say. Because we’re always swept under the rug.
So I guess, the things that you’re the most passionate about is what comes up in your poetry a lot, because it’s like you have to get it out there.
Is there any poem in particular that you’re most proud of?
Yeah, I actually wrote this poem, it’s called ‘Beauty Is.’ It’s basically tearing down the beauty industry and how society has molded us into these creatures that are there to please men. When [in reality], I’m wearing my red lipstick right now because I love my red lipstick. I’m not trying to impress anybody. Anything I wear, anything I do — it’s not for you. But yeah, that poem is about being true to yourself and if you want to wear that, you wear that.
One thing that never fails to come up when women express themselves like you do is the people who say “it’s just boys being boys,” or “you sound mad or bitter or angry.” How do you respond to people that would say that about your work?
We are mirrors, and you go around and you’re talking to mirrors — so anything that someone says to you is just a reflection of themselves. So if they’re coming at you, they’re just threatened by you. So I say, [they can] stand up and [they can] keep being angry and keep yelling, because it doesn’t matter what they think.
Are you working on any big projects at the moment?
I’m writing a poetry book. It has a lot to do with my mom, it’s kind of like a coming of age little poetry book. Basically, I went through all my journals from when I was 14-years-old till now and I found the main points in my life where it was a lot — and I made poems out of them.
The whole process, honestly, has been a lot. Because you have to go back into those moments and relive it. It can get hard, you know. But it definitely is rewarding almost finishing everything and being like, ‘Oh my god, I’m kind of done with that part of my life.
Is that also part of your healing process?
Definitely. It’s honestly just one big healing process. I also paint.
Do you? Have you always?
Yeah, my mom painted a lot. We always had all of our paintings all over the house. So that really stuck with me. Now I have paintings all over my room, just like how her room looked, it’s really funny. But when I’m sick of writing — because I do get sick of writing sometimes, believe it or not — I really just have to color.
So you’re an all around artist.
No, I can’t sing!
Yeah, well that’s hard!
If I could sing, it would be over guys! I used to dance [though], I love dancing. I did every kind of dance: ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop — I was a competitive dancer.
I’ve just always had to express myself. And so, when I came here, I wasn’t a dancer anymore and I didn’t know what to do, and that’s when I found poetry and all my other forms of expression.
Have you found any challenges with your poetry, other than reliving everything?
Honestly, it’s been really fun. It’s been a lot, but every time I write something or go back to [a certain] moment, I heal a part of it. I heal a part of myself. And it’s been a good process.
If it’s challenging, I’ll just stop and come back to it. I never want it to be a challenge for me because it’s my outlet, it’s my free time. My passion. So I just let it flow naturally, I don’t try to push it.
You also perform your poetry. Do you ever feel scared?
Oh my god, yeah. When I performed at Java Johnnies last semester, I was so scared. Food for Though has poetry slams for competitions too. The first one I did I was so scared, I was shaking, and I didn’t think I was going to make it anywhere, but I made it all the way to the semi-finals. I made it so much further than I thought I was going to. It’s scary but it’s so fun!
Do you think that performing is just as important as writing poetry?
I think it’s that and more. It’s the connection with other people. You can write as much poetry, and get it out there and express your emotions, but having that connection with other people who are [tell you], ‘Your poem was so good, thank you so much, it helps me’ … people have said that to me, and I was just like, ‘Really? Thank you, I love you!’
That connection with people is something that can really build and changes people’s lives. That’s why I like to do it.
Favorite line from any poem you’ve ever written?
The book I’m working on is called ‘Daughter of the Universe,’ and I have this poem … and [some lines are]: “Wings aren’t a person, and music isn’t me/Freedom made the pain worsen, but heartbreak sent me free.”
Tatiana’s work can be viewed on Instagram @yourgirltat.