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In 'God Themselves,' spoken-word poet Jae Nichelle explores love, race and forced religion

About five years ago at the Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival, a young poet named Jae Nichelle performed a poem titled “Friends With Benefits,” about her relationship with anxiety:

“Because whenever I hand her the aux cord, she makes sure to play back all the times he told me no one else would ever want me. Because of her, I still think no one else will ever want me. I constantly wonder: What happens to a black girl who is too anxious to ever feel like magic? Can she still fly? Can she still be fly?...”

Her three-minute performance went viral. People on YouTube commented that the poem moved them to tears — or to action. They felt seen, heard, which is the ultimate power of poetry.

Nichelle’s first full-length poetry collection, “God Themselves,” is out this week from Simon & Schuster. It’s a fresh and refreshing exploration of her experience as a queer Black woman in America. And it’s especially noteworthy as an audiobook, with Nichelle reading her work aloud.

I realize poetry can be a tough sell, except for those rare moments when it takes center stage. Think Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. Believe it or not, poetry isn’t just for swearing-in ceremonies. Collections like Nichelle’s show the power of verse to illuminate all types of experiences and emotions — from soup left burning on the stove to the definition of a holy space.

“God Themselves” is divided into three equally stirring sections: “Everything,” “Everywhere,” and “Love.” In it, the poet weaves anger, humor, sadness and joy into a full and powerful reflection on modern life. This month is Women’s History Month; next month is National Poetry Month. Do yourself a favor: Grab this collection, and honor both.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.