What it takes to be a poet in today’s world — Q&A with Jordan Chaney

Poetry sparks change

Jordan Chaney wasn’t afraid to embrace the challenges associated with being a poet in today’s society. Based in Tri-Cities, Wash., he turned his love of words into a method for social change and inspiration, working with troubled youth across the country to spread his message on the power of character and communication.

Getting to know Jordan Chaney

What inspired you to start writing poetry? When?

Poet Jordan ChaneyBy the time I was 4-years-old, my father passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Two 10-year-old kids found him in the backyard of our old townhouse where I was born in Alexandria, Va. My mom began drinking and doing drugs to cope with the pain. When I was six, I stumbled upon a three-ring binder full of poems my mom had written and poems she had collected from friends.

I was fascinated to see my mom’s writing typed up on paper with letterhead and neatly stored in cellophane sleeves. The first poem I ever read was out of that book of poems — “Mr. H” was the title. “Mr. H” was a poem about a woman in love with the wrong guy. He would abuse her, and no matter how awful he was to her, she wouldn’t leave him. At the end of the poem, it’s revealed that Mr. H is actually heroin, and the young woman was actually losing her life to a drug addiction.

Now, I know that poem is extremely graphic and probably disturbing to think a 6-year-old would even read something like that.

But the truth is, that poem has everything to do with every event in my life — from understanding my mom’s own struggle, to creating a career and a dream from poetry.

Today, I work with youth in the Juvenile Justice Center and disadvantaged youth in poverty-stricken communities on the power of character and communication — all through poetry. I have traveled the country and the world sharing my stories and poems, and I pay my bills and can take vacations (sometimes) from my small poetry biz.

And even though there were some significant struggles leading to where I’m at today, I wouldn’t take a moment of it back.

 

My mother is a saint for surviving and for instilling in me the tenacity, hunger and wit to pursue my dreams!

What first steps did you take to make your poetry dreams a reality?

The very first thing I did to make my dream of living as a poet a reality was to identify what I call “The Tipping Point” — the dollar amount you need to earn from your daydream each month in order to sustain yourself.

For me, I had to pay off my car and then get all of my utility bills and frivolous spending/wasting under control. You get the idea. That took awhile — I mean, where does one apply to be a poet, right?

The next thing I did to become a poet, aka working artist, was grind. And I still do that every single day.

I remember LL Cool J once saying in an interview in regard to new rappers getting large record deals and contracts, and I’m paraphrasing here, “These young artists need to remember that in ‘show business’ the word ‘business’ is bigger than the word ‘show’.”

Once I got my business license, business cards and website set up, it just became a matter of continuing to do what worked over and over again until it was valuable enough to sell.

Jordan Chaney Logo

I have been fortunate enough to stay in demand by diversifying my talents and remixing my skill sets as a poet to meet the fast changing needs of my community.

Not only do I recite spoken word poetry, I:

  • do motivational speeches at assemblies.
  • speak on racism, social justice and politics at colleges.
  • have created an All-Star Arts & Leadership Camp that helps disadvantaged youth gain confidence and communication skills.
  • Public Health Departments hire me to speak and share with them writing workshops I’ve created specifically for trauma-related peoples.
  • I keynote speak.
  • I have written books — I even have a parachute in my trunk for poetry.

I’m rambling, but the point I’m trying to make is, if you want it bad enough, if you pour enough passion into it, if you find a way to help as many people as possible from all walks of life with your dream, then you will find yourself living your dream and making a whole lot of people happier and healthier because you did.

What obstacles did you face in the beginning, and how did you overcome them?

In the beginning, I had the typical naysayers on deck. “That’s not a real job,” or, “How are you going to make money?” and even, “But you’ve got the shoulders for football …” Those were the external, psychological obstacles coming from other people; they were the easiest to overcome.

But it’s the self-imposed, internal obstacles and a limited self-concept that almost held me back.

You see, I was young, poor black kid with no examples and not very many people cheering me on. Maybe that was the “secret sauce” for me. Maybe when you’re up against all odds, you evolve a kind of resiliency and hunger that pushes and protects you as you reach for your dreams. Or maybe, I’m living my purpose — no matter how I grew, I was destined to live as a poet. Either way, I am humbled and honored by the role, and I couldn’t see living life any other way.

Goals and philosophy

What’s your guiding philosophy in life?

When I first set out to become a poet, I created a five-word mission statement that encompassed my values and overall career mission: Save the world with poetry. I know that sounds like a lofty and grandiose idea, but you gotta “hitch your wagon to a star,” right? From those simple five words, you can derive the soul and guiding philosophy of all aspects of my work.

What three words epitomize success in your book?

Character, confidence, and communication are the three hallmark values that I believe have everything to do with the success I’ve had. I created a community program called Urban Poets Society, and we have a saying that goes, “Talent without character is just an act, a show. But talent and character together are a sight to behold.”

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?

In five years, I will be doing exactly what I am doing today — and that’s working with youth and teaching them the value of youth arts and leadership and the effects it has on community.

In 10 years, I will be doing the same thing, but I’ll have a nicer car. I say that half-jokingly and half-serious; I’ve found my calling — my goals now are to make my books, workshops, talks and presentations more accessible to more people. Plus, for the first seven years of my career I drove 244,000 miles in my 2004 Mazda 6. It couldn’t keep up with my burgeoning career.

By the way, do you know how many miles it is to the moon from the earth? It’s 238,000 miles. I shot passed the moon by 6,000 miles and spiraled somewhere into my dreams. As I write this, I look back and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to live like this.

Products and tools

What online tools do you use for your venture, and what difference do they make? How are they important?

My online tools are my social media accounts, my website, and I use GoDaddy to manage all of my URLs — for convenience and simplicity, it really is the way to go.

All businesses have a storefront with window displays, whether they are brick-and-mortar or digital, and whether the business owner realizes it or not.

You want your store to look like you take pride in it; you want it to be appealing and professional so that it attracts clients.

In our digital world, even poets need to have user-friendly tech tools to assist their careers.

Jordan Chaney Website
Advice and personal

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since starting your poetry venture?

The most valuable lesson I have learned as a poet is a metaphysical one, and it goes something like this: “Everything in the Universe has to adjust itself to accommodate your words.” It’s the most powerful quote I have ever come across.

The mind-blowing prospect of everything in the Universe, from a grain of sand to the flap of a butterfly wing, all of it yielding to my words to manifest my innermost visions is empowering and encouraging.

Regardless of its scientific truth, its poetic value is priceless to me. My friend and fellow poet, Rajnii Eddins, distilled that quote into four easy-to-remember words: “Breath is our canvas.”

What does it take to thrive as a poet in today’s world? What’s your best advice for other aspiring poets?

I’ll answer both of these questions with my favorite African proverb. Everyday in Africa when the sun comes up, the lion knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle in the jungle in order to survive, and everyday in Africa when the sun comes up, the gazelle knows that it must outrun the fastest lion in the jungle in order to survive. The moral of the story is this, it doesn’t matter if you’re a lion, a gazelle or a poet — when the sun comes up, you better start running.

How do you unwind?

I’ve been painting more and more over the last few years. I go wine tasting sometimes. But to really unwind, I meditate and essential oils are my jam.

How do you balance the needs of your business with your personal life?

Due to the spiritual nature of my work, my business needs and personal life tend to overlap quite a bit. My inboxes get filled with letters from students from places I spoke or presented at, and that fills me with fuel to keep going. But then I get letters that remind me of the ills that our youth are facing — so when I get time off or a vacation, I do my best try to take care of and energize my being so I am effective in my work.

I’ll admit it, when I worked a 9-to-5, I didn’t mind getting sick; in fact, I looked forward to it cause it was a day off from a job I didn’t like. Nowadays, I dread getting sick and missing a day of work. I guess that’s what it means to be living your purpose.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Jordan! If you want to learn more about Jordan Chaney and his life as a poet, be sure to check out his website and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat (@gopoet).


Also published on Medium.