Kai Davis

Photo credit: Kai Davis

By Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts

Julia Cameron, respected author of The Artist’s Way, once said, “The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.” If this is true, then Philadelphia poet Kai Davis seems to embody the kind of complete surrender to authenticity every artist needs to be willing to concede. It is the difference between creating decent and even good work that is also terribly restrained and inaccessible, and creating work like Davis’ that exudes the kind of freedom and honesty that can only lead to greatness. 

“My main focus is to write in a way that uses intellect, logic, and abstract thought to incite visceral emotions in my readers and listeners,” Davis, 23, says. “I’ve been focusing more on this as a way to get myself and others to think about topics from different lenses. I am trying to be more challenging, yet remain accessible in some way.”

A recent graduate from Temple University’s English and African American Studies program, Davis has served as the Artistic Director for the Babel Poetry Collective and is a current member of The Philly Pigeon Collective. She has immersed herself in the spoken word scene both locally and nationally, winning the international grand slam competition twice, and appearing on national television networks such as CNN, BET and PBS. 

Davis takes an intersectional approach to her work, examining race, gender and sexuality to confront societal norms impacting marginalized people. “Intersectionality shows up in a lot of my work,” Davis says. “[That’s] because I cannot separate my identity from my art no matter how hard I could try, and I don’t think my audience can either. It either happens on purpose or by accident because that’s how society understands me and that’s how I understand myself in turn.”

Davis’ experiences as a queer Black woman, fuel her fiery, narrative-driven poetry. In her piece, Ain’t I a Woman, she boldly expresses her outrage at being forced to “choose” an identity to champion. She opens with, “I wake up with an apology already forming in my mouth. This is what it means to be a contradiction. Too Black to be a woman. Not man enough to be Black. This is what it means to occupy a vacant space. Have everyone slash each cross-stitched intersection of my identity with a straight blade.” 

The impact Davis has on her audiences is evident in the standing ovations she receives at readings and the regular ravings about her that appear on social media. But she is also extremely influential with other artists – Kirwyn Sutherland, a spoken word poet also based out of Philadelphia, says he was blown away by Davis after discovering her on the internet. 

“The first time I heard a poem from Kai was on YouTube.  It was a video of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement Poetry Slam Finals in 2011,” Sutherland says. “Kai performed a persona poem called ‘Color Me Homicidal’ where she took on the voice of someone fed up with constant insults to their sexuality.  I was really struck by how young Kai appeared in relation to how mature the poem was in tone, style and delivery of lines.” 

Sutherland later worked with Davis at a residency with Drexel University’s Pearlstein Art Gallery. The two were commissioned to write poems about the sculptures featured in the gallery.  

“What I love most about Kai’s work is how deep you feel her heart inside of her poems,” says Sutherland. “Yes, when you analyze them, they are technically excellent by any academic metric and run the gamut of emotion from humor to heartbreak. But they also possess that intangible thing that calls you to action in one way or another. I have heard very few poets whose work combines all of those elements. Because of that, I feel Kai will be in the lineage of Patricia Smith, commanding the utmost respect in both literary and slam communities.”

When asked about these comparisons and the expectations of her audience and other poets, Davis is resolved to grow.

“I think people’s expectations act as encouragement and reassurance more than pressure,” Davis says. “I do, however, want to try to produce new content for them, even if they want to hear the same poems every time they see me live. I want to share my growth with them and it always brings me joy when people say they’ve been following my work. They haven’t abandoned me as my writing has changed.”

This commitment helps keep Davis at the top of the Philly poet pile, blazing her own trail, leaving nothing but thought-provoking dialogue and introspection in her wake. 

Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts is an English professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, an author, publisher and all-around creative force in Philadelphia.