Everyday People: Iya Isoke

Everyday People: Iya Isoke

Poet Laureate, Emeritus for the City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Ms. Isoke was twice appointed. Her second term ended in January of 2014. She handed the reigns over to Rick Kearns and now travels from cyberspace to your place trying to make an impact on the world one word at a time. A prolific speaker and writer since 1997, Iya “SoKey” Isoke quickly emerged as an outspoken voice of her community. Her mantra is “language is a code, use it, or be used by it.”

Like the Beat Generation which came before us; The “SoKey” Experience is a rebirth of new bohemian ecstatic epicureans. Through her poetry, Ms. Isoke strives to highlight the primacy of such Beat Generation essentials as spontaneity, open emotion, visceral engagement in often gritty worldly experiences thereby bringing a love and respect for Spoken Word to the forefront.

Ms. Isoke is a former member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency – Survivors Speakers Bureau. Known for her impactful delivery and powerful prose she facilitates “Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence” Prevention workshops across a diverse community in addition to “Impact of Crime” classes for prison inmates.

Iya lives and works in Orange County California. She is a loving mother of a daughter Maxine who has two children; her middle son Brian, a veteran married with three children; and her youngest son Brandon who’s raising his own legacy as a writer, comedian, actor, and filmmaker.  You can find more about her work on www.iyaisoke.wordpress.com

How did you get into poetry? 

I learned to read at an early age but I had difficulty with verbally expressing myself. Initially, I used drawing/painting to communicate what I was feeling. The drawings were good and there was a natural talent there but I had eczema and it would spread to my hands sometimes so I hated when people watched me draw and eventually I quit. Math confused me but words were like amazing picture puzzles to me. Somewhere along the way, I began reading Shakespeare’s writing. My class would usually perform a collective eyeball roll whenever Shakespeare was trotted out but I enjoyed trying to figure out what he was saying. His work was important to me because I speak, think and feel in living colors (the theme song from “In Living Color” just popped into my head – that happens a lot). In addition to eczema, I was as blind as love is supposed to be. I’m fairly certain my spectacles (pun intended) were the origin of the “coke bottle” glasses taunt. They were horribly thick and unfortunately at that time I wasn’t. While my girlfriends were trying on training bras I was training my mind to decipher Shakespeare. It wasn’t a difficult task. In my mind, I could clearly see what he was saying and each play settled on my heart like a lover’s soft stroke. (well not necessarily at elementary age but you get the gist.)

Once I moved in with my grandmother (Nana) she took Shakespeare and Emily Dickens out my hands, patted me on the head like “oh you poor thing” and handed me the woman who would change my life forever. Nikki Giovanni. What I felt reading Nikki Giovanni is the same feeling hip-hop historians feel when they answer “when did you first fall in love with hip-hop?” Not only was the cadence of her words like a song, it was her melodic flow and plain language which matched my real-life concerns. Life. Love. Hurt. Pain. Anger. Acceptance. Light. (Black people write too???) I spent hours in the local library and soon found out about the Harlem Renaissance.  Langston Hughes? Claude McKay? Zora Neale Hurston?! Have you ever seen the art of Lois Mailon Jones? I was in love. I was inspired and soon found I was able.

When did you realize that you have a talent in writing?

It was a space called “The Writer’s Wordshop” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania hosted by Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Gadsden. (Sounds like a character in a Tyler Perry play right? “The good Reverend Doctor Nathaniel Gadsden…”) He and his wife Patricia are amazing people; he is an accomplished playwright, author, and poet who played a pivotal role in my evolution from page to stage.

During that time period, I was coping with a loss and had written about it. Writing has always been my personal coping mechanism. I kept a notebook diary that I would “journal” in.  Friends who had read what I’d written convinced me to go to the poetry reading to free myself. I arrived and it was a sterile room in the Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg. Rows of seats facing a makeshift stage area. No microphone, great acoustics. A smattering of folks seated in clumps; a father and his two

sons here, a sister with locs there; the former hippies; the art students; the nerds and the aspiring playwrights. It was an eclectic assortment of folk. Nate read some poems, then other folks read some poems and finally, Nate said “do we have any other poets in the house?” My friend coaxed me to the front of the room. “I’m not a poet”, I said, “I just like to write stuff”. My underarms were growing increasingly warm as I stood trembling on the inside; paper crackling to the beat of my hands shaking; voice cracking as I read my words aloud. Now I’d been writing for years in the solace of a no

tebook, napkin, typewriter, (yes…they still existed back then) and finally word processor (Damnit the Doogie Howser theme just popped into my head).  I’d never heard my voice aloud in a room, I’d never heard my words freed from the confines of my own mind and I’d never had eyeballs drilling into me with expectation. I was sweating as the first words hesitantly fell from my lips. The wondrous experience was being transported to the original mood which prompted those written words. The sadness. The release. The fit. For me, the people in the room disappeared as pictures were painted with each syllable. There was this feeling as if a shackle of fear unlocked and had fallen solidly at my feet with each semicolon. When I was done the room was deadly silent. Thoughts of “why did I do this” began to take root at the silence. The sound of clapping forced me to raise my head. People were standing; and some were tearing up. Astonishment encompassed my core trying to comprehend that I had done this thing to them which made them respond emotionally. I was floored with humility. Nate stood next to me, handed me a caramel colored tee-shirt with the Writers Wordshop logo on it with the words “Pennsylvania Poet” embossed. He hugged me and said, “You’re a poet now.”

What was the most difficult poem that you have ever written?

A piece entitled “These Hands”. It took over a year to write. A year of healing from a spiritual and emotionally crippling situation. The poem dealt with complex feelings for my fiancé’s best friend who was married to my fiancé’s sister. This man shot and killed my fiancé to get to his estranged wife; who he then murdered. All this in broad daylight. All this while I was sitting at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore Café waiting on Charles to meet me. We were going to write his life story because it was a remarkable journey and he had plans to help youth through his own fault-to-family story. Now, you’ll need to understand we all knew each other for years. Years people. Moments after our friend committed double homicide – he committed suicide with the same gun he used to steal the lives of a brother and sister trying to do nothing more than protect themselves from him. Domestic Violence is so very real and its aftermath so very tangible. Writing that was definitely healing. But the murder-suicide took so much out my soul. You don’t think, speak, or feel the same after that. The poem came from me feeling robbed from the conversation we would have had if he hadn’t killed himself. You know in this world we pretend love and hate is a light to be switched on and off at whim. I learned that it is not. “These Hands” is a damning forgiveness and when I first recited it during a poetry feature – I felt I had shaken loose his legacy from my spirit and I could move on. But for anger, jealousy, ego and an inability to accurately articulate their pain – all three would be alive today. Poetry is the greatest articulator.
Some of your poetry has been used to promote certain levels of activism. How does that make you feel?

Accomplished yet still clocked in. We’re lost in a sea of stupidity so deep these days that even the rabbits are asking “how deep does the rabbit hole go?” Seriously I feel like even Bugs Bunny is like “I know I’m responsible for random shenanigans, but this is sumbewl…” I embrace activism precisely because it’s what is necessary. A poet can change your outlook, perspective, heart, mind, and actions by carefully exploring with their audience a world the listener/reader may never have entered but for their words.


What inspires you to write? 

There isn’t an identifiable inspiration. Personally, I tend to emote onto paper. I love feeling wonderful and I try to capture in words what peace; happiness; or romance feels like, or love or sex. I am also an observer. Not actually a cool thing to claim but in a way, I am a voyeur. I’m not standing beneath your window or perched in a tree with binoculars. That would just be weird.  I watch ordinary circumstances; regular everyday interactions; maybe on the news or online, on the train, subway or bus (when I was living in Philly) Walking is a favorite pastime (by now you’re thinking this chick needs friends…I know) and when I see things that aren’t kosher feelings get trapped inside my pores and I can’t function until I litter the paper with words. Especially emotional experiences. If I see you choke up and cry-I’m already in tears. The opposite is true too. If I see you trying to squeeze out some crocodile tears then, I’m stone-faced with the side eye. Writing is a purge for me. It’s the reason I started blogging. This year has been so polarizing that the writing nearly stopped because I am an empathic writer whose currently experiencing sensory overload. My pen is constipated and I can’t write sh…is this a family magazine?
Do you have a “set up” when you start writing? 

I find riding trains, or being in a public place like a café or museum are great “set ups” because I always need to be alone with my thoughts but I love being out and about. A disconnected connection. I can’t write on an airplane because the person next to me is too close. I can cry on a train, I can tear up in a café with my earbuds secured closely.  Did I mention sometimes I cry? Yeah, that’s a thing. Late night writing is my favorite because the whole world is asleep and I feel like I’m truly alone. That’s when the truth comes. And to me, truth in writing is everything.
If you could take one poem to be remembered by, which would it be? 

I had a boss once who read my work, went to see me perform and one day she said to me “why do you write about so much strife? Write me a poem about flowers or something.” She went to lunch and I thought about it. Most my work thus far was dealing with the black/brown community, domestic violence, verbal abuse, child rearing, motherhood, sexual assault, poverty, police brutality, politics…(I’m a bit older than 10 by now but seriously…even at 10 I was like “why the Brady Bunch don’t have no black friends? Why all the Bedrock folks white? Awww come on now – so we’re just not in the future Jetsons??!”) I digress. (smile) Anyway I went to work to compose a poem about flowers (which I love) and this was the result:
I have tried looking at the world through rose-colored glasses

But thorns of reality continue to pierce my eyes

so I blink back bloody tears

And write what I see…


This short drive by poem sums up the reality of my work. My work deals with reality. Reality is a compulsion for me. So is peace and redemption. Through my words I will drag you through the darkest parts of society; show you the ghosts of our behaviors past in the hope that you will eventually feel a shift in your heart. You’re invited to join me as I struggle through my own blog work at  www.iyaisoke.wordpress.com



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