Kisha Nicole Foster
2019 EMERGING ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
The first time she stood on stage at the now defunct Humidor on the East Bank of the Flats and grabbed the microphone, 19-year-old Kisha Nicole Foster soared above the enthralled crowd, levitating on words she had written and delivered with great verve. She knew she had found her true calling as a poet.
“I first realized that was something I could do when I won the poetry slam a couple months later at the same venue and walked away with a check,” she says. “I didn’t know what it entailed. I just knew that it felt good because I was able to create these words and put them together and people liked them.”
At 16, she read a book of poems by Nikki Giovanni her mother Shirley Y. Hammond had given her, and that changed everything. A few years later, she started performing poetry slams like the one at the Humidor. Established Cleveland poets like RA Washington and Michael Salinger mentored her. She even met Giovanni at a Cleveland Public Library author event.
During her teen years, she struggled with uncertainty about what she should do. Because of her height, everyone thought she should play basketball or volleyball or be a model. Sports just didn’t work out for her, she says, because she didn’t want to work out or sweat too much. “It only goes so far, if that’s not your passion,” Kisha says. “It just never was my passion.”
Fortunately, she knew what was. “Words were always my passion since I was a little kid,” she continues. “I’m not saying I was a writer since I was little, but I was always good at reading, and I would read on my own at home. My mother read a lot of books, so as a teenager I started reading her books, started reading way past my level.”
Born in Germany, she was raised in New Jersey and Ohio. She graduated from high school in Cleveland, and then someone close to her advised her to go to college. She did. Kisha attended Cleveland State University from 2003 to 2008 to increase her knowledge and understanding of literature and to polish her gifts and discipline for writing poetry.
In 2003, at the age of 23, she started performing in – and winning – national slam poetry competitions. She was a member of the Cleveland Slam Team in 2003, performed in the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2009, along with the Rust Belt and Women of the World poetry slams and many local slam events.
Although Kisha moved away from performing in slams herself, she began to coach others. She coached one poet, Eris Eady, for the Woman of the World slam, and she made it to the final stage and seventh place, something Kisha had never done. She also coached the College of Wooster slam team for the College and University Poetry Slam, and they made it to the final stage.
She has published two books: Poems: 1999-2014, which RA Washington published as part of Guide To Kulchur’s Vanguard Series in 2017, and Bloodwork, a book about her father after his death, published by Outlandish Press.
Friend, fellow poet and author of Journey to Whole: Excerpts, Essays & Exhales, Eady says, “Kisha writes things that make you feel both joy & sorrow at the same time. In her poem ‘A Crush’ she said: ‘Like Emmett Till’s insides, I want the world to see what you do to me.’ She is unafraid to show the beautiful strife of vulnerability.”
Currently, Kisha is a Lit Cleveland fellow and Cleveland Stories Program Coordinator, which is a project to obtain stories from residents of Cleveland’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood that Lit Cleveland will publish as an anthology. She is also the regional coordinator for Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest which is a program of the Ohio Arts Council. In October, she will be a featured poet at the Black Midwest Initiative conference at the University of Minnesota. Kisha continues to work as a poet, educator, coach, and mentor. She remains focused on doing readings on stages and in classrooms, often accompanied by her 2-year-old daughter, Love, and she is currently writing a new book of poems that she plans to publish early next year.
“When I do readings of my poetry, I’m connecting with you,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, from America or not. If you bleed and you’re human and your heart beats, then you understand my poetry.”