Hiking through the deep, buggy greenery of a mountain in Maine, Jourdan Imani Keith, then a teenager at summer camp, shut her eyes to simply listen: leaves in the wind, the crunch of twigs. When she opened her eyes, a bird flew past her, right at eye level. Immediately, Keith stuck her fingers in her ears and tried to imagine how she would describe that experience without sound.
“I was completely euphoric,” the now-Seattle-based poet says. “I needed to write about it. So I wrote a really bad poem when I got back to camp, and I shamelessly showed it to somebody who was kind enough to say, ‘That’s nice!’”
In the decades since that summertime revelation, Keith came to see it as one of the many scattered seeds that grew into the twin loves, nature and poetry, that shaped the course of her life, leading her from the crowded streets of Philly to the mossy, mountainous urbanity of Seattle.
Here she goes by many titles: poet, playwright, naturalist, educator, activist, essayist, griot. In whatever form she is working, Keith is adept at transforming the beauty of nature into language, like in her poem “At Dungeness Spit”:
Rushing toward the ocean tongue
Along the lip of land
I am what my friends feared
The throughline of her work is how humans, particularly Black folks, relate to nature and water. “[B]ecause access to wild places IS a race & social justice issue,” reads her Twitter bio.
In 2004 she founded and directed the Urban Wilderness Project to bring Seattle youth of color to the outdoors. In 2021 she hosted a seven-episode podcast called Women and Whales First: Poetry in a Climate of Change, examining the ways women and whales are alike in their vulnerabilities. In her writing she has intertwined the language of segregationist housing policies with the language of nature conservancy. In Keith’s view, the personal and the natural are one.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Keith took her love of poetry to Temple University, where she studied under Black Arts Movement leader, poet, activist and haiku master Sonia Sanchez. “[I learned] to not shy away from naming injustice, what justice might look like, to not shy away from our beautiful sensuality,” Keith says. “And to not be afraid to scare people with your work and your performance of it.”
Keith’s 1995 arrival in Seattle followed two years spent living near Yellowstone National Park, up close with Wyoming’s spectacular nature and the magical potential of spotting a buffalo herd while going about her day. Still, community called.
Jourdan Imani Keith recites her poem “Essential,” which was written during the COVID-19 pandemic for Seattle Public Utilities’ 2021 Six-Year Strategic Plan. (Seattle Public Utilities)
“I was there so long I forgot what other Black people looked like,” Keith laughs. “I’m not joking!” In Seattle she found Sojourner Truth Unity Fellowship Church on Capitol Hill, which became an inclusive spiritual home for a queer Black woman like herself. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” she says. “It was multiethnic, multigender. It was life-changing, and it helped keep me.”
Over nearly 30 years, Keith has tended a symbiotic artistic relationship with this city and region. Along the way she has accrued many city titles that speak to her passions, including Seattle Public Library’s first Naturalist-in-Residence in 2006 and the 2006-2007 Seattle Poet Populist. Based on her piece “Your Body is a Body of Water,” King County chose “water” as the theme of its 2016–2018 Poetry on Buses program, for which Keith also helped lead writing workshops.
“She always thinks about everybody’s humanity,” says Elisheba Johnson, a poet and co-founder of the Central District’s Wa Na Wari arts space, who worked with Keith on the Poetry on Buses project. “When you’re working with different cultural communities, there’s so much listening that has to be done, and she’s an incredible listener.”
As a writer of ekphrastic poetry (poems that describe works of art), Keith finds inspiration in Seattle’s vibrant arts community, particularly the Black arts community: in Debora Moore’s lifelike glass flowers and Barbara Earl Thomas’s ornate cutouts, in the way late dancer Kabby Mitchell moved across the floor. How beautiful your mouth/two wings waiting/in the warm nest, she writes about Moore’s drippy orchids in “Labellum.”
That artistic curiosity also led her to Syvilla Fort, a prominent Black dancer from Seattle in the 1930s who may have influenced the Space Needle’s design. “She is literally watching over the city without the city knowing it,” Keith says. “That is, to me, a lot of what happens with Black artists here.”
In 2019 Keith was named Seattle Civic Poet, but not even a year into her two-year tenure the pandemic hit, followed that May by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. “I was delayed and paralyzed like everyone else,” she says, describing watching the horrors of police brutality play out across the country. Keith felt her artistic self revive in 2020 after looking to the power of Black art as well as the poets and writers who wrote through other seemingly “world-ending” moments such as World War I and the Spanish flu. “We survived,” she says.
The City extended Keith’s tenure as Civic Poet to 2022, to give her due time to serve the role. In addition to producing the Women and Whales podcast during her tenure, Keith worked with Seattle Public Utilities, which commissioned her to write “Essential” for their Community Centered, One Water, Zero Waste vision. The poem ended up winning the U.S. Water Award for Outstanding Artist.
In part an ode to essential workers, “Essential” is a meditation on the impact of the pandemic on Seattle’s utility services, and how water is the great connector of the city’s often disparate communities:
In the morning when the blue bin rumbles
The sound is a checkmark I call Tuesday
They descend from the thunder of their truck –
Masked, they cross my driveway
Only now I realize, how much like a deity
Carrying myth they are
In a city ringed by mountains and built on the soft soils around Puget Sound, Keith’s keen observations on the intersection of nature, water, culture, city, art and body serve as a guide to existing amid all that Seattle represents.
It feels right to say that Keith, like Syvilla Fort and other Black artists before her, is watching over the city, listening to its many communities and reflecting the beauty we hold within us. We walk on a city that was and is and will be, Keith wrote in Seismic, a Seattle City of Literature anthology. Any city that comes through fire has its own holiness. Any city that walks on water carries cathedrals inside.
Original Story by Black Arts Legacy writer, Jas Keimig for Crosscut. Centrum is a proud supporter of the Black Arts Legacy Project and honored to have Jourdan Imani Keith as part of the 2023 Port Townsend Writers Conference.