For Hudson County Community College (HCCC) Inaugural Student Poet Laureate Natalie Akel, the act of creating art has been vital. During her time as a social worker, writing poetry helped her to process a particularly challenging day.
“I would say that for me art is very much related to healing and that can happen both individually and as a community,” Akel said in an interview last week. “I think that when we write something that we’re really proud that we wrote and really communicates what we were trying to get across, and then you communicate that with somebody else and they feel that and it resonates with them, that is a really powerful feeling.”
Last spring, HCCC created its student poet laureate program under the guidance of Assistant Professor of English Eric Adamson and the 16-member HCCC Poetry and Language Collective, which includes college staff and Jersey City Poet Laureate Susan Justiniano.
A native of Bergen County, Akel has also lived in Millstone and Red Bank, where she attended high school and developed a love of poetry encouraged by a teacher. Akel then headed to the University of Vermont, graduating in 2017 with a BA in English and living in the state for two more years, during which she spent time in the social work field before returning to New Jersey.
In Jersey City, Akel has been establishing herself as a doula and nanny, along with continuing her education at HCCC.
“I’ve been taking classes, trying to get all my prerequisites done so I can go back to school for nursing and now I’m kind of taking a little bit of a turn and might actually go for mental health counseling and specialize in art therapy,” Akel said. “I’m still figuring out my path. I really love taking classes, but I do think mental health or nursing or midwifery … all those things are being with people in those vulnerable moments or moments where they might feel strong or it’s time to be empowered and holding space so that people can feel safe. I think at the end of the day, having people feel safe is really important to me. And also making sure people and myself can heal and grow and live in an environment where they don’t have to fear anything, which I know is a really big ask with everything going on in the world.
“But that’s why I think it’s so important to make art because at the end of the day these things are all interconnected and I think our minds and our bodies – they’re very interconnected – and when we have things going on, it’s very important to be aware of how both are responding and if they’re in sync with each other.”
Akel has lived in Jersey City for two years, as of this month. “I live Downtown and have lived in McGinley Square and you can see a difference in just how the roads are paved…”
The importance of being exposed to the arts and also being able to relate to them is something Akel has carried with her as she co-molds the HCCC poet laureate position.
Akel’s role has given her a residence at the college’s Benjamin J. Dineen III and Dennis C. Hull Gallery, where she’s one of four writers assigned to the space..
“It’s actually given me the time to put together my first chapbook. It’s a collection of 15 pieces, which I’m hoping to get published. And (the gallery) was the space that allowed me to shut everything off and put everything into my work and have a finished manuscript, so that’s what I’m working on right now.”
As poet laureate, in addition to readings and working with HCCC for the archiving of written and audio copies of her work, a few weeks ago Akel led a workshop among the college’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Passport Program, with “a group of students and myself and the facilitators, where we started off by reading the (Maya Angelou) poem, ‘Still I Rise,’” Akel said. “We took some time to write, I gave some prompts, and people who wanted to share could share as well. We’re hoping to do a few projects like that before the end of the year as well.”
Akel realizes that the space is a privilege, she said, especially “… if you’re somewhere loud and you can’t hear yourself think, whether it’s outside or inside. It’s important to be able to have a space and it’s also about inspiration – to be able to be sitting there, looking at the city skyline, looking at these amazing pieces of art that were created by members of our community.”
While Akel is a proponent of funding education and “as many resources for children as possible so they all have the resources to feel confident in their skills and have the skills they deserve, the other truth to that,” she said, “is also needing to deconstruct white supremacist capitalist notions that we have to achieve. We need to totally get rid of that – (the idea) that we need to speak a certain way or a look a certain way to perform art.
“That’s why I find such value in the act of creating versus the finished project,” Akel said. “Obviously gatekeeping is a huge issue… and artists of color deserve to be in all spaces, but I do really think the act of creating is where the magic is at, as well as sharing it with people too.”
Akel said that while some people can go up on stage and just be ready to perform, her journey has not been a solitary one.. ”I have had, at every step of the way, people in my corner who have just really supported me and that has been such a gift and such a privilege and I hope everyone has that teacher in their corner looking at their art and saying, ‘You got this.’”
Read Akel’s poetry at instagram.com/natalieakilpoems and listen to the podcast she did with Adamson and HCCC President Dr. Christopher Reber at https://www.hccc.edu/news-media/outofthebox/2022/student-poet-laureate- program.html.