Artist Chloe Filani Uses Poetry As A Radical Form Of Self Expression And Love


For poet, artist and performer Chloe Filani, poetry is a form of therapeutic journaling. Her work explores her lived experience as a Black Trans woman of Nigerian Heritage Yoruba. Poppy Roy sat down with Chloe to learn more about her journey of self-expression through sound, folktales and her performance.

When did you first discover poetry?

Probably my first discovery was not from writing poetry at all. I was asked to perform for my friends club night. For this I found a poem that I liked online by another Trans person who was speaking quite directly about a certain feeling. So I messaged the poet asking if I could read their poem and they said yes. After I read it, more people wanted me to read and I knew that I couldn’t keep reading other people’s work. So I kind of had to sit down with myself. And then remember.

Where I went to school, poetry was very much a deeply academic and literary skill, which you cannot do unless you’ve learnt and know how to do it. Through reading other people’s poems I was able to realise that poetry is just self expression. It is a very simple, artistic and creative tool you can use for self expression. That is the base of my work, the main purpose is essentially self expression. From here, I kept writing and got invited to more spaces. Along the way I discovered some tools used in poetry. I wouldn’t say I use all of them but have sometimes used them without knowing, such as metaphors, similes, rhyming, rhythms, especially when performing.

I find it’s really interesting. How through self expression and self expression in a creative way, a poetic way. You can actually find that you do fit quite well into the framework of poetry.

I wouldn’t even say that I was writing every day. I was just responding to a feeling, responding to an experience that came up. In some ways, I would use poetry as a therapeutic, journaling technique, which wasn’t always the most detailed, but mostly asked what was this really strong feeling? How can I express this? Do I want to share this part and how can I give enough information?

Chloe Filani

What does your work and this journaling process symbolise for you?

One of the biggest things of a self expression when I started poetry was trying to figure out how I felt about experiences such as harassment and sexual harassment that I have happened to me in public.

Trying to figure out what this thing was. I would explore it with short sentences, paragraphs and words that alluded to what happened, but not the full picture. Enough so people were able to relate, have sympathy and compassion for me, for themselves. When people can regonise that they too have experienced this pain or trauma, their responses are all valid, but by alluding to something through feeling I was able to create a bit of distance within what I was giving. I don’t want to share everything, but also what I give in my performances is quite a lot in some ways.

How do you describe your practice and technique?

Initially it will be a feeling, or some sort of spark. This often happens at like 3 am or just as i’m going to fall asleep. If I go to sleep, I’ve lost it, so this is usually when I will write. Sometimes that will just be it, the first and only version of one poem, it will not be edited. It’s a pure thing and that was my main goal initially,

After a year or two of writing poetry and writing, I did enjoy going back to it and the process of changing aspects of what I’ve written. I think I also became more engaged with my writing, as not just a form of expression, but also a form of poetic expression. That’s when I would make edits changing lines around, seeing that I’m capable of doing the sort of ‘poetic writing’ and expanding on it.

Do you think with time you’re also able to understand what you’re feeling in more depth?

Yes, absolutely.

Are there any intentional, or thematic messages that runs through your work?

Sometimes there are. In 2018, I was working with Bobby Asante, he was running workshops and performances and I was working with other women of colour. We collaborated together with poetic writing and performance workshops. Through this process I was really inspired to write. I was really interested in Nigerian culture, Yoruba culture, before colonialism. In this time there was no way to say the pronouns he or she, names were also gender neutral, my Nigeria or Yoruba name is Deji.  Every child is given a name which is non gendered and that still is happening. But now when it comes to gendership in Nigeria it’s quite rigid even though there are fragments of the past.

I am really interested in folktales from my country and my tribe,  because there isn’t really one that is about gender fluid, gender variant people and more specifically trans-feminine people, who definitely existed before. I began writing my own versions of these folktales, that very much related to who I was and my sense of self. Initially a lot of them were sort of processing self worth, and some of them were processing random stories and storytelling.

There is one that I have written, which is about a trans feminine deity who lives in the sea and comes out when men are by the sea and how much she enjoys pleasuring herself, but no man can reach her. I discussed in the poem, how much she’s in love with herself. This is essentially me telling myself to love myself and especially love myself without the idea of having a man to validate that.

idanre ondo state Nigeria
Idanre Hills by Olayinka oladotun
It’s really powerful and beautiful that you’re rewriting this colonial narrative and exploring your identity, self worth and Yoruba heritage in this way.

You recently exhibited a piece called Negro Ecstasy, can you tell me a bit about this piece and how it came about?

I did. Yes, that was different for me because I’ve always dabbled in art, even most of my poems and my poetry have always been in a gallery space, I’ve only recently started going to poetry open mics.

It has been really interesting because it was a sound piece. There was a speaker and an mp3 player that would play my voice in the space, as well as a mixture of different sounds that I found that relate to what I was trying to discuss. Because I wasn’t performing, it was an interesting experience. The show was in a large warehouse space and on the opening I would be there, but not experiencing others listening to it.

I love poetry, or reading and performing. I love it in the context of the letting go, the releasing and its not necessarily releasing a bad energy, but just releasing my self expression, my speech or what I am feeling. So not having this ability was very weird for me, but I really enjoyed creating the whole thing. It’s been a lovely experience.

I’ve been quite lucky because I went to art school, but I didn’t study art, I studied graphic design. And I hadn’t been I guess traumatised, by art and what the art world is, because it can be a lot.

My art is self expression essentially. It’s a journey with people. It’s experiences and how that comes into becoming creative or reflecting that creatively. And I can see that going into an art school creates a sort of more rigid ideology. I have become interested in art theory myself, but I have to ask, for who? I am looking towards art theory that centres on black artists and queer women, this is interesting art theory. But the work that does not represent people of colour, that is written and told by old white, does not resonate with me.

What was the sound that was created for your piece?

The sound was made using different clips of black music and black singers.

On the internet there’s a lot of conversations and lingo around the idea of black joy, black love, black sorrow and so on. In this piece I was trying to figure out what is that connectivity between black people and specifically focusing on the idea of sound for this.

It is coming back to asking what is this feeling? It’s not a fact. It’s not a theory. It’s not an ideology. It’s just a feeling. If you get the feeling, you get the feeling, if you don’t get the feeling, you don’t get the feeling.

I’m also thinking a lot about like how black in the context of people who have come from Africa, how colonialism and slavery moved us from Africa, to the Caribbean, to the US to Britain to so many places.

There’s so much of the tribal sounds, beats and music that has continued their energy, continued their connectivity to like a black voice, to the black people to the black movement. For me it’s constantly there, in blues, in jazz, in rock’n’roll, in disco. In most popular music it’s connected and it’s constantly changing and evolving. Now I know that even in punk music, there is Jamaican dub rooted in that beat, that sound. That is obviously creating an energy and excitement for people which is still connected to a black voice to the black people.

That is what this sound piece is. It essentially began as a spark whilst thinking about the idea of what negro ecstasy, black ecstasy is.

Negro ecstasy, black ecstasy
Photo thanks to Rui Silvestre

You recently did a collaborative writing workshop with Ebun Sopido at Camden Art Centre. How did you explore bodily sensations, the workshop’s theme?

This was a collaboration with my friend Ebun. She’s an artist who is beginning to work with poetry herself. She wanted to focus on the body and whilst I was focusing on the performance, this also obviously takes up the body.

Evan created breathing exercises drawing our attention to our bodies, feeling the breath in the body, feeling the body occupying the breath. Thinking about the sensations and also how you feel about your body. I followed this with a performance exercise created around the feeling of embarrassment, which I thought was very interesting as it explored the wider context of ego, someone’s sense of imposter syndrome and performance.

Asking everyone in the class to stand up and vocalise to the room an embarrassing story that happened to them. People found the stories funny, but it was also hard and challenging for them. I was trying to display the idea of breaking their ego, as well as breaking down the feelings of stage fright. Removing the fear that they’re gonna fuck up, because they’re only human.

Everyone has an embarrassing story and so this exercise was to help everyone hopefully work through those feelings and understand what you can do. You can perform without having this fear of not being perfect and super capable and never having an embarrassing or humiliating moment. That just does happen. 

How do you explore your own identity?

My poetry it’s very much a self expression, but also a way for me to explore and imagine things for myself.

Love is something that deeply interests me. I’ve realised that people are so influenced by external things when they choose their romantic partners, whilst also knowing that they have the feeling of love for someone. I’ve written a lot of poetry around romantic love, and better versions of it for myself. To explore my own identity in general, how I love myself, how I was when I was younger, how I learnt to love my skin more and love my body. I think the human body is such an interesting thing to think about, I am in love with the fact that my body wakes me up. It helps me breathe. It helps me see. It helps me move. It helps me write. Sometimes I don’t feel so hot when I wake up,  but I am in love with the person that’s in the body. 

Would you call your practice spiritual?

For now, I’m not sure. I came from a deeply religious, Pentecostal Christian background. This, I had to let go of because I don’t believe in how the Christian church functions and works. But from this upbringing, I am very connected to the idea of the ancestors, the generations that got you here, that had come together linking your existence. Even the things that are part of your own unique family, conversations, ideas.

So I thank the ancestors a lot for everything that they’ve done.

When I lost my ‘Christian God’, it was also because I struggled with how messed up the world is and it was hard for me to believe in a higher power. I definitely believe in the super connectedness of existing as a human being, I feel very spiritual to this planet if that makes sense.

Chloe Filani, poet, shot in London
Image thanks to @eivindhansen

How do you nurture your mind, your body and your spirit?

I try to go on walks, usually with a friend. I always opt for the walk over the bus,  love it doesn’t need to be out in nature just having more time to be with someone else, to walk with someone else. I love a slow walk.

I’m an extrovert, I noticed that if I am in my house without any phone calls or interaction I am going mad. I can go for three or four days seeing people and socialising and I’m good. For the energy boost, I love being around people, I love conversations and I love interacting with other human beings.

In the morning I like to practice yoga. It started off as a fitness thing, but I realised that it fills me with endorphins and is great for my energy levels. Now I don’t need coffee to start my day because yoga is in my daily routine. I drink lots of water and stay hydrated and I have also recently stopped eating meat and dairy.

There are so many reasons why people stop eating meat and I would never want to push my beliefs on anyone. I am very much in the mindset of the wholeness of humanity, when you think about indigenous and native tribes they did eat meat, but it wasn’t a year round thing and it definitely wasn’t processed. With capitalism and mass production it has become destructive. When you are from a working class family, you cannot afford to eat meat that isn’t processed and from bad conditions.

I definitely do see for myself the benefits when it comes to not eating meat and I don’t fall ill as often.

For any aspiring poets, what advice do you have for them?

Firstly, I would say…Don’t think about poetry as a profession, literally just do it as a practice of self expression without expectation.

Ask yourself how you are feeling and what it is that you want to write. Definitely perform whenever you can, in your bedroom, to your friends and go to lots of open mic nights. There’s so many online resources to learn poetic technique, but if you go into it as a craft with all the techniques first, you will write well, but what are you actually writing? I believe you lose an element of self expression.

Everyone can get the tools to become a great writer, photographer, musician designer, but if that is how everyone is coming to it everyone is going to create the same bullshit. The greatest creatives are doing it because they want to express themselves

To learn more about Chloe’s work and upcoming shows follow her on Instagram

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