meet nina donovan, the 19-year-old poet behind ashley judd’s explosive women’s march speech
The Tennessee teen talks to i-D about the power of words in this strange new world.
photography josh balboa
How does Nina Donovan feel knowing that Donald Trump probably heard she described him as looking "like he bathes in Cheeto dust"?
"I'm waiting for him to tweet me," she says over the phone from Tennessee. "I'm kind of offended that he hasn't. But if he does, my mom told me I can only reply with respectful things."
Last Saturday morning, actress and activist Ashley Judd performed Nina's poem "Nasty Woman" to a crowd of 500,000 protesters at the Women's March on Washington, following speakers including Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, and America Ferrera. Judd's reading was streamed by NBC, ABC, and thousands of raised iPhones to viewers all over the world, including Nina herself. "I was at the march in Nashville with friends, watching it on my phone," she says, "It was like a dream."
"Nasty Woman" is a spoken word poem that runs to roughly six and a half minutes, when recited with appropriate rage. Nina first performed it in December, at State of the Word, an evening organized by the Tennessee youth poetry collective Southern Word. Its thundering lines rail against everything from the electoral college, the wage gap, and tampon tax to racism and the prison system. And it ends on a unifying note of female resistance: "I am unafraid to be nasty because I am nasty, like Susan, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Amelia, Rosa, Gloria, Condoleezza, Sonya, Malala, Michelle, Hillary!" It also reworks Trump's infamous locker room line about grabbing women "by the pussy" into a rallying cry of empowerment.
"I wrote it on the night of the presidential debate in which Trump called Hillary a 'nasty woman,'" explains Nina. "I immediately went to my phone and made notes. I literally couldn't stop writing, I got so heated and passionate. I didn't know it at the time but it was the longest piece I'd ever written. Later, I researched the issues I wanted to include. I wanted it to be a mixture of facts and opinions. This election was the first time I'd voted and I want to stay looped in, I have to stay educated."
On the night of State of the Word, Tennessee native Ashley Judd was in the audience. She pulled Nina aside after the show and asked if she could perform her poem in Washington. "I gave her my permission," says Nina. "People have asked how I felt about her reading it and I think it's amazing. We texted about it before, she FaceTimed me that night, and she went out of her way to credit me. She calls me a friend now. The message of the poem was the same, but she raised awareness, she made [the poem] go global."
The response to Judd's reading hasn't been universally positive, though. "The main criticism I've received, is about saying 'pussy' in a poem," Nina explains. "I tell them: 'I'm just quoting your president.' Some of those people didn't even listen to the poem, but it goes to show: our words have so much power."
She's also happy that poetry has risen up to meet the vulgar language of our new political climate. "Even in Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, he splices a poem between the tracks, Beyoncé included Warsan Shire's words on Lemonade," she says, "These people are making poetry cool again." They're also making it political. If "Nasty Woman" has an overarching political message, though, Nina insists it's not just an anti-Trump message: "it's a pro-love poem, it's pro-unity, pro-equal rights."
Currently, Nina is a student, splitting her time between sociology classes at Columbia State Community College and a part-time job at Dunkin' Donuts. When she has time, though, she attends and helps run Southern Word workshops at local schools. "Some of the kids have never heard of spoken word before, or it's their first time writing a poem." Inspiring other young people to use their voices is crucial she says, "because my generation is going to be the one that creates change."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Josh Balboa