Earlier this year, Tshaka Campbell was named as the 2022-2023 Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County. On March 1, he received a commendation from the Milpitas City Council for his achievements.
The Beat caught up with him in an interview to learn more about his love for poetry and how his amazing talent has evolved over the years…
“It’s something I grew up with, with my parents,” said Campbell. “Not so much poetry as much as it was a love for language. Like the texture of words themselves.”
Vice Mayor Carmen Montano, who is a member of the Peaceful Poets of Milpitas, has a deep appreciation for poetry and felt it was important for the City to honor Campbell’s work.
“Poetry comes from one’s deep thoughts that stem from life’s experiences, paradigms, and the subconscious mind,” shared Vice Mayor Montano with The Beat. “Tshaka’s poetry is deep and reflective, and I wanted to honor him for his accomplishment of being the 2022 Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County.”
When Campbell was living on the east coast in his 20s, a good friend of his in Brooklyn bought a book of poems. Then they, along with other friends, engaged in a kind of weekly ritual – getting together, drinking wine, and reading poems from the book.
One day they got to imagining what would happen if they started writing their own poems.
“We decided we could write better poems,” said Campbell. “And we decided the next time to come with our own poems written. It became a weekly thing in our group.”
Although the group eventually fizzled out, Campbell continued to write. He had a roommate who was into spoken word, which encouraged him to stick with it.
“I started going out to venues in Brooklyn, in New York, in New Jersey,” said Campbell. “I started to see firsthand what poetry could do to a room, when you’re in-person.”
Going out to these venues opened Campbell’s eyes to the true power inherent in poetry and in the words themselves. He saw the ways in which poetry brought people from all different walks of life together.
Not only that, but it got him to start envisioning himself on the stage. He had spent years writing poetry, but had never gone up to perform in front of an audience.
The first time he ever performed was at the Brooklyn Moon Cafe. This was in 1999. By that time, he had been writing poetry for over seven years.
During his first performance, he was shaking so much that the piece of paper he was reading from kept hitting the microphone. At the end of his reading, he was asked to do the poem again, because no one in the 50-person crowd could hear him the first time.
That poem, called “Spit,” later turned into one of his core pieces.
“In the spoken word community, they say that you ‘spit’ a poem,” said Campbell. “The presence of it was around – if you’re gonna get on a stage, you give it your all. I had a history of writing for a while before I wanted to get my voice out there. I wanted to learn my own voice before getting on the stage. So it was about – spit who you are, the passion of who you are.”
After that first night, Campbell kept showing up and trying to get onstage whenever he could. He started to love the process.
“The stuff I was writing was different. It felt different,” said Campbell. “Every era has a cadence, and I didn’t follow that cadence.”
Campbell is originally from London, England; he moved out to the United States with his family when he was 8. After living in places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even back in England briefly, Campbell and his family moved to San Jose in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter, who is 12.
He has traveled and performed extensively, taking his poetry all around the world, and has won 2 Grand Slam Champion titles, in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Campbell came to San Jose to take on a marketing job, a career path he got into around the same time he started becoming involved in poetry.
Campbell’s work in both marketing and poetry is informed by his creative energy and life experiences.
“It’s about looking at things differently,” said Campbell. “My mantra is to look at things different. I use that from a marketing perspective and also with my poetry.”
As the new Santa Clara County Poet Laureate, Campbell has the opportunity to contribute toward building programs. Right now, he’s working on a program called “Bringing the Light: In our Words.” Submissions are currently being accepted from Santa Clara County youth, grades K-12, to write and submit poems about what their experience has been like during the pandemic over these last couple years.
“The youth have been impacted so dramatically,” said Campbell. “And I wanted to create a space for them to have a voice and talk about what they’re going through. And then we’re going to put all of that into a book.”
When asked about how he was enjoying the poetry community in San Jose, Campbell replied: “I think poetry is cyclical. It was massive before, and I think it’s gone down. The San Jose art community is strong and it’s growing. And I think with more attention being put into the arts, that it’ll get things back to where they used to be.”
To learn more about the Bringing the Light program, go here.