A Conversation with Urbana Poet Laureate Ashanti Files

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The Public i recently talked to Urbana Poet Laureate Ashanti Files

Please tell our readers a little about yourself.

“I am a wife, mother, and registered nurse. I currently work in mental health and addiction services. I enjoy reading, writing (of course), and teaching.”

How does it feel to be the Urbana Poet Laureate? Has the recognition impacted your poetry in any way? Does it give you greater confidence as a writer?

“Wow, becoming Poet Laureate was not something even in the realm of possibilities as I was growing up! I applied to be Poet Laureate the first year of its inception and wasn’t selected. After that, I figured it was not something attainable for me. Then someone nominated me, and I applied. I found out I was selected and immediately began crying. It has absolutely impacted my writing, as I am [now] more confident and experimental. As a Spoken Word artist, my poetry is written with performance in mind. Becoming Poet Laureate challenged me to write about topics that I had previously not considered. For example, I was asked to tailor a poem for the YWCA Stand Against Racism campaign. I talk about racism frequently, yet connecting it to public health required discipline to convey medical topics in a poetic way. This post also has given me the opportunity to delve into public and motivational speaking. Most of my programs are aimed at teaching poetry as a coping skill. I have been tremendously blessed to be invited to share pearls of wisdom with diverse audiences, from kindergartners at the Urbana Library’s Young Artist Studio to University of Illinois students. In October, I will be presenting to the National Guild for Community Arts Education, and I remain astonished that people want to hear my point of view.”

When did you start writing poetry? Was there a special event or life experience that motivated you to write?

“I started writing poetry in elementary school. I struggled with anxiety and my mother told me that I must write to feel better. I haven’t stopped since! Although I have always been a writer, I didn’t begin to pursue publication until the death of my baby brother. After his life was taken, I realized that life could be gone in a second and that I didn’t want to live in fear anymore. I didn’t want to leave this earth without having left my mark. A year after his death, I published my first book of poetry, Woven: Perspectives of a Black Woman. I then received a grant from the Urbana Arts and Culture Commission to start Writers of Oya to teach middle school girls how to write to cope with stress and trauma. Although it took a tragedy for me to start sharing my writing, I am now emboldened to share my story in hopes that it encourages other women of color to share their own.”

You also work as a nurse. How do you balance a demanding schedule as a health care worker and carving out attention to your writing? Does the lived experience of being a nurse spill over into the content of your writing in any way?

“I have had many nursing jobs that were very demanding of my time and energy. Once I made the decision to dedicate myself to not only writing but also teaching, it became apparent that I needed a position that would allow me the flexibility to do so. My current manager is magnificent. She recognizes that work-life balance is essential and assists me in creating a work schedule that is comfortable for the nursing team as well as myself and my family. She reminds me not to pick up too many hours and sits down with me to create a schedule that works with the events that I have planned. Being a nurse in mental health definitely informs my teaching practices as well as my writing. I was afraid to disclose my mental health struggles, but I noticed that once I did, it opened up a world to me to better help others who struggled, and has fostered wonderful relationships within the community. I have been blessed to use what I have learned as a mental health nurse to write a workbook entitled Awaken. The first edition is for teens and the second edition is for adults. It provides writing prompts and promotes self-reflection, which is essential for positive self-image and growth.”

Some of your poetry has overtly “political” themes and content. How do you see the relationship between poetry and social justice?

“As a student of political science, I was taught that the systems in which we live were designed to thrive based on an informed citizen speaking up and holding their representatives accountable. As a Black woman in America, it is impossible not to recognize how systems in place directly impact me, often in a negative way. My poetry reflects my experiences with political and social systems as well as my hopes and dreams for my country to be a better, safer place for people of color. Poetry is a reflective practice. I do not shy away from reflecting on politics as advocacy is the only way that change occur.”

What recommendations would your offer to new writers?

“This question made me smile. Regardless of what point you are in your writing, DO NOT STOP! I started writing as a coping skill to deal with anxiety and it has blossomed into a platform to teach hard truths that others may shy away from accepting. I teach writing for self-reflection and healing primarily as I believe one must be a whole person before they can be anything else. Once you develop the ability to accept yourself for who you are, the possibilities are endless. Writing is life. It simultaneously allows you to tackle a personal issue while providing a commentary on an issue that is experienced by a plethora of others. You never have to share what you write, but if you have the courage to share, imagine the hearts and minds that you can touch.

“You can learn more about me at www.mytruenorthartistry. My book Woven is available on Amazon, with the Awaken workbooks forthcoming in October 2021.”

Our Stories

by Ashanti Files

Who will tell our stories
Who will remember us
As we age our bones become brittle
At death we return to the dust
And like dust we are scattered
By the whims of the wind
So who will tell our stories
Once this miniscule life ends

Who will tell our stories
Of victories and defeat
Of the struggle to combat racism
From the nation’s highest seats

Who will tell our stories
Of triumph and ancestral gain
Of the sound of feet marching in unison
As we shouted to Say her name
As we kneeled despite traffic
For 9 minutes on the scorching street
Demanding we break the habit
Of killing black men without missing a beat

Who will listen to our stories
History and superstitions woven together
About God’s unending glory
Brown skin flocking like birds of a feather
Will the children value our stories
Passed down from mother to son
Passed down from father to daughter
Experiences sewn together as one

Who will record our stories
Who will visit our long dry bones
Who will recall our struggle
When our voices are long gone
Who will lead and strengthen our movement
Is it time to train the youth
Is it time to accept their voices
Instead of dismissing their fragile truths

Who will be our next mother
Who will feed us from her heart
Raise us with her soul
Praise us for our art
I rise to the challenge
I will sit with the youth
I will listen to the elderly
Then I will school you
I will weave the stories together
Build old traditions mixed with new
So that we can never lose our stories
That way, we will never lose a piece of you

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