Ashanti Files

Ashanti Files is the author of Woven: Perspectives of a Black Woman (2019). In 2021, Files was appointed poet laureate of Urbana, Illinois, and has led numerous workshops and programs that address the impact of identity on mental health. Files is a registered nurse working for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital Center for Resilience and Wellbeing. For her fellowship project, Files will expand the Writers of Oya program, which teaches the art of spoken word poetry to teenage girls struggling with trauma and provides a safe space for them to reflect on their struggles. Files will partner with local libraries to lead bimonthly workshops over a sixteen week period that will use poetry to open the hearts and minds of young women, facilitate dialogue about mental health, and empower the youth to speak their truth in their communities. After the workshops, Files will work on a book that features the work and provides insight into how local programs tailored for girls of color can decrease negative outcomes and how the art of spoken word poetry aids in mental wellness. What do you hope for the future of poetry in Urbana, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in Illinois have?

Ashanti Files: It is my hope that poetry continues to thrive in Urbana. This unique community has encouraged new voices to emerge and has a legacy of supporting artists. The inaugural poet laureate, the youth poet laureate, and I continue to remain in contact, offering support, fellowship, and even critiques of each other’s works. I expect this tradition of comraderie to continue. How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?

AF: Oh my, this is a big question. I have always written from a sacred place where I embrace my emotions completely, allowing the words that flowed from my mind to stand, unedited. Being named poet laureate enabled me to believe in the power and impact of that raw emotion, yet also challenged me to engage in a refinement process as I recognized that a good poem can become a great one when edited. Writing, for me, has always been primarily a cathartic process; an opportunity for me to declare my truth without regard for the opinions of others. Being named poet laureate provided me with the opportunity to pause, consider, and accept that just as a poem can open a mind to the harsh realities of injustice, it can also mend and heal the wounds caused by those experiences. I used to write solely for myself. Now, I write for my community. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?

AF: This question makes me smile. During a time when people seem so divided, entrenched within the mires of poorly conceived and equally poorly conveyed ideologies, poetry has the ability to caress the heart, calm the mind, and heal the soul. So often, we forget our similarities as neighbors, coworkers, and citizens. Poetry has the propensity to hold us enraptured within the same time and space on level ground. It can, in essence, provide a reprieve from divisiveness and disharmony. A poem can provide common ground for discussion between the youth and the elderly; the privileged and the disenfranchised. The only thing one needs to participate is their voice. Is there anything more empowering than that? What part of your project were you most excited about?

AF: The part of my project that I was most excited about was being able to offer the Writers of Oya to a larger audience. I created this program to teach the craft of spoken word poetry to young women who have experienced trauma and witnessed, first hand, the healing effects of practicing this form. Branching out from my home base of Urbana to include a site in Arizona was exciting as well as daunting. The welcome reception and participation I received, especially from the supportive staff of the Cesar Chavez Library was very encouraging. I continue to be amazed and humbled by how something as ancient as poetry continues to be pertinent even today. What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?

AF: I have experienced quite a few obstacles with this project, the largest being recruitment. Something that many people do not recognize is the impact that reliable transportation has on community programming. The libraries I partnered with eagerly made space available for my classes to take place, and, while there was an outpouring from the community for this program, transportation remained the largest obstacle to delivering this free workshop to the young people who benefit from it. My co-facilitators remained dedicated despite low turnout, demonstrating resilience by brainstorming new ways to engage teens. In January, we will host the program one hundred percent virtually, not only to expand our reach, but also to provide an opportunity for those without access to transportation to benefit from the curriculum as well. How has poetry inspired you in your work with youth in Phoenix Children’s Hospital Center for Resilience and Wellbeing?

AF: Being a poet inspires my work as a nurse in that it allows me to connect with my patients and their families in an additional way. Too often in healthcare, we can become distracted by the tasks necessary to deliver quality care. Being a poet enables me to not lose human connection, and to remember that I was placed in a position to serve and that is a privilege indeed. Through your work with the Writers of Oya program, how do you think spoken word poetry can be more effective than other art forms in aiding with mental wellness?

AF: This is where things get exciting. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to delve into the science of the brain and study how trauma has a very real biological impact on its structure and function. When I started the Writers of Oya, providing participants with tools for stress reduction, such as a scented stress ball, just felt right. Now, I understand the neuroscience behind why it is effective. There has been a full body of research that inquires into poetry, not only spoken word, and has found that when someone writes about their challenges, they activate a part of their brain responsible for motivation and persistence. Writing poetry heals and transforms your brain in ways that drawing, while also therapeutic, does not and music does not. Spoken word only adds to that catharsis by enabling the poet to then speak their words. Reread that last sentence. A daunting aspect of trauma is this generational idea to keep it to yourself; to not ‘overshare’; to keep it moving. The craft of spoken word poetry demands that the audience pay attention for three minutes. Imagine three minutes, uninterrupted, to tell your truth without the opinions of others, without the chance of being dismissed, without even the pressure of being unheard. Spoken word poetry inherently is a craft that facilitates strength, self-advocacy and agency. And it is absolutely free. Is there a poem on that inspires you and your work in Urbana? How so?

AF: Part of the curriculum of the Writers of Oya includes reviewing poems and reflecting on your emotional response to it. A poem that I frequently turn to for my lessons is written by Alain Mabanckou and translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson. It is titled “When the rooster announces the dawn of another day.” This poem delivers on so many themes and is so translatable in regards to politics, religion, equality, responsibility, and human nature. I love the last line “ we have lost our memory,” which serves as a pertinent reminder that, if no one steps up, if no one has the courage to stand, then it does indeed feel as though God has turned His back on us.