Exactly one week before that other long awaited inauguration takes place, Ashanti Files began her term as the new City of Urbana Poet Laureate. She brings to this post a rare combination of lived experiences that make her especially well-suited for serving our community duing such trying times. A Black woman with a strong voice and a deep faith, she is a registered nurse committed to mental health and addiction recovery, an advocate and mentor for underrepresented young poets, a believer in the power of words, and, yes, a well published poet. In other words, she is just what we need right now. Prior to the start of her term, I reached out to Ashanti Files to learn more about her plans as the second City of Urbana Poet Laureate. Her responses were warm, enthusiastic, and inspiriing. Enjoy getting to know more about the force of nature that is Ashanti Files and her plans for our community. I know I did.
Smile Politely: When and how did poetry first come into your life?
Ashanti Files: It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment that poetry entered my life. Like most elementary school students, I was exposed to my favorite poets during history lessons. It was not until third grade, when I performed my first poem in front of an audience, that the fever of passion set in and I was hooked. I have consistently written since that time.
SP: How would you describe your style and voice as a poet?
Files: My natural style when writing is to use rhyming words. I enjoy playing with the timing of words and stanzas, experimenting with different ways to make a point more pronounced and allow the audience to connect to what I am saying. In regard to my voice, I honestly feel as though I am still finding it. I have been told that I have I “strong voice” however when performing I feel as though I am just a Black woman sharing her life; hoping to give the listener a temporary insight into the experiences that I have.
SP: What inspires and motivates you to write?
Files: I am inspired by many things however find that the majority of my poetry has social justice undertones. I tend to write when grappling with a strong emotion. I find it surprising how I can write four different poems about love and they can all sound different; have different points. I can write about the innocence of love between a mother and child, the myth of love in regard to its expectations versus it’s realities, or enduring love such as that received from a grandmother. It’s the varying degrees of any experience that motivates me to write.
SP: The pandemic has been doubly challenging for you as both active poet and mentor in the community and as a registered nurse. What has kept you going?
Files: Faith, pure and simple. As a RN during this pandemic there have been many times when I wanted to give up, run away, cry. I find solace in mentoring the students who participate in my programs. I find strength in their hope, perspective, and desire for change. It as though when I had a difficult day at work, one of them would text me asking for a piece of advice or a review of a poem. It is my faith in God and my faith in them that has urged me to continue the good fight.
SP: Pandemic aside, your two callings put you at a very rich intersection of human experience. Do the two inform each other?
Files: Absolutely! Nurses have been labeled as the most trusted profession for many years now. Even the most private or self-absorbed person can find themselves surprised at what they share with their nurse. I have seen people at their lowest point and have been challenged to give them both perspective and encouragement to overcome a chronic illness or addiction. And I have held hands with the dying. Being a poet has blessed me in that there is an innate piece of my heart, my very soul, that prevents me from becoming cold or arrogant when interacting with even the most difficult patients. It is truly a privilege to care for others.
SP: For you, what is the poet laureate's role in their community? Or, in other words, what role can poetry play in our community, particularly now?
Files: Having watched our first poet laureate Will Reger in action, I believe that the role of the poet laureate is above all to bring people together. It is to expose our neighbors to our hidden talents, reveal an unspoken gem such as Soul on Sunday, and above all, to listen. It is only by listening that we are able to truly relate to and later speak about the important aspects within our community. Be it a local BLM protest or a Save the Geese protest! Poets are blessed with the ability to take something simple and overlooked and speak about it in a manner that gives it new meaning or importance.
SP: What initiatives do you have planned for your tenure as Poet Laureate of the City of Urbana?
Files: As poet laureate, my goal is to show the wealth and breadth of art in our town. It is my intention to engage above all two populations: the youth and those living with mental illness. As a nurse in the mental health and addiction field, I have encountered so many people who struggle for coping mechanisms; struggle to have their voices heard. It is my sincere hope to interact with them, encourage them, and give them the tools to write then speak about their lives. I have a firm belief that you change the world one person at a time by listening and by speaking.
SP: Will you continue your mentorship work with the Writers of Oya?
Files: Hells yeah! The Writers of Oya is to date an endeavor which has simultaneously challenged me, inspired me, and forced me to determine exactly what kind of woman I am. I am immensely grateful to the city of Urbana for providing grants to regular people like me to pursue a whimsical seemingly unattainable idea. The faith that the city placed into me, into my dream that I had not even recognized as a desire, still brings me to tears and challenges me to be better, do better, and bring out the best in others.
SP: What is most important and most successful in teaching and guiding young poets?
Files: Listening. I cannot express how discouraged I was to begin working with these young ladies and to have each and every one of them reiterate that no one listens to them. They have ideas, desires, skills and they are just waiting for an adult to take them seriously enough to give them the resources to put their ambitions into actions. I show that I trust them by asking for their ideas and how they want their ideas implemented.
SP: What's your favorite piece of advice to give young or emerging poets?
Files: To write in pen. You can ask any of the ladies what makes me mad and they will tell you it is when they write in pencil. I impress upon them that every emotion and every thought is valid when they write it. I challenge them to recognize that emotion can definitely change and likely will. But the moment it reaches paper it is valid, it has purpose and it must be preserved. I try to teach them that there is strength in that; in owning up to what you have written and unapologetically displaying it.
SP: How can people learn more about you, or read your work?
Files: I have a website that always seems to be under construction. I also have a Facebook page for the Writers of Oya. I published my first book of poetry Woven: Perspectives of a Black Woman that is available on amazon.com for download, as well as a short story that was published in an anthology, Scribes of Nyota: Mystics.
SP: Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
That I am immensely humbled and grateful to be named the poet laureate of this city and that I will do my best to engage and encompass the diverse voices to demonstrate that art is thriving in Urbana.
And don't miss the chance to celebrate City of Urbana Poet Laureate Ashanti Files at a virtual reception on Thursday, January 21st at 5 p.m. Find out more here.
Top photo from Urbana Arts & Culture website