Art Matters: An Interview with Dominique Ashaheed

There’s something sacred about the art of poetry. It’s more than just putting words to paper. It’s an art that can convey emotions/thoughts/history in ways that people don’t always expect. Sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes transcendent. And some poets have that direct line to making poetry spiritual & inspirational. 

Dominique Ashaheed is one of those poets. If you haven’t heard of her–don’t worry. She’s still relatively new to the scene, although she is already creating waves around her. She began slamming in February 2011 and already has two national claims to fame: first when she qualified for Denver’s Slam Nuba team that won the 2011 Championships and then again when she claimed the national title at the Women of the World Poetry Slam in March of 2012.

I was lucky enough to witness her performance at the Women of the World finals. She was incredible. She held the stage and whenever she came up to perform, she commanded the stage. The audience was held captive in her capable abilities, following the anger, following the pauses, following the poignancy and urgency of every word.

So like I said, no worries if you haven’t heard of her, but shh. Listen up. This is your time to introduce yourself to her. And now that you’ve been introduced, be sure to follow her adventures through her website 

INTERVIEW:

1.  I understand from your bio page that your entry into slam is pretty recent, and you’ve already made such huge waves. I understand that the form of slam poetry was a suggestion from a friend but I was wondering: what was it about slam poetry that drew you in and held you? 
Indeed I was extraordinarily skeptical about Slam. For me, there was something very disconcerting about assigning a numerical value to what someone wrote and then elected to perform. How can you so whimsically judge a poem? I struggled with that and struggle with it still. I also didn’t like what to me looked like pantomime and theater as opposed to an authentic rendering. And I still think Slam contains that. I chose to slam because my longtime friend Ayinde Russell persuaded me to try my hand at it before I concluded that it had no value. Simple enough concept. And it doesn’t hurt that I am competitive.
2.  As a relative newcomer to slam, how does it feel to have made the impact that you have, both at Nationals with Slam Nuba and this previous March at Women of the World Poetry Slam? 
I am humbled by the “impact” I have made on Slam both on Nuba’s championship winning team and as the Women of the World champion. I am still unpacking it all lot be honest. I don’t have a clear answer as to why people respond to me/my work the way they do. I am often surprised. I write for me and I am unafraid.
3. What has it been like to be part of Slam Nuba? And what makes Slam Nuba special?
Being a part of Slam Nuba was an interesting exercise in compromise and creative stretching and growing. All of us are so different. So very very different. We write differently. We approach writing differently. Our voices are so very much our own. There are no borrowed voices on Nuba. All of us had to figure out how to honor our own unique voice and process as well as marry that with four other voices and perspectives to say something meaningful. I think what made us special is that we pay real attention to intention. Why we write. Have we said it well enough? Clearly enough? I also think we worked harder than other folks. We rehearsed on average for about 12-15 hours per week for four months. And we had an incredibly committed and critical coach in Jen Rinaldi. She never allowed us to take the easy route. Or the convenient one.
4. Tell me a little bit about your various art projects. I understand that you’ve been involved as a vocalist and are part of Free Verse in addition to your poetry. Tell me a bit more about Free Verse as far as its founding and what sort of magic happens under the Free Verse banner. 

Free Verse is the Spoken Word Duet consisting of me and Ayinde Russell. We work because we know each other. We are family. There is a synchronicity that makes the writing process organic. We both love music and rely on it for our own specific well being. We sang together in a choir in high school. We had similar experiences growing up in the same Northea
st Denver community and attending elementary, middle, and high school together, in almost all white environments. The cultural scarring was rather deep for us both. We write about that. We write as a means to meet barbarism with beauty. It’s awesome.
5.  I understand you are a program coordinator at a Peace Jam, which sounds like an amazing non-profit. How did you get involved and what do you do with Peace Jam? Does your work with Peace Jam have an effect on your writing/art? 
I am proud of my work with PeaceJam. I have always been good in a classroom. I have always loved working with young people. I am, by design, an advocate for children and folk whose voices have been relegated to the margins. PeaceJam allows me to be my best self and to do work that I believe in. It supports my writing the way everything else does. The writing is the stuff that is my life, all of my life. The people in it. The experience of being woman, being black, being a mother, being. Just, being.
6. Speaking of inspirations, who are some of your inspirations? What keeps you writing/creating when circumstances get tough? 
I draw inspiration from everywhere. I am inspired by my mama who is in every way supernatural and wonderful. I am inspired by my children who show me what I need to work on and what I am doing right. I am inspired by my husband Taj who is brilliant and supportive and strong and whose love is all encompassing. I am inspired by my history, personal and cultural. I am inspired by my community. By music. By faith. By my own resilience.
7. Why do you create/perform? 
Um…I create/write because I will die if I don’t.
8. Between family/art/work, you must be pretty busy. How do you manage to do all that you do without going crazy? 
I do go crazy. I AM something of a nut job. But there is a lot of beauty in the madness and I am grateful for all of the things I negotiate and the hats I wear. I have an abundant life. I have the whole world in my hand for real. And I ain’t mad at it.
9. What lies ahead for you as far as your slam/art ventures? Where can people look out for you? 
I don’t have a hankering to slam right now. My first year out I got a championship on a team and another individual championship with WOWPS. I’m good. I am interested in reading without the distraction of time constraints and scoring. I’m sure I will change again but for right now I’m feeling complete. I am interested in coaching or being support but that’s about the sum of it right now. I am doing a lot of traveling and performing for colleges and universities throughout the country with Ayinde. We have been getting a lot of bookings and I have been and will be very busy for quite a while.
 
10. For those who are developing as writers/poets–what words of wisdom do you have? 
Only wisdom I can offer to writers is to keep writing and keep reading. Be vigilant about it. Write everyday. Make it be as important to you as eating and sleeping. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. But for me, the things I was refusing to say cluttered up the things I was trying to say. I stopped the internal critique. Did away with the fear. And the words were waiting for me…and it’s a blessing. One that has saved my life.
Videos:
(the video angle is a bit odd on this one, but keep in mind: this is the poem that sealed her victory at the Women of the World Poetry slam. Haunting to the core, it will remain with you after the video is done.)
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