Q&A with Ashia Ajani
Have your studies informed your poetry? What do you want people to learn through your poems?
My studies have definitely informed my poems -- my background is in environmental and food justice, and so when i'm writing environmental poetry, I'm speaking from those perspectives. i want people to think about connectedness when reading my poems, but i also want them to think about the immeasurable losses that Black people have undergone through environmental and social dispossession. With that being said, I want Black peoples, my kinfolk, to see themselves reflected in my poems while holding onto that loss, and celebrate our world building power.
In your poem God Save the Forest, you ask the question, "what is the difference between haunting and protecting a place?” What do you think the difference is?
Well, I kind of answer it in the poem: it's one of volition. I've often wondered what binds souls to certain places; as someone who hasn't lived in Denver, CO (my hometown) for almost seven years now, I still feel compelled to call it my home. Of course, this isn't like being tethered to a place for infinity -- that may feel like punishment and it some cases, it might be, but when I think about my enslaved ancestors who grew to have their own relationships with the lands of the Americas, I can't help but think that they created their own sense of obligation to the lands that were simultaneously pillaged as were their communities and cultures.
If a complete stranger asked you to explain the experiences that shaped this book, what would you say to them?
I lived in the same house my entire youth. You can watch a lot happen to a city from the same bedroom window. I watched my community fragment, come back together, protest, rise up, become fragmented again repair the pieces, find new communities to collaborate and compete with --- even the graffiti/street art changed with each passing month. So a lot of it was watching seasons change, landscapes change, grief change, change change change. And so much of that change felt influenced by the city, not the people. Surviving cultural and ecological erosion is no easy task. Denver, CO, like much of the West, is still seen as a tabula rasa, a place to conquer. Our geographies are so mangled because city planning doesn't take into account the ecological needs of a region, just as they don't take into consideration the cultural heritage that necessitates survival. So how do you survive that? And when you survive, how are you then changed?
In many of your poems, you discuss nature or things of the earth such as darkness, nectar, etc. You incorporate these things into being black as well. How do you feel your experiences as a queer Black femme and environmental learner/educator have impacted your writing?
With recent larger conversations around anti-racism and DEI in outdoor spaces, a lot of white led organizations have taken this position that Black people don't care about the environment/don't have a meaningful relationship with the environment, and that it's all our responsibility to fix that. There's a lot of pervasive myths that Black people don't have environmental or ecological knowledge, that our only relationship to the earth is one of extractive labor. The truth is, I feel more connected to a tree or moss or a beaver or a starfish to a lot of these so-called environmentalists. I see our shared hurt. But I also see our shared resilience, adaptive capacities, our needs for delight and whimsy and rest.
If you were only able to teach your students one thing, what would you hope for them to learn from you?
Whatever happens, there will be Black people in the future. Environmental wellness depends on it. Our wellness depends on it. When you accept that reality, so many possibilities unfold before your very eyes.