'I think inherently, poetry is political': A talk with Ashley Cornelius of Poetry 719
With programming around creativity and mental health — and an emphasis “on uplifting and celebrating voices of marginalized communities and people of color” — Poetry 719 has broken ground in Colorado Springs. Recently, co-director Ashley Cornelius (left) sat down for a virtual conversation with Max Maddox about how poetry can provide Black creatives the opportunity to shape their own narratives and express personal and community trauma, and about how art can heal individuals while bridging chasms in the wider community.
Max: What is Poetry 719?
Ashley: The goal of Poetry 719 is to uplift the voices of marginalized communities and people of color through poetry and creative self-expression. Among our events, we have Latin(x) Voices Matter, Black Voices Matter, Queer People of Color, Disability Awareness, Mental Health Open Mics … We really just want folks whose stories are often told by someone else, or who don’t really get the platform to share themselves, to get that opportunity through writing, art, through workshops, whatever it is. We are a Black-run organization, and even though our name is Poetry 719 we encompass all artistic forms, so we’re just providing that space.
Max: A lot of us won't know what slam poetry is. Can you explain that a little?
Ashley: Typically, poetry has a lot of formal rules. Slam poetry was born out of the need to move away from these poetic styles, rules and forms. With slam, you write and memorize your poem and perform it on stage. The topics are usually deeply powerful and often political, but it can be about anything.
Slam poetry is inherently a competition. You get up there with your poem and there’s a time limit of about three minutes, and the crowd gives you a score from zero to 10. The name of the game is to impact the judges, people who don’t know you — really just “wow” people. The question is, How do I get my message across, and how do I do it in a way that can spark motivation or passion in a stranger?
Max: How has the social climate today informed your organization, empowered it, or complicated it?
Ashley: I think inherently, poetry is political. Current times have really motivated us as a Black-run organization. The Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice have always been part of our lives and who we are. So this movement has really invigorated us and shone a spotlight on the community.
In Colorado Springs, there are a lot of people who are not used to seeing a Black Lives Matter event. For an hour, only Black people are on the mic, so people can be really resistant and even get really angry.
Although it's complicated, because we’re in this really beautiful revolution and push globally for justice, it has charged us with helping people serve that message. As a Black woman, if I’m saying, “This is how I’ve experienced racism ...” nobody listens to me. But if I write a beautiful poem on stage, people are moved emotionally. So it’s recognizing the power in our voice and learning to craft that message in a way that you can really affect change in your local communities, nationally or globally.
Max: How do you understand the connection between mental health and poetry?
Ashley: I’m an LPCC [licensed professional clinical counselor] finishing my hours to become a licensed therapist. I graduated with a MA in international disaster psychology. During my grad school program I studied under a music therapist, and she’s been my mentor since.
My first real experience with mental health was in inpatient settings, and I got to see how creativity and music can create a holistic picture of a patient. I got to see firsthand through music, for instance, “This person is a talented guitarist,” and they were able to relate to someone musically in a way they wouldn’t otherwise. One person on the unit suffering from schizophrenia wouldn’t talk to anyone, couldn’t make eye contact … but put a guitar in his hand, and that is how he communicated. That was the connection.
I’m not a musician by trade, so I chose poetry therapy in my clinical practice. I have used published poetry to talk about a topic of interest, then encouraged clients to analyze that poetry, and then to engage their own self-expression. Sometimes talking is hard, therapy is hard, expressing ourselves is hard, and if you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis, that communication gets even harder. Drawing, creating, using metaphor, all of that created such a beautiful picture of a patient that a lot of other people didn’t see. The process helps destigmatize mental health to help open what people are willing to see when they look at a person suffering from mental illness.
Max: I want to expand the question to loop in Blackness and mental health and Blackness and poetry, and how art is a special way to reach Black people on the topic of mental health.
Ashley: Mental health is super-stigmatized within the Black community — rightfully so, I must say. There is a lot of history of systematic and institutional racism in the health care system. We’ve seen across hundreds of years that when Black people seek help, typically we’re being treated unfairly or as guinea pigs. It was hard for me, even as a therapist; I thought, “I don’t need therapy, that’s not something for me.” There’s not a lot of Black psychiatrists, psychologists, clinicians, so having someone that can understand can be so deeply valuable.
With many Black patients, poetry and music is a language that makes sense — using metaphor and a language they already understand. They may not have used the “right language” to ask for help. So we often ignore people because of how they ask for our help. Even when people are honest, they still get stigmatized. Black celebrities like Kanye West, who lives with and flaunts his symptoms, are in stark contrast with white celebrities that are open to getting help publicly.
'We often ignore people because of how
they ask for our help.'
There is always this idea of “being less than” that gets added. As we know, Black people were three-fifths of a person once upon a time, so this idea of “being broken” is an extra layer of stigmatization. Do I need to admit that I’m suffering, that I’m weak, that I need help? Because internally, that plays into the question of, “Are people going to see me even [more] differently because of mental health issues?”
As it relates to intersectionality, when there is more than one intersecting identity, racial injustice increases, violence increases, anxiety, depression, mental illness increases. So it becomes even harder. Poetry is that back door — a way to talk about your emotions, to do that work without feeling like it is so sterile, like someone is analyzing you or deciding you’re not good enough.
Max: Part of what you’re saying is that poetry is a way out of stigma. Instead of clinicians trying to “fix you,” there is a way in which people can “fix themselves” through art. A power gets put back in their hands that may have been taken. We’ve also been talking about grief in our interviews, grieving over the death of Black people at the hands of police. In addition to that, there’s a grief that’s deep in time and space. Can you speak to how you deal with grief through poetry, how on a personal level that works for you?
Ashley: I was struggling a lot with depression, grief and mourning. All of these deaths, back to back, in the middle of a pandemic. It is a grieving process, and I think many of us will be grieving our entire lives. We’ve normalized Black death. People are still grieving Trayvon Martin, people are still grieving Emmett Till. These men look like us, like our brothers, our sons, our partners, our fathers. That’s a really scary thing when it comes to grieving: Sometimes you can separate yourself, but it was hard to distinguish myself from these incidents. That’s largely where my writing work has taken me.
At least for me, when I see destruction and death, that’s my cue to create. Out of this world on fire, bringing something new into this world that provides stillness for me. I see a lot of people use art around police violence to heal themselves while continuing a legacy of storytelling in the Black community. I love all of the art created around BLM, art that was created out of a necessity to share, to grow, to live.
When I’m doing poetry therapy, it’s the process, not the product, to create beautiful works of art. Sometimes a prompt for poetry yields a drawing of a cat. It’s not so much what we create, it's what happens in the process. We’re seeing a renaissance in [Black arts], and I think that reflects the fact that we’re grieving and we’re mourning and that creation keeps us alive, keeps us wanting more. I think it's like a bat signal to other artists, to say, “Hey, I’m also struggling, here’s what I created, what did you create?”
Max: There’s grief and trauma, but there’s also anger, the greatest of all stigmatized emotions. Being sort of tied to grief and sadness, how does diffusing anger play into all of this, with the destructive emotions that may have been internalized getting let out in a productive way?
Ashley: I’m so glad you brought up anger — it's always that one emotion that’s super-stigmatized. I tell people to own that emotion. As a Black woman, I’m not really allowed to get angry. I’m super-bubbly because that’s how I survive in this world. If I get angry, I’m “disrespectful, unprofessional,” so I think for me poetry allows me to be angry in a way I’m not going to get hurt. That anger is finally turned into something where people can recognize it.
When I get angry I have to write about it. The safest, most productive way is to perform it.
A lot of identities forbid people from experiencing certain emotions. Poetry specifically allows people to channel that anger in a space marked as safe. There is so much couching of emotions among Black people; poetry allows you to open those floodgates. People feel safe around Black men expressing anger as long as they’re in front of a microphone performing. The art softens it — which says something about systematic oppression, that art is the only way we can be loud.
'Poetry specifically allows people to channel that anger in a space marked as safe.'
From that platform, though, you can create powerful messages that will allow people to listen. For many of us in the Black community, many have not been listening, and we’ve been yelling for a long time, so I found art and poetry is really a vehicle that allows an audience to take stock in the message.
Max: Can you talk to some of the generational issues around art and mental health? I’ve encountered a lot of generational obstacles when it comes to hearing Black grievances, and appreciating the Black arts. How have you experienced being a young clinician and leader today?
Ashley: It’s definitely hard to be a young Black clinician. Often clients don’t expect me to be Black — after all, my name is Ashley Cornelius. Often when I walk into a room, I get these non-verbals of, “Oh, you’re it?” or, “You must be a student.” It can be very difficult, but I’ve been helped with a lot of mentorship from women of color.
We are so passionate about the work, but there is so much to understand from mental health clinicians and leaders in the Black community, the history and understanding can sometimes get lost. Sometimes I think, “I’m young, I know what’s going on, I have a better perspective.” We have all felt that way. Now that I’m getting older, I realize I have a lot to learn and I need a lot of support.
The generational piece is so important in the Black community. This resurgence in racial justice needs a connection to our past leaders. Poetry and art is still the same guerilla-style activism, in the streets.
Visit Poetry 719 online at www.poetry719.com. Or follow Poetry 719 on Instagram or Facebook, where you can witness one of their virtual open mics.
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