Poet Ajanaé Dawkins begins to narrow her focus

Dawkins, recently named the latest Community Artist in Residence at Urban Arts Space, has moved away from works that grapple with big, worldly issues and increasingly turned her focus toward family.
Ajanaé Dawkins
Ajanaé DawkinsCourtesy the poet

In recent years, poet Ajanaé Dawkins has chipped away at a handful of projects, many of which center the relationships that Black women have with each other, and in particular the dynamic between mothers and daughters.

“I was really invested in talking to other Black women who are daughters, or navigating motherhood, or navigating getting older, where your relationship with your mother begins changing,” said Dawkins, who was recently named the latest Community Artist in Residence at Urban Arts Space. 

In the course of these conversations, Dawkins, 28, said consistent themes began to emerge, with a number of women sharing that girlhood conflicts eventually gave way to reconciliation – a shift that Dawkins attributed to children coming to the realization that their moms are “people who had whole lives and personhoods before we came into the picture.”

For Dawkins, this reality hit when she was in her early 20s and venting to a friend, the poet Brittany Rogers, about her frustrations with her own mother, Rashida. 

“And Brittany was like, ‘Do you know how much more grace you give your dad?’” Dawkins said. “And then she was like, ‘Your mom is a person, too.’ And I was taken aback, like, girllll, what are you talking about? … And then I took a class with a really incredible writer that essentially focused on who the villain is in a story, and I began to realize that in all of my poems about my mother, I was pointing the finger at her. And I challenged myself to write poems about my mom that implicated me, and that started a whole journey.”

In the process of learning how to show her mother more grace within her work, Dawkins said she also learned to be gentler with herself, coming to accept that most people are generally trying to do their best amid challenging circumstances. “As someone who's almost 30, if I knew at 21 what I know now, my whole life might have been different,” she said. “And I'm sure 10 years from now I'll be like, ‘Oh, God, at 28 I was doing all of this ridiculous stuff.’”

Growing up, Dawkins said she always had a fascination for language, along with what she termed a “heightened sensitivity” to the greater world that could, at times, surface in unexpected ways. When Dawkins’ fourth grade teacher informed the class about a pending essay contest, for instance, and solicited ideas for potential topics, most students replied with things like whales or space exploration. “But when the teacher asked me, I was like, ‘I’m doing mine on the inequality of women in different religions around the globe,’” Dawkins said, and laughed. “And they were like, ‘Are you okay?’”

Dawkins’ earliest forays into poetry took a similarly worldly tact, often focused on politics, inequality and other big-picture concepts. But as Dawkins progressed in her career, and as she began to develop and sharpen her own voice as a poet – a journey that involved absorbing and discarding various styles – her focus started to narrow.

“As I got older, it’s been like, dang, I’m actually just talking about me,” Dawkins said. “So, there was this shift from talking about the big issues to talking more specifically about family things. … And in that, I became less invested in the big-picture political poems, which I still think are wildly important. They just weren’t calling to me in the same way.”

The poet said she was drawn further in this direction by the passing of her great grandmother, driven by a nagging sense that she hadn’t made the most of her time with the elder and that a vital part of her family history had gone missing with her death. “It's jarring to me how few questions I asked my great grandmother when she was alive. ... And so much died with her that I started asking, what does it look like to focus my research on the stories of my family?” said Dawkins, who has since made efforts to engage older relatives in deeper conversation. “And I think that idea has carried me more, where I will literally go sit with a family member, press record on my phone, and talk.”

As part of this Urban Arts residency, Dawkins said she intends to run a “DocuArt Workshop,” where participants can learn more about mining their own family histories for inspiration, walking a line between documentarian and memoirist. She also intends to hone material for a culminating one-woman show that will combine elements of poetry, photography and live performance, among other disciplines, its narrative thrust anchored in Dawkins’ ongoing exploration of her family tree. 

While Dawkins said she is coming into the residency with a clear picture of what she hopes to accomplish, she’s also keenly aware of the creative muse’s fickle nature, which, at times, can drag the poet in directions she never intended.

“I’ll have a set idea, like, oh, this is the project. And then the project will tell me what the project is going to be,” Dawkins said. “And the more I attempt to make the work obedient, to make it what I wanted it to be, the more it tends to rebel. And the running joke has been that in those time I would send either my husband or my best friends something I was working on, and they would point to the last line and be like, ‘The poem starts here, babes. Good luck.’”

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