The Pain is Not the Entirety of the Story: A Conversation with Aja Monet

By Kimberly Foster

Aja Monet has the voice of a blueswoman, husky and songful. It is was what first drew me to her.

That voice compelled me to listen more closely, taking note of her tone and cadence as a poem leapt from her mouth. I'm rarely able to resist a performance as masterful as the one captured in that two-minute video, but the work, the words, have stayed with me, too.

Then I read her book, My Mother Was A Freedom Fighter.  Her voice rang just as clearly.  I heard Aja as she worked through the complex, often fraught, ties that bind us to our families and communities, as she imagined a world that holds everyone dear.

That kind of clarity is not incidental. It doesn't just happen. When I spoke to Aja by phone, she discussed how difficult creation can be. Even those who are blessed with natural gifts have to wrestle because talent and ease should not be confused.

The world is, in her words, "a fucking mess." (Who could disagree?) She creates anyway. For herself, and for us.

I periodically like to read an essay from W.E.B. Dubois, where he basically argues that all art is propaganda. If that's true, then what message are you trying to spread with your poetry?

I don't know if there's any one specific message because what I'm writing can be very personal and intimate. It depends on what I'm going through or what I'm grappling with, what ideas I'm trying to work through. Maybe even sometimes I don't know what the idea is. I just know I have a feeling and I need to get the words out somehow. 

And so if it is propaganda, then I guess I'm concerned with how do we do this thing called life better? You know? What are ways that we can use language to help us reimagine, re-articulate our loneliness, and therefore, our need for each other, and our ability to collectively work towards freedom. Freedom from poverty, freedom from oppression and sexism, and classism, and all these things that we could maybe imagine another way of doing this thing called life. 

And I guess that that is maybe a bit of the propaganda he's talking about. 

So, when you create, there's no singular mission statement? It's what's moving you at the time? 

Yeah, but it varies, you know?

For me, the principle factor, and I will kind of lean on June Jordan in this sense, the principle factor for me is truth telling, you know, to be concerned with the business of truth telling. And in order to be able to do that, I have to be able to get to some level of personal confrontation, you know, with myself. 


And it does differ. Because in my book there are poems that start very personal, because that's where I was. That's how my entry point was to poetry. And then I started to realize, "Wait, poems do more than, you know, gratify my self needs or self worth." They do more than just affirm my personal belief system. 

I've had poems that I've read, or even that I've written, where it has uprooted an entire belief system, or disrupted a certain narrative that we are taught is supposed to be the dominant narrative. And so, maybe in that way he's right. Maybe in that way it's propaganda. I don't know. But I guess  I'm a little resistant to the word propaganda in my mind because of how it's been used and manipulated against us. 

When you say that some of your work has uprooted dominant narratives, do you mean for yourself or for the audience you are presenting the work to?

I would say more for myself. And my hope is that it does something, sharing it with people. I don't know if necessarily that was my initial hope when I first started, but what I learned in sharing poems is that it was doing something for people that I hadn't necessarily intended. I knew that I needed to write poems in order to process the life and the struggles that I was living. I knew that I was experiencing my interior world, the way I emotionally responded, or the way I imagined things, was not always in alignment with the literature, the books, the media, or the education system I was taught. 

So I feel like in the work that I was doing with the poems, I was able to find my own voice, and shut everything else out for a second and listen intently to what I really was hearing in the world, whatever I was really seeing and in that it shifted something for me. It disrupted something for me. And other poems did that for me. 

Other poems I've read have helped me understand a situation differently, a conflict, a way of being, a way of seeing the world. And my only hope is that something in what I share is truthful to the point  to bring somebody else closer to telling their own truth, or to demanding a more truth telling society, so to speak. A healing. 

You were talking about working through things via your work. I've heard different artists have different ideas about the usefulness of trying to work through trauma [in their work], that sometimes the art is not the best place to try to do that. What do you think?

Well, healing is a real immaterial thing, right?

We talk about it very elusively in community spaces, often times. And for me, there's no all-of-a-sudden I'll put a bandaid on something so it's healed. It takes care. It takes nurturing. It takes tenderness. It takes concern and attention.  So every wound you have, and I'll use the body as a physical metaphor, you have to clean it. You have to put an ointment on it. You have to make sure it doesn't get infected. You have to let it breathe. So I feel like the poem is a means to the end. It's not the end. It's the way of getting to the place of understanding what needs to be healed, what needs to be resolved. 

Just to give you some context, because I've been around before there was Youtube, I started very young. I was, like, 14, 15 when I was doing poetry. And I was one of the younger poets that was in the adult poetry community, at least in New York.

So what ended up happening was, I was ... we were kind of thrust into this community, and into these scenes as part of the youth poetry organization Urban Word, and we would be encouraged to go up there and tell our stories, and be truth tellers, and all these things. And yet, what I saw happening was students would go up there, young people would get up there, and they'd pour their guts out. But then there was no, there was nothing there, there was no one to hold them after. You know, there was no one to process what the remnants of what had been left, what had been scattered across the stage. 
And so I had moved away from the poetry community and I had gone through all this. I went to college, left the country, and I had become really disillusioned with my mentors and the people that I saw in the adult community because I felt like, "You guys weren't readying us for the world." They were exploiting our stories, but it wasn't preparing us to really do something about the realities we were dealing with. And so I think because I got disillusioned, I saw a lot of people become very famous and do very well with poetry in that span of three years when I had stepped away. 

Then I came back, and I was doing my own thing and sharing things on the internet and stuff. I would organize my own readings, and I would really  have the support of one of my good friends, Daphne, who is now managing me, to really get back out there. And she's like, "You know this is what you're supposed to be doing. This is your purpose."  I didn't feel that way at the time, but in having her support and having someone who really paid attention to what I was writing about, and also what life I wanted to live. I wanted to heal.  

I spent time not writing. Another poet, Ada Limón, she said, "People ask me, 'Oh, what do you do with writer's block?'" And she says, "I don't write."  We live in a capitalist, individualist society where the assumption is you have to constantly be producing. You have to constantly be sharing it. You have to constantly be putting things out there. And for me, I was like, "Wait. I need to live a little. Can I get some time to live? Can I breathe? Can I take care of myself?" 

So, my writing was the beginning stages of me understanding, "Oh something is there." I'm feeling something. I'm deeply moved to speak and write, and I wish I could sing it, but I'm going to use words in a way where maybe I can try to sing through it. And then I look back on some of those poems, some of them that are in the collection, and I say to myself, "I'm glad I had to write them to understand what I was feeling and experiencing or seeing." But then I have to do something different in my life that's going to change those conditions. I can't put a poem out and think that's going to change the world.


And not even the world, but let's bring it back to me. Can I write a poem and think that's going to change me? At the end of the day, I have to do the work to heal, to resolve the inner conflict that I'm working through in the poem. 

I imagine that because you've been a publicly performing poet for so long that, in your work, you are working through different experiences, and discovering new things about yourself and the world, and so that creates a kind of conversation. I'm wondering if you've experienced those sort of epiphany moments or those moments of self-realization, self-actualization, and what you've learned? 

Yeah. Well, I always feel self-conscious about answering these sorts of questions because I know that I am growing, a constant work of process and progress, and all these things. So, what I feel today, who knows if I'll feel the same way tomorrow. You know?


I feel like I'm a student of life. I'm not speaking in an all-knowing "I." You know? So, in that I say what the conversation has revealed to me is that. It's precisely that. I have a lot to learn and the more time I have spent with myself, I have been able to confront and engage a deep reservoir of knowledge, and emotional wisdom. My faith is very much connected to my upbringing and what I witnessed and what I've seen, some of the magical scenarios that I witnessed as a young person, I realized that what people said is reality and what is fiction is blurred. And that the things we were told were impossible...we were told they were impossible because it served somebody else's interests. 


And as I started to delve into myself and question my own history, and my relationship with my family, and where my family had come from, and the Diaspora, and all the connections to other families, and other people's ways of thinking. I learned there is spiritual wisdom. There is internal wisdom and knowledge that has been passed on to us. As much as things have been passed on to us in books, and songs, and art. Our physical bodies have genetic memory. We are a library of eternal resources. And when I start to deal with the pain and the healing of what this current life has brought to me, I start to recognize that that is not everything. You understand? Does that make sense?


The pain is not the entirety of the story. There's also stories of triumph, and resistance, and resilience, and strength, and overcoming, and practices to help us learn how to do those things that have been ripped away and torn away because of the breaking of our cultures, and our identifies, and our languages, and our relationship to our past. 

So in my conversations with my younger self, I think my younger self was a bit more fearless, and only now in my coming of age as a woman, it's only now that I'm starting to really embrace the power of being a woman and discerning and realizing, "Wait! Hold up! Where I was when I was 15 is not where I needed to be!" Even though I was a stubborn, young kid, I definitely had more of a sense of self, and agency, and fire, and confidence that through heartbreak, and disappointment and betrayal, I start to question myself as I came of age as a woman. So I started to, as I'm writing, and I'm looking back at poems, and I'm looking back at conversations I was having with myself, [and] I recognized I never took time to really love that little girl in me. She was so beat down by all that she had endured and a lot of my journey now has been how do I love that little girl in me unapologetically in the ways that she was never loved before, that I need to be able to be the best person in my relationships, in my world, in my community. So part of me taking the time to write and create is a part of me loving myself. You know?


In ways that I never was allowed to when I was younger, or I was never taught. I was never shown.  So I think the conversation changes depending on what I'm grappling with. But it's funny when you think about your younger self. I don't know if you feel this way. I remember having a reading somewhere and a woman she took very good care of me, and she put me in this really beautiful hotel, and as a poet you're used to getting all types of treatment. You know, they say, I think it was James Baldwin or somebody said, "The artists are dangerous because they maneuver different classes." One day you could be eating out of a can of Campbell's soup. The next day you might be sitting around with somebody eating olives and hors d'oeuvres. It's just the range of life for a poet and artists. You never know. 

For me, there was this one moment where this woman had just ... I felt so appreciated because she had done so much to make sure that my stay was nice. And I remember that they had given me an upgrade at the hotel. And it seems very stupid and silly, but I just remember this bath. And I remember sitting in this bath, and it was a beautiful bathtub, and I remember trying to pour Epsom salt, and some lavender, and all these things into the bath and let the water bubble. And I created this bubble bath. And I remember sitting inside and thinking to myself, "I have never done this for myself before." And it sounds so silly. It's probably like the most insignificant thing. It's a minute way of showing appreciation to yourself, but it was one thing I had done for myself. And in doing it for myself, I literally sat in the tub, and I thought, "Man, if 15-year-old Aja could see me now, she would think I'm living the best damn life." She would have never imagined, never thought she would be here now. 

Maybe to me and my grown self, I don't think I'm doing enough, or I don't think I'm making the biggest change, or maybe I am hard on myself. As women we can be, or just as people. But, 15 year old Aja, she'd be like, "Oh you're killing it girl. And I'm proud of you." It was such a weird moment, but it was that one moment where you talk about a conversation. You know, that was a moment where I really did have a conversation with my younger self, and I could hear my younger self like, "Man I'm proud of you." And that meant a lot to me because, in order for me to be able to be something for other people, I have to be able to fulfill the love for myself. You know, if I don't feel it for myself, then I can't, I don't know how to show that to anyone else. 

My last question is, you've had incredible success with your work, and you get to do what you love, do you feel at peace?

At peace? I have moments of peace, but I think moments are fleeting. You know, we go in and out. I believe the movements. So, right now, I don't need to tell you the world is a fucking mess. 

There are people who speak about this current moment as if they're somehow above it, or somehow the rest of the world is crazy and they aren't. Like they're removed from their own role in it. And I guess I'm cautious to say I'm at peace because I'm pissed off most days. I want things to change. I want a better world for our children, and I'm tired of fucking marching and protesting. I'm tired. And I'm sad that this Saturday our babies gotta go do that. They should be in school. 

And there are babies across the globe who gotta do even worse throughout every day. But what kind of world have we allowed to exist where our babies can't be at peace? If they're not at peace, I'm not at peace. There's no way. So it's a funny question. I try to create moments of sanctuary and solitude so that I can hear my own thoughts and my own voice and know who I am in the midst of all this noise out in the world, the hysteria of media, and social media, and all these things. I do try to definitely create moments of peace and solitude, but it would be remiss to me if I made it seem as if I'm just here living a zen, meditative life everyday, as if I don't look at the world around me and feel outrage, and the want to change, and help other people feel peace. I can't be at peace if everybody else is living in pure chaos, you know? So that's been my struggle. How do we reconcile the fact that, yes, self care matters, and healing, and resolution, but we have to be able to create a society where everyone has access to that. And until everyone has access to that, I can't rest. 

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