“I Come from a Family of Strong, Strong Voices”: An Afternoon with Aja Monet

I kept looking over my shoulder but I couldn’t find Aja Monet among the teachers and organizers gathered in the back of the filled Grace Allen room at the University of South Florida. I was excited to see her in person after watching Youtube videos of her reading on a sunny sidewalk or in front of a slam crowd. Jessica Thompson, a second-year MFA at USF, came to the mic and introduced Monet and her notable acclaim since winning the champion title at the Nuyorican Poets Café grand slam when she was only nineteen.

And then Monet appeared, carrying an armful of materials—her leather journal, a plastic note-binder, an electronic tablet, loose sheets of paper. All full of poems. She spread them out on the podium and tossed back her purple-tinged hair. After the reading a young woman remarked to me that Aja Monet is what all women want to be: so present.

Monet acknowledges the complexity, the difficulty even, of her subject-matter, but she never apologizes for it. She opened her reading by explaining her relationship to her own family. In the last few years, she heard new family stories that changed her understanding of her roots and unlocked a desire to write about being Afro-Cuban. Her grandmother is a central figure in Monet’s own mythology of identity, an axis mundi connecting the poet’s Brooklyn birthplace to her ancestor’s island. Her grandfather also lives in her poems. She read a piece about his spirit returning to possess her uncle, about the ever-present nature of the deceased.

How many of us knew who Amiri Baraka is? A shameful few. Monet rebuked us gently and suggested we all catch up on what we’ve missed from the founder of the Black Arts movement. She read a poem about him, a “fiery” piece to mirror a fiery person. She emphasized the importance of an “elder” to writers, someone who came before, cut a path, made a way for the following generations. Baraka is that elder for her.

Monet shared a story about accepting an invitation to write a poem inspired by the Bard’s work from a community of Shakespeare enthusiasts. After she had read her piece for them, a poem inspired by Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, members of the community came up to her and quoted the entire speech. She asked how many of us could quote poems by heart; a few raised timid hands as we thought about what words we could remember from the poets we admire so much. Monet asked why we in America lack a connection to our poetic heritage. She encouraged us all to fill this absence and memorize at least one poem.

When she opened the floor to questions, I asked what I always ask poets. What’s your revision process like? Monet holds to a communal approach. She gives pieces to other people to look over if she’s spent too long editing alone. She said what so many writers have told me: you eventually have to let the piece go, even if it’s not completely finished. To paraphrase her point, poems are not merely commodities for consumption. The process is not the same as creating an end-product in a capitalist system. She stressed the importance of poetry as a way for a writer to be an emotional being, and cited Audre Lorde’s assertion that “poetry is not a luxury,” especially for women of color.

In closing, one person asked Monet for poet recommendations aside from Amiri Baraka. Here is the list as I heard it:

Monet’s connection, both emotionally and professionally, to the community of poets is undeniable. Whether she’s engaging a slam crowd with a poem about police brutality or instructing an academic audience on the importance of knowing, knowing by heart, the work of poets that came before us and that still surround us, Monet is present. She’s here, and she wants us to be here, too.