The Pen is Mightier Than The Sword: A Conversation with A Poet

Baltimore is a hub for artistry. We have musicians, painters, writers, and of course poets. One poet in particular has created a name for herself through words and select readings of her work. Her work is ” [a] getaway from the world ” and healing for the poet. 

Meet Ashley Elizabeth, the writer and teacher with a knack for storytelling through verse for over a decade. Ashley started writing fiction in elementary school, poems in seventh grade, and creative non-fiction in college. She creates glimpses into the world with her work. Her poetry as she described are ” more condensed version of that story that packs that story in a small, vibrant punch.” Ashley Elizabeth’s most recent work is her first published book titled, “you were supposed to be a friend.”

you-were-supposed-to-be-a-friend-glory

It is a collection of delicate yet tough realities about the brutalities of unrequited love. It’s vulnerable. It’s soft. It’s true. It’s definitely worth the read. Ashley gave us insight to what it’s like to be a teacher and poet.

What is your full name?
My name is Ashley Evans
Do you have a poet/author name?
My poet name is Ashley Elizabeth.
When did you start writing?
I started writing fiction in elementary school, poetry in middle school, and creative nonfiction in college.
How do you define writing? Poetry? How would you define your poetry?
I define writing as putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and telling a story in a way only you know how to tell. Poetry is a more condensed version of that story that packs that story in a small, vibrant punch. My poetry is a little of this a little of that. I write about different topics, such as blackness, womanhood, family, abuse, and more. It’s my getaway from the world when I cannot physically get away. It’s my release; it’s my healing.
How long have you been a poet?
I’ve been writing poetry since about 7th or 8th grade, so that’s around 12-13 years or so.
What inspires you (to write)?
My community inspires me to write, my pure existence as a black woman. The love I have for my partner. The hate I have for oppression. The secrets I have, the constant thoughts running through my head. My trauma is definitely up there on the list as well. Murky relationships between family and non-family members.
How did you start doing readings?
I started doing readings by simply responding to calls for writers and being lucky enough to be chosen. My very first reading was with Yellow Arrow Publishing in April 2018 after I responded to a call for writers who write about Baltimore. From a couple readings, I have been solicited to do other readings.
Tell us about Ashley, outside of writing.
Outside of writing, I am a teacher at a Montessori school in Baltimore. I am also a freelance writing consultant/editor/proofreader. I live in my partner in Baltimore County, and when I’m not writing, I’m looking for great spots to eat and experience life, reading, or playing video games.
When and why did you become a teacher?
Originally, I did not want to teach at all. I have a psychology degree, but an experience I had teaching in Jamaica, available through my university, changed my mind completely. The students were bright and eager. They wanted to learn, and I wanted to keep sharing my gifts and knowledge when I came back to the States. After I graduated, I landed a job teaching in Baltimore City, and I’ve been in education in some way ever since.
Does being a write help you as a teacher? Do you incorporate writing into your teaching style?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it makes me a better teacher, but it does make me a better processor in evaluating needs of my students. I have both creative writing and more academic work structured into my classroom routines as both are important for different reasons.
Who inspired you to teach?
My kids in Jamaica and all the amazing teachers I’ve had along the way, especially the late Ms. Nevel. I wish I just had one more day with her.
Who is your favorite writer?
That’s a tough question. I like the work of many people as everyone brings something new to the table, and I appreciate the variety greatly.
Do you have a favorite book? if so, what is it?
Not really, that’s like picking a favorite child, and that’s sacrilegious in my line of work. I just really love to read. The most current book I’ve read that had me feeling all the feels was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. That is definitely high on my list.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writer and teachers?
To aspiring writers: Keep writing no matter what. There will be times you want to give up and get rejections from submissions/residencies and be the bridesmaid but never the bride, but do not let that stop you. Keep writing and reading and working towards however you define success as a writer. It will come. Try to write everyday, but know that it is okay to put a piece down for a nap and come back to it later. For teachers: Teach the new generation to the best of your ability (obviously) but also listen to them. believe in them. Hug them when you can. All they need is love and support. Know that you may not be able to reach all of your students, but try your damnedest.
If you could anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Right now, I’d go back to Jamaica, but I would only stay in the home stay I stayed in the first time I went. There’s something about the summertime that makes this non-beach girl want to go to the beach, eat some amazing food, dance, and not have a care in the world. (Ask me this again later, and you might have a completely different answer.)
Ashley is actively writing, reading, and tweeting. Keep up with her updates via Instagram or Twitter.

Is This Womanhood?

When I pulled down my underwear, that dark red liquid was the last thing I expected to see. I could hardly see at all. I tried to un-see it. I was standing in the last stall in the dimly lit restroom and the only source of light came from in front of me; where the door should have been but wasn’t because Baltimore City public schools. This couldn’t be right, what the hell is this? I was half convinced that I’d shit myself, no lie. Right before I accepted that as truth, I remembered that I was thirteen and had both full control of my bowels and the ability to smell feces. And I did not. My list of conclusions was shortening, and I was forced to accept the only one that made sense: I’d gotten my very first period. Oh hell no. Was I sure it wasn’t just shit?

I was more annoyed than afraid or excited or sad, even though I was all of those things at once. My mother and fifth-grade health class had prepared me for this so, now that I was sure my colon hadn’t collapsed, I had to get on with it. I forgot that my friend was in the restroom waiting on me.

“Girl, fuck is you dying in there?” she asked in her normal, annoyed tone.

I replied “I think I just got my period.” My friend rushed over to the stall like an excited older sister.

“Oh my God, you finally got your period!” I huffed as I did not share in that excitement.

She was two years younger than I was but was far more developed. Knowing that she already had her “flower,” I asked her for a pad. To no one’s surprise, she didn’t have one. I pulled more toilet paper from the raggedy holder (BCPSS please) than I needed and did the best I could with that. I was panicking and 100% certain that I was mere minutes from bleeding all over myself. I needed to find something for my situation quick, fast, and in a hurry.

We left the school heading down the street to after school camp and I immediately called my mother. Approximately four times. I probably left her the angriest teenage attitudinal voicemail ever as I tried to explain how urgent this matter was without having to say exactly what “it” was outside in public. I was really saying “please don’t make me have to call dad about this,” but the day had already decided not to go my way. I reluctantly dialed my dad while trying to put a good ten feet between me and my nosy friend as we walked. I was probably hoping he didn’t answer either, but he did on the first try.

“Hello, dad? Yes. I think I just got my period.”

Everything stopped. It felt like I had screamed those words from the top of a mountain like a Disney princess or something. My nosy friend fake gasped like she was on an episode of RHOA. In the middle of my embarrassment, I realized this man still hadn’t said anything!

“Hello???!” I called, my annoyance growing stronger.

“Oh…so what you need some pads or something??” he responded, doing his best.

“I don’t know, Dad. I guess. Can you please call Mom?” I sighed. Then I hung up. I would have cried, but then I would have annoyed myself.

A few hours later, my parents picked me up from the camp with the necessary supplies. I climbed into the car like I was being rescued from some trenches in Iraq. Then my mom told the whole Baltimore I got my first visit from Aunt Flo.

Looking back, I it was a blessing to have both of my parents show up for me in that moment of my life. It was awkward as hell and maybe a little embarrassing, but every time a little Black girl experiences a major life event with no trauma, an angel sings.

Elementary, my Woe

If I were to take an honest look at my early-childhood education, I would have to admit I was more blessed than I’d previously believed. Despite going to a public zone school in one of the many hoods of west Baltimore, I had teachers who showed me genuine care, support and love. For the most part, I felt respected, safe and guided.  I went to school close to my home in Easterwood with many of the other children from this low-income, African-American neighborhood. My classrooms were usually led by Black women who looked like me and the women in my family. They spoke to us in the language we spoke. They identified with our struggles, and did not judge us for going through them. Even with all the awkwardness that a young child feels as they adjust to an environment outside the comforts of home, I felt at home.

From the teachers, to the administrators to the volunteers, I was surrounded by Black women and men who cared at least a little bit. I never fully appreciated the diversity of the staff and parents at this school.  We had people from an array of cultures, family structures, age groups, gender identities and personal styles. The teachers and parents sported various hairstyles and colorful clothing. I particularly recall one administrator named Ms. Bullock, about mid-50s, who rocked this glorious, curly gray high-top fade. The fade stayed clean, okay? I think she even had hard curls at the top. The haircut was very much reminiscent of the Living Single and Martin-esque styles of the time. Thinking about this definitely reminds me that I started school in the ‘90s. A different time.

There was a queer, masculine woman named Ms. Florence who volunteered at our school almost every day. She was very kind and funny, but also delivered the necessary stern approach that teachers could not. She would remind whatever unruly student like “Hey, I’m not your teacher, I’ll beat your butt and tell your muva I did it!” Despite the opposing opinions of people who never have to deal with children, you do in fact have to be firm with them sometimes. And they will live if you roast them back a little. Anyway, Ms. Florence was probably around from grades K-4th, and made every lunch time, recess and movie time a fun, yet structured environment. For those of you who use the “my children will be confused” excuse in attempt to keep the existence of queer or same-gender-loving people away from children, I’ll tell you some of us were confused. I wondered why we called her “Ms.” even though her clothing and persona were more masculine than I had been taught to associate with women. Perhaps a better word would be curious, because that’s how I would describe my thoughts at the time.  I certainly wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and one day during movie time, I did. It went like this:

Me: “Ms. Florence, are you a boy or a girl?”

Ms. Florence: “What are you?”

Me: “A girl.”

Ms. Florence: “Well, okay then.”

That answered my damn question! No more confusion and I went on about my third-grade life. It was that simple. Talk to your kids!

There was also the very colorful, young, gay Mr. Ellis. He was the best art teacher I ever had. I loved his bold, sarcastic sense of humor and how his pastel crayons matched his many pastel sweaters.  He somehow planted a seed of confidence in me that snuck up on me later in life. He taught for a couple years then left after being struck by a car for the second time in two years. From what I heard, he was fine but no one really answered our questions about this situation. I certainly never forgot Mr. Ellis.

We had a classmate’s mother volunteer with us as well. This woman was the poster child for Lexington market in the early 2000’s. If you know, you know. She was a very kind, gentle, and funny woman. Every time I saw her, she was sporting a long, greasy dark brown ponytail, a black bubble coat and a big Styrofoam cup full of half-and-half (iced tea and lemonade). She was an either white or biracial woman who stood close to six feet tall with a very slim figure. Her teeth were somewhat crooked and discolored, but she still had one of the brightest smiles in the whole school. She, like many other parents, often brought her daughter a fresh chicken box for lunch a few times a week. She may not have been an official volunteer, but rather a parent who showed up often and shared her warmth with the other students. Her daughter was one of my earliest friends, and stayed my friend despite the fact that I threw up on her a little when I had the flu in kindergarten. She was as kind and gentle as her mother. Of all my memories of loving parent-child relationships, they will always stand out to me. I hope they are doing well.

I could go on through the entirety of my elementary school experience and the impact of each teacher because it was just that important to me.  So many kids in this city grow up ahead of the average child in traumatic experience, yet behind in all the resources deemed necessary for success. Somehow these teachers, administrators, and parents managed to provide me with a hilariously unconventional education that has kept me grounded two decades later. This is where I fell in love with the passion that would never leave me: writing. I saw my friends fall in love with drawing, dance, and music. I had no idea how fortunate we really were.

To many people (likely including my classmates) this school would be dismissed and condemned for both its location in central west Baltimore and the backgrounds of the students and parents who attended. It would be deemed unworthy of mention and assumed to offer nothing of value to its students. Just another ghetto Baltimore school. To be real, the school did have its fair share of issues, and maybe some things happened there that should not have. I’m pretty sure we shouldn’t have watched Scary Movie 3 AND Set it Off in the same week, but we didn’t die. I understand that many of us have been hurt at our schools in ways we believe others cannot understand. I understand that many of us feel that we have been cheated and abandoned because being born Black and poor disqualified us from a quality education early in life. I also understand that we look to our wealthier and whiter counterparts for what a good school environment should look like, and see that we didn’t have that. No, we did not have horseback riding and state-of-the art computer labs. We did not have organic chicken nuggets in the cafeteria and luxury hypo-allergenic reading rugs in the classrooms, but we had people like us who cared. We had the benefit of being under the care of people who were reflections of us. They effortlessly related to us and never had to be reminded of our humanity.  We were educated within our own culture, and never had to question our identities in the process. We were enough for ourselves.  This is an important difference between knowing and being proud of who you are, and having to spend your adult life trying to discover it. Two and two makes four no matter where you learn it. It’s everything else that counts.