UW alumna, poet Ajanae Dawkins earns prestigious residency at Taft Museum of Art

Ajanae Dawkins, a Detroit native and UW-Madison alum, is the 2022 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence at the Taft Museum of Art in downtown Cincinnati.

Dawkins will hold a prestigious two-week residency created by the Taft Museum of Art and the Robert S. Duncanson Society in honor of the legendary landscape painter, Robert S. Duncanson. At the opening reception, which took place Sunday, Dawkins was officially unveiled to the public as the 35th Duncanson Artist-in-Residence at the Taft Museum of Art. She shared some poems and was surprised by Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval, who declared April 10th Ajanae Dawkins Day.

A highly-acclaimed and nationally recognized poet, writer, performer, and educator, Dawkins has showcased her artistry across the country, being published in several journals and anthologies and featured in many venues, magazines and platforms.

She is entering an esteemed lineage of artists who’ve been awarded this fellowship, including Alysia Nicole Harris, Sharon M. Draper, and Nikki Giovanni, whom Dawkins has performed for and was the inaugural Duncanson Artist-in-Residence. Dawkins was ecstatic to be stepping into her own slot amongst this long line of powerful artists.

“That’s been a dream to be in the lineage with all of those folks, to see all the people who have gotten it before and it’s to honor Robert S. Duncanson who’s an incredible, absolutely incredible black artist,” Dawkins said. “Sharon Draper was doing the work for the black book nerds…I was panicking when I saw Sharon M. Draper on that list. I almost passed out!”

While Dawkins was modest about her expectations throughout the application process and shocked when she received the residency, she’s truly honored for this to be her first-ever residency where she will be doing teaching artist work and a lecture, as well as showing her own writing . She plans on going into a variety of K-12 schools along with the University of Cincinnati and provide free workshops to showcase her perspective on the craft and connect with the Ohio community with programming she’s invested in.

“I’m teaching an alternate heavens workshop, so that’s the world-building workshop. I’m teaching a workshop on the limitations of English and how to use craft devices. I’m teaching a workshop on the ethics of storytelling for the adults,” Dawkins said. “I’m curating a visual poetics workshop with a visual artist, who’ll be dope. I’m doing a lecture on prophetic imagination and black contemporary poetry…that’s the kind of stuff that I’m doing.”

Ajanae Dawkins
(Photo: Matty With The Cam)

“It’s kind of like the artist’s dream to be like, ‘You got the funding. What do you want to do? Who do you want to bring in? Yes, we can bring that person. Yes, we can do this thing. Yes, we can book this venue. Yes, we can do that.’ And that’s not touching what we’re paying us to bring you out,” Dawkins said. “I think there’s not a lot of spaces where artists just kind of get free rein like that.”

Since moving to Ohio with her husband, Dawkins has become deeply entrenched in the artist community there. She is a part of the Black Women Rise Poetry Collective founded by Barbara Fant. The group came together last year, initially writing a poem a day for the annual 30 for 30 challenge in April, which is National Poetry Month. Those pieces blossomed into a sold-out show at the Lincoln Theater. Through these connections, Dawkins has been inspired to move with more purpose in how she can support and make space for others through her own work.

“Something that has shifted for me a lot in the last year has been trying to be more intentional about how I engage community… how I uplift and amplify the voices of other people,” Dawkins said. “Being in spaces where I’m not just asking people to collaborate with me, but I’m giving opportunities for people to actually get compensated for their work, because I have plenty of folks who I’m like, ‘these are folks who would have done the favor for me regardless and done it for me for free.’”

When Dawkins first heard the term literary citizenship, she didn’t think she was one. She felt like she wasn’t contributing much other than her own body of work and herself. However, Dawkins has been an influential part of many creative communities, including the First Wave and Uprise Poetry Collective during her time at UW-Madison, as a mentor and generous presence with whomever she came across. She also taught virtual workshops at the beginning of the pandemic. Her belief de ella is that the spaces where the craft of poetry is being taught should also be developing responsible and exemplary literary citizens.

“I think a lot about literary citizenship and what it means to be a citizen and what it means to like, not just be concerned about opportunities for myself but like how can I expand this for folks I’m in community with?” Dawkins said. “Especially for a lot of us who came up in slam, I think we learned citizenship just among our teams, but not in the wider group. We get taught, ‘Yo, it is your show for this amount of time’ but I don’t think we’re taught how things work with power dynamics and what it looks like to pour into people when you’re never touching a stage , when your name is nowhere on the bill.”

Dawkins wants to broaden the scope of who she’s serving and supporting. Over the last couple of years, she’s been more cognizant of reading work from folks she might not have easily come across & celebrating work more intentionally. She is already keeping her word with what she has in store as a Duncanson fellow. She is prioritizing Black women and non-binary folk with the artists whose work she’s teaching and featuring. The residency will conclude on April 23 with an event curated by Dawkins, who will perform along with bringing a squad of her talented artist friends to rock the stage, including her best friend, Brittany Rogers.

Dawkins & Rogers, acclaimed poet and educator, have recently been announced as the new hosts for VS, the popular podcast series presented by the Poetry Foundation where poets confront the ideas that move them. As best friends, they have grown together as writers and poets and are overjoyed with the chance to embrace this opportunity as a team.

They were not going to apply, but their friends started sending it and they became intrigued with the prospect of interviewing many of the writers who reported their work together. They linked up in Detroit, recorded a demo, and were then selected to move forward, which included multiple interviews and producing their own episode.

Ajanae Dawkins
(Photo: Matty With The Cam)

“It was a very intensive process. It was like four rounds. It was bananas! It was like a three-minute video. You had all these questions you had to answer in three minutes,” Dawkins said. “I don’t think it was till we got to the creating the episode round. We were like ‘Do we have a shot?’”

Maybe it was destiny intervening, but Dawkins and Rogers got to have their first episode together through the VS Roll Call series alongside their friend & cohort member of the 2020 Nancy Craig Blackburn fellows at Randolph College, Maurisa Li-A-Ping. They dove into a captivating conversation about radical literary friendships, looking at how the close-knit relationships between artists like Audre Lorde & Pat Parker inspired them to look at how the kinship they have formed with each other along with other writers has fueled their own creative practice.

After completing every step, Dawkins and Rogers waited until the official announcement on March 15th. The preparation process made Dawkins feel even more invested & excited about the opportunity VS will give her & Rogers to have impactful conversations with many of the people who are impacting their craft.

“it wasn’t like…’I know I can kill this podcast.’ It was like, I was so excited for this person’s work, and I can’t believe I get the chance to even interview them!” Dawkins exclaimed. “Every day I’m like, ‘Ooh, I can’t believe this person might agree to let me interview them and the fact that they’re gonna pay me for that is the cherry on top! I’m like ‘I would have paid to talk to you!’”

Following in the hosting footsteps of incredible poets Danez Smith & Franny Choi, Dawkins wants to carry on the tradition of amplifying & prioritizing marginalized voices as well as maintaining the inclusivity & accessibility of VS as a platform for listeners to engage with poetry in a fun and insightful way. Dawkins and Rogers are both educators and see the value in examining the context that matters to a writer, the people informing a writer’s work, and how the ethics & communities the writer holds themselves accountable to impact their work.

Dawkins lauded Rogers’ diligence as an excellent literary citizen in building meaningful relationships with a range of artists.

“Me and Brittany are both very invested in lineage and legacy and honoring anything or space that has ever come before us or made space for us. So we want to honor the work that Danez & Franny have already done,” Dawkins said. “We really want to keep pushing the podcast towards something that will amplify marginalized voices, that will be intergenerational, that will be including folks across genders, the diaspora, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And we have some visions, some things to come, for what it looks like to stay engaged with our audience and to have our audience engage back with us.”

The Poetry Foundation has gone under fire in recent years for not adequately & abundantly supporting marginalized voices. Dawkins & Rogers were aware of the foundation’s goals to spread the equity and they are taking it upon themselves to continue bringing folks who are doing incredible work outside of the academy or academia. Dawkins & Rogers grew up doing slam poetry and continued their writing journeys through undergrad and then to grad school at Randolph College. Part of their investment in VS comes from who they intentionally study and choosing to highlight voices who are not as routinely celebrated within the literary canon and using their platform to bring those voices to the forefront. Dawkins is extremely accomplished in her own right and this is only the beginning. However, she does not lose sight of the responsibility to open doors for others once she has entered.

“Any time I’ve had the chance to bring other writers on, I’m like…who else can we bring on and get paid?” Dawkins said. “What does it mean that I’m going to pick up a book from somebody who is black, of color, queer, trans, differently-abled, neurodivergent before I’m going to pick up a book from a cis heterosexual white man… so the people who I could claim as my canon are not just heterosexual, white men.”

When Dawkins was an undergrad at UW-Madison, she appreciated the way professors like Amaud Jamaul Johnson and Amy Quan Berry taught her phenomenal works that went against the grain of the majority-white authors being put in the curriculum and opened roots within her literary lineage .

“If you look at my library, most of the books that I read are Black women, Black trans folk, Black queer folks and then a breadth of folks of color from various spaces. So I think there’s a lot I could say about how those folks are impacting my craft directly but I can’t amplify anything unless I study it. So I think it’s really been an issue like pushing my study and making it more intentional in my study,” Dawkins said. “It’s not just because I’m Black and because these folks that I’m reading are Black. Those are the folks who, I read their work and a world opened up for me. I read Aurielle Marie’s book Gumbo Ya Ya and a world opened up for me. I read Victoria Chang’s Obit and a world opened up for me.”

The worlds Dawkins is exploring right now are diving into the ethics of storytelling and the responsibility of the writer.

“What does it mean that me and my family’s trauma is collective, but I’m the one who writes so I’m the one who’s in charge of the narratives and how is that narrative skewed? And how has that impacted my relationship with them, specifically my mother? And what does it mean for me to go into writing as a collaborative process?” Dawkins said. “I see myself as part of a larger collective. so then I was like, so I’m over here writing like my work is solitary and it’s not. So I’m collaborating with my family on this process. I’m doing interviews with my mom and my grandmother and I’m pulling from their current language to give them voice.”

“The world for me right now is that it doesn’t matter what I write, it’s a Black poem and I don’t care if I write a whole book and I never talk about being a Black woman in it, that whole book is Black as hell.”

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