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A Conversation with Ashley Cole

Spoken-word poet Ashley Cole has just been deemed Pittsburgh's poet laureate. Cole, 21, graduated recently from the Pennsylvania University of California with a degree in criminal justice and is finishing her first book of poetry, Echoing Epiphanies...

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What was it like working around dead people?

It was fascinating and life-changing. You see how quick life is taken and you begin to appreciate life more, so then you start writing about it.

 

How many corpses did you see that summer?

More than the average girl. A couple hundred maybe. During summer kids are out of school and there are more accidents, mostly drinking and driving. One of my poems is called "Coroner's Poem." I took a whole bunch of experiences from my office -- the ones that shook me the most -- and put them into this poem. I wrap it up with, "I wonder when I'll be next / to have my name signed in the book of death." We really do have a book of death. We write every single name of everyone who dies in the county into this book.

 

So how does one get the poet laureate designation?

I am the first poet laureate. Last spring, [city councilor] Twanda Carlisle came to our Spoken Mic at the Quiet Storm and she heard me perform. Sala Udin was at a slam at Dowe's and heard me down there. So me, KL and Freedom went down to city council and we addressed them about supporting the arts because it's lacking. The exciting part is that there's not really any poet of this genre -- spoken word -- getting a laureate award. Laureate means [the city] wants you to represent the arts. If [city councilors] aren't there they want you to be the spokesperson, continuously working to push the city up and let people know what's going on. They want you to highlight some Pittsburgh talent. The hardest part is I'm the first poet laureate so people don't know what to do with it.

 

There's mad spoken-word artists in Pittsburgh, what set you apart?

I think because we were going down to city council and when you start going outside of the coffee shops and you go outside of your street corners and tell the politicians what matters, then it matters to them. Spoken word is kinda crossing these lines. It's not just a bunch of kids in a coffee shop. You want to get city council listening. Every poet should go down there and do a poem. You get three minutes to speak. Go down there and do a poem and quit standing around in a lounge complaining about whatever. They'll hear you, they'll listen, they like it -- as long as you don't attack them. Don't go down there yellin' at 'em. Just tell them you want support and they'll support you.

 

Is the city working hard enough to support artists?

They're working really hard on it and I'm prepared to work real hard because I really like this city, and I really like what I do. And when I do it I get it done. One [goal] was to get done with college in three years -- did that; one was to write a book -- did that; one was to get up and rip mikes -- I did that. So long as you stay motivated and surround yourself with motivated artists -- and all artists are not motivated. Some artists like to call themselves "starving" and that's exactly what you'll be if you think like that.

 

What poem did you perform in city council chambers?
I wrote a poem just about getting support from them. We want to stay here, but we need your help. I want to live in Pittsburgh, but it's not easy. I'm a student. I'm trying to do shows here and there for minimal amounts of money and it's not cutting it.  No one knows that there's def poets running all through East Liberty. There's def poets at the Starbucks sippin' Frappuccinos. Everybody turns on HBO, but it's right here in the city. You can come here and see the same thing you see on TV, but live and cheaper.

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