The Dance Interview Series with Ashe Vernon

Ashe Vernon is a 22 year old day-dreamer from Houston, Texas. She recently finished a cross-country poetry tour and is readjusting to the kind of adult life where you don’t get on a microphone and cry in front of strangers every other night. She has published two books of poetry–Belly of the Beast and Wrong Side of a Fistfight. Ashe is a tiny person with very small hands and a whole lot to say about it.

Donna-Marie Riley : Okay, to begin, what I always wonder when it comes to writers is — was there ever an aha moment? A moment when you wrote and felt, “yes, I’m going to keep doing this.”

Ashe Vernon : The thing is, I’ve always been writing. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. It’s as much a part of my body as a limb. So there was never really an “aha” moment because it always felt obvious – that this was something I was going to do forever. I talked about being a novelist when I was barely old enough to hold a pencil. It’s the only part of my life that’s stayed entirely stable. I’ve always wanted this.

I suppose in a way there was an “aha” moment for poetry in particular, because I’d always sort of purposefully steered away from poetry until about two years ago. I typically wrote long-forms: books and plays and that sort of thing. But college was an extremely tumultuous time in my life and between 16+ hours of classes and working on 4-5 theatre productions every semester, completely long-form work was absolutely exhausting. I turned to poetry because it meant that I could have something and have it feel FINISHED without having to put dozens of hours into it. I didn’t expect to stay with it in this way originally. At first, it was meant to just be a good way to exercise my writing muscles while I was crunched for time and energy.

But for the first time in my life, poetry made sense. I don’t know if I was just looking at it from a new perspective or if I just needed the life experience behind me, but three or four months into starting my poetry blog, I realized that I loved it: in that deep, painful, earth-shattering way that we love the people closest to us.

Donna-Marie Riley : It’s so interesting to me that you say you turned to poetry out of necessity, not having the time for lengthier pieces. Do you still regard poetry that way? Is it a form you turn to when the need to produce something immediate comes or has it developed into a form you turn to with intent?

Ashe Vernon : Definitely not. Poetry is a part of me; it completely changed my life and I honestly can’t believe that there was a time when I wasn’t writing it. Especially after going on tour, I felt positive that I am where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like poetry has become the clearest way for me to express what goes on in my head. I think that poetry, more so than other writing forms, lets you put words to the kinds of feelings that no one (myself included) knows how to talk about.

Donna-Marie Riley : Speaking of being on tour, how does it feel performing those poems which refer to “feelings no one knows how to talk about”? What changes for you when sharing your words verbally as opposed to only on the page?

Ashe Vernon : I think what really changes is specificity. When you’re reading something off a page, it’s largely up to the reader to interpret things like mood and intention. Sure, you as the writer can tweak the wording and rhythm to inspire certain ideas, but at the end of the day, the control is out of your hands.

When I perform my poems, I’m able to draw attention exactly where I want it–punch certain words, gentle over others.

I think both experiences are important when it comes to poetry by people who do spoken word: what you feel reading it on the page is just as important as what you feel listening to them speak. But there’s something unique and thrilling about watching someone carve out their hurt in front of you. I’m not sure anything has ever made me cry as hard as watching someone perform poetry.

That open-faced honesty is what I really strive for, in my own performance. I want to be able to unpack all of myself in front of the audience. I want to be unflinching.

Donna-Marie Riley : I completely agree. There is such courage in spoken word poetry. Especially because the majority of it is self-confessional, meaning people are up there roaring their throats hoarse so they can relay to an audience their traumas, their so-long-buried secrets. It’s a vulnerable act.

Which leads me to this next question. I’m always interested in how some of my favourite spoken word poets manage to access the emotion (which is often triggering) attached to the subject of their poem without letting it completely overwhelm them on stage. How do you stay safe? How do you tap into the emotion enough to impart your experience, but just shy of living directly in the emotion that you become too vulnerable to perform? So far, I haven’t heard anyone else voice this struggle so I’m on a mission to find someone who can relate!

Ashe Vernon : I’ll be honest, I don’t always manage to do it safely. I’ve written poems that hurt me more than they helped me, and I’ve had nights where I left the stage in tears.

I remember, very distinctly, the first time I ever performed a poem from my second book – The Dead Dad Poem. It [as I’m sure you can guess from the title] was achingly personal, but oddly enough the writing process had felt very cut-and-dry. In writing it, it wasn’t about expressing trauma, it was just – “here’s how it was.” Very factual and clean. It didn’t hurt at all to write it. But then, up in front of people, letting myself really FEEL the poem for the first time, I got to the last verse and my voice gave out. Suddenly I was sobbing instead of speaking. My best friend in the first row looked like he was about to jump out of his seat. I gasped the last few lines through tears and practically fell offstage into my best friend’s arms.

But the thing about the poetry community, is they always have their arms out to catch you. No one wants to see you break apart and stay broken. Everyone wants to see how you took your trauma and pushed yourself back together. They want to celebrate with you just as much as they want to cry with you.

And that’s what gets me through the hard poems: that this group of strangers, for this one moment, really and truly cares that I make it out the other side of this poem. And they’ll carry me there themselves, if they have to. It’s really, unbelievably beautiful. There’s nothing else like it in the whole world.

Donna-Marie Riley : Do you find therapy in that? In not only expressing your traumas, but in sharing them? Is self-confessional poetry a cathartic act for you?

Ashe Vernon : Absolutely. Especially because it’s a good way of finding out you’re not alone–some of my most personal (and, I originally thought, unrelatable) poems have had some of the biggest responses of understanding.

Donna-Marie : Okay, let me get a bit more specific to you. Is there a difference between your first and your second book? In terms of theme, circumstances, experiences, even ability?

Ashe Vernon : Both books look at a lot of the same themes–self-discovery, recovery from trauma, etc–but from very different viewpoints. They were written when I was in drastically different points in my life and my personal development.

Belly of the Beast is all about weaponizing softness and learning to befriend your dark parts. It’s sharp and cutting–biting back at the things that hurt you. In lots of ways, Wrong Side of a Fistfight is a complete undoing of that. It’s about looking critically at the parts of yourself you sharpened for the sake of survival and learning to unclench your fist.

Donna-Marie Riley : Wrong Side of a Fistfight – where did the title come from?

Ashe Vernon : The title was actually the first part of the book that I had – I built the rest of the book around the title. I’m not sure I can explain it in a way that would be concise but you know those movies where the hero gets all torn to pieces and beat up and someone sees them and is like, “Oh my god, what happened to you?!” and the hero just grins and goes, “you should see the other guy”?
In a way, it’s kind of about perpetually being the “other guy” – the one who never seems to win their battles but keeps picking themselves back up to fight the war.

Donna-Marie Riley : You know what, I would never have even thought about it like that. And I really liked the title before, but now I like it even more! So if you’re the other guy – who’s throwing the punches your way? Life in general?

Ashe Vernon : In the book, I wanted to cover all different types of battles – family, relationships, friendships, life, depression. I think depression plays a huge part in this book. But despite being a book about being on the wrong side of the fight, I really strived to also inspire hope: the idea that you can be the guy who always loses and still get up to fight another day. That someday you won’t be the one who always loses anymore.

Donna-Marie Riley : Well, I think you did just that. To end, my favourite quote of yours is, “I am a cathedral of almost-lovers.” What’s your favourite of your own quotes?

Ashe Vernon : Ooh, that’s a tough one. I was going to pick a different quote from that same poem – that piece has always felt like a manifesta of my own survival. I like the last line: “My body is a temple and my gods drink vodka and gin.” It feels like a triumph, to me – after a poem that’s largely about being someone else’s burial ground, the end is about taking your body back and I think that theme is present in a lot of my poetry.

Check out more of Ashe on Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook & Instagram!

Thank you, Ashe!

Contributing Editor /

Donna-Marie Riley currently resides in the South West of England. She is author of the poetry collection Love and Other Small Wars, published by Words Dance, and also featured in Between Sentiment and Sensation: Vol I, published by Red Paint Hill. She romanticizes cold coffee and bitten nails and she likes her poetry shaken, not stirred.