Dasan Ahanu has been called “a poet’s poet” and “the Triangle’s leading light” of the art form.
Let it also be said: Dasan Ahanu is a great poet.
Over the years, Ahanu, also known as Christopher Massenburg, has used his distinctive voice as a poet and community organizer to slash and burn and nurture and cultivate an ever broadening path of personal development—and to create a greater appreciation for the art form.
“I was really excited,” Ahanu says. “Jaki was the first [Black poet selected], and she has been a guiding light.”
The Piedmont Laureate program is a partnership between the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission, and United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. Now in its 14th year, the program runs the literary gamut, featuring writers of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and plays. Past recipients include Heather Bell Adams, Kelly Starling Lyons, David Menconi, and Ian Finley.
The author of four poetry collections, Ahanu is best known around Durham for his landmark work as the resident artist with the Hayti Heritage Center and as the creator of the Jambalaya Soul poetry series. He is a founding member and coach of the nationally acclaimed Bull City Slam Team, and a cofounder and managing director of the city’s Black Poetry Theatre.
He’s also a past recipient of the Nasir Jones Fellowship with the Hiphop Archive at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and is currently a visiting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he teaches courses on hip-hop and Black culture.
Ahanu—a driving force behind the creation of Durham’s own poet laureate program—has promised to release a chapbook in the coming months to honor his laureate appointment. He’s also shopping around his next collection of poems that will include the powerful “Ash and Soot,” a poem he wrote after the police murder of George Floyd that ignited 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“Ash and Soot”—a reference pointing to the historical preponderance of white supremacists burning crosses as a means of intimidation—was one of the poems Ahanu shared with a near-capacity audience that gathered for his inaugural reading as Piedmont Laureate on January 11 at the Eno River Arts Mill in Hillsborough.
Ahanu’s poetry is like fire: sometimes a roaring blaze, in other instances a fireplace warming the heart and spirit, or a single candle that illuminates the mind and guides us along our respective journeys. It astounds in its richness of metaphor and is relentless in its quest to present gifts of love and insight, family and value, nuance and affirmations of spirituality.
In “Conversation with God,” Ahanu writes:
“My God has watched this world bend his name to its will and call it conviction / Seen men put him to work as gospel for a privatized prosperity / We are not speaking to the same person.”
A Raleigh native now living in Durham, Ahanu describes himself as a Black Southern poet and credits opportunities to travel as motivation for honing his craft. It’s imperative to “show up and represent,” Ahanu says, and put to rest assumptions of the South as a place saturated with anti-intellectualism.
“I am Southern. I am Black. I am an artist. I walk in a rich, beautiful, and powerful tradition,” Ahanu writes in his introduction to his latest poetry collection, Shackled Freedom. “The South made me, raised me, and gave me my platform.”
The foreword to Shackled Freedom was written by Michael Harriot, the acclaimed and ridiculously funny former columnist at The Root.
“He didn’t yell, nor did he whisper,” Harriot writes of the first time he encountered Ahanu, at the Southern Fried Poetry Festival. “He wasn’t extremely militant (which I expected because … Come on. His name is ‘Dasan Ahanu’). Instead, he just writes good poetry.”
Harriot also noted that many discussions about activism, social justice, and art are typically “mired in the bespattered muck of Black pain.”
I later asked Ahanu about Harriot’s observation.
“A lot of Black artists wear their sensibility as a part of their [selfhood],” he said. “I started with the same sensibility. But the OGs I looked up to said, ‘No. We can tell the politics that informs the decision-making in your work.’”
Ahanu, who stands at around 6 foot 5, drinks deeply from the well of wisdom offered by Black women. His poem “Change Tin” tells the story of an enduring lesson taught him by his grandmother about reciprocity and the consequences of taking and not giving back, while “Black Holiness” is a luminious statement about the magic of growing up around Black women.
Ahanu praises Black queer women who have had to “push through to stand in solidarity” and notes that many of the invitations he’s received to share his work throughout communities or in classrooms have been at the behest of Black women.
“Those opportunities have shaped me,” he says. “But those opportunities are tied to Black women.”
During Ahanu’s one-year appointment, his duties across Durham, Orange, and Wake Counties include presiding over poetry readings at libraries, schools, and other community settings. He will also conduct workshops to foster an appreciation for creative writing and help organize literary events in “less traditional settings,” according to the Piedmont Laureate website.
Ahanu says that “working with all of these organizations in the broader region requires a lot of work” but that he’s looking forward to sitting down at the table with members of the partner organizations to help create intergenerational activities. He wants to develop projects where all of the participating groups are stakeholders, both in the process and outcomes.
“Of course, there will be readings to bring poets together,” he says. “I want to provide opportunities to talk about all the things about the art.”
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