Arts feature: ‘From the Language of Ash’ at Urban Arts Space

Erica Thompson
Photo courtesy of Nabila Lovelace

Poet Nabila Lovelace has an intimate relationship with her hometown of Queens, New York. She recognizes all the hair and nail shops on a walk from her mother to her grandmother's house. She admires the shifting landmarks and street art, including the recently named Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor Way, and the new A Tribe Called Quest mural. She watches the beautiful people, free to express themselves because they are in familiar territory.

“But the violence is that there are street harassers,” Lovelace said in a phone interview. “There is a possibility that someone could say something to me that is of violence. … It may not happen today. It may not happen tomorrow. But it definitely could happen.”

That reality is one example of a common interaction with violence and intimacy, which are so intertwined that they are like “colors that could blend,” Lovelace said. It's a theme at the center of her first collection of poems,Sons of Achilles.

Now based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Lovelace will visit Columbus to read from the book at “From the Language of Ash” at Urban Arts Space on Monday, Oct. 22. The inaugural poetry series was curated by poet, essayist, cultural critic and occasionalAlive contributor Hanif Abdurraqib.

The origins ofSons of Achilles reach back to a classic literature course Lovelace took in college. She was tasked with reading ancient Greek epic poemThe Iliad, attributed to Homer.

“I had always heard about it as this seminal text that I supposedly had to read because there's supposedly only one canon of things you absolutely have to read … which isn't something that I necessarily [agree] with,” she said. “Something that stuck out to me was … its celebration of this heroic figure who is the hero because of his acts of violence.”

Lovelace pointed to the protagonist, Achilles, who is celebrated in Greek mythology for slaying Trojan prince Hector — and many others — in the Trojan War.

“It just reminded me of the ways that patriarchy has created a power dynamic and a heroism that is wrapped in acts of major violence,” Lovelace said. “This is a text that is widely disseminated, and it revolves around a man saving his nationhood through massive acts of violence.”

Lovelace saw connections throughout her own life, as far back as slap-boxing with other kids growing up. “On a very small level, people I knew who got acclaim sometimes were people who had hands,” she said. “I do believe that we live in a space where violence as a means of getting things is sometimes rewarded.”

“Nabila's work is brilliant,” Abdurraqib said. “I love how Nabila uses language. [She] writes the way that she speaks. … There's a real beauty to the way that she puts together words.”

That love of language was fostered in Lovelace by her grandmother and mother, who are from Trinidad and Tobago.

“They are the illest technicians of language I have ever known,” she said. “I think that my grandmother's use of English and slang puts me in awe often, and she thinks I'm joking, but I write it down.”

Though Lovelace enjoyed reading as a child, she didn't realize she wanted to be a writer until several years ago. A mentor encouraged her to say the words, “I'm a writer,” out loud.

“I think that permission is something that was fundamental and foundational for me,” she said.

Abdurraqib said Lovelace was one of the first people who came to mind for the quarterly “From the Language of Ash” series, which he created to support “emerging poets, or poets who are on their first books [and] don't always get the platforms or recognition or funded opportunities to read.” And he will bring in poets of color exclusively.

In addition to reading, Lovelace will also have a conversation with a black, queer scholar at Ohio State. And other students and community members will read their poems.

As a poet who hosts events, Abdurraqib was also impressed with Lovelace's work as an organizer; she founded the Conversation Literary Festival, a retreat that highlights black and brown queer poets, and takes place across Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

“In a place where we feel constantly at threat in our bodies [and] feel constantly unsafe, what does it look like to be able to not have to worry about safety?” she said of her motivation. “And to possibly be able to be in collaboration with other people who are, too, thinking about what it could mean to live a freer life through writing.”

Urban Arts Space

7-9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22

50 W. Town St., Downtown

“From the Language of Ash”